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Study: How we feel when learning about climate change influences our support of climate policies

Myers, Roser-Renouf and Maibach

Researchers found that the emotions people feel — or don’t feel — when learning about climate change impact their support of policies on the issue.

In a George Mason University study, four groups of participants watched videos that focused on the causes, impacts, scientific consensus and solutions to climate change. Then they responded to questions about how they felt — specifically focusing on guilt, sadness, anger, fear and hope. The control group did not watch any video — they were solely asked to respond based on their own experiences.

Researchers found that watching a video about the causes of climate change increased guilt, and simultaneously suppressed hope. Likewise, watching a video about solutions increased hope, but decreased emotions like anger and sadness.

They believe their research stands out from others because it used an experiment rather than just opinion polling. It was published in the journal Frontiers in Climate last month.

Teresa Myers, a research associate professor at the university’s Center for Climate Change Communication, helped write the paper. She said this suppression of emotions was a general pattern in their research.

“Each of these types of climate information increased one emotion and then also decreased or suppressed one or more other emotions,” she said.

Myers, Roser-Renouf, and Maibach

Researchers also asked study participants how likely they were to support a wide range of policies, like using renewable energy sources.

“This isn't, you know, support for the Inflation Reduction Act,” she said. “It's a general set of support for proposed U.S. federal action on climate change.”

People who felt any emotion after watching a video were more likely to support a policy, no matter which one it was. The only exception was guilt—researchers found no correlation based on that emotion.

“If you raise support for one type of policy, it's also going to be raised for other types of policy,” she said. “[But] if you're really seeking to say why your specific climate policy is the most effective or whatever, people, at least in the general public, aren’t differentiating between those.”

Myers added that the suppression of emotions can impact support for any climate policy.

“If their hope was suppressed, they were less likely to support climate policy,” she said. “Viewing the video in comparison to the control group in general increased policy support, but the strength of that was decreased when we took into account the ways that influenced emotion.”

This study comes as the U.S. faces a year with a record number of billion-dollar disasters. Those disasters are due to climate change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.

Myers said we still can minimize the impact of some of these disasters with effective communication about the problems.

“Understanding that how we talk about climate change matters in terms of what people are willing to do or support either at a policy level, is important for effectively generating timely action,” she said.

She and her colleagues are working on additional research that needs to be peer-reviewed. But she’s finding that talking about the causes and presenting solutions engages people the most and raises climate policy support, rather than talking about only causes or only solutions.

“Most groups or people who talk about climate change have one aspect that they're most comfortable talking about, [...but] we're not just trying to hone in on someone's anger,” she said. “We need to find a way to truthfully and effectively show that there are many aspects of climate … I don't think we can ignore one side of the story.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde