Study: Dire Global Warming Messages Raise Skepticism

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Researchers at UC Berkeley have shown that apocalyptic messages concerning global warming backfire in campaigns attempting to promote public awareness of climate change, according to a paper to be published in Psychological Science this January.

Through two studies, co-authors Robb Willer, assistant professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and Matthew Feinberg, a UC Berkeley graduate student of psychology, showed that, by contradicting people's basic beliefs about the world's justice and stability, grim representations of climate change lead individuals to greater skepticism in global warming and a decreased desire to reduce their carbon footprint.

The first study showed that individuals with "strong just world beliefs" - people who believe the world is fundamentally fair - are more dramatically affected by ominous global warming messages than their less rosy-eyed counterparts, Feinberg said.

Researchers tested 97 undergraduates' basic sense of justice in the world, and then posed a series of questions about their beliefs in global warming. Students later returned to the lab to read either a positive article emphasizing human ingenuity as a source for change or one concluding that global warming would spiral out of control.

Participants reading the negative message grew more skeptical across the board, while those exposed to positive messages expressed greater belief in the veracity of global warming than they had on the initial test. Individuals with strong just world beliefs became dramatically more skeptical than their peers, while those with low just world beliefs were minimally affected.

The second study illustrated that people primed to believe in a just world became more skeptical of global warming and would be less willing to reduce their carbon footprint than those primed to believe the world is unjust.

According to Jesse Jenkins, energy and climate policy director at the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute, a public policy think tank, focusing on productive action rather than the dire consequences of inaction can prevent this unwillingness to believe in or act in response to global warming.

"(Members of the institute) have been arguing for some time that the messaging strategy of the progressive left has fallen into some kind of psychological trap," said Nick Adams, policy director at the institute. "When you try to scare people about global warming you kind of paralyze their motivation to act, especially conservatives."

However, contrary to this belief, Feinberg emphasized that while conservatism tends to be somewhat correlated with a just world belief, and thus with lack of action, the study showed that liberals and conservatives were affected by positive and negative messages in the same way.

"Statistically, we can't say that because you're a liberal or a conservative you'll be more or less likely to believe (in global warming)," he said.


Contact Noor Al-Samarrai at [email protected]

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