Research & Insights

We Like All Things Local, Even Messages About Climate Change

By Zoe Green

Leila Scannell
Robert Gifford
University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia

Climate change poses a global threat to everyone, so why aren’t people more receptive to calls to action?

University of Victoria researchers Leila Scannell and Robert Gifford attempted to answer that question for a paper published in the January 2013 issue of Environment and Behavior. Scannell and Gifford found that when calls to action emphasize threats to local communities or target women, there’s a greater likelihood people will respond.

For their study, Scannell and Gifford examined the reactions of 324 people living in the Kootenay, Okanagan, and the Vancouver Island regions of British Columbia, who were shown informational posters about the dangers of climate change.

Here’s what they found:

Place matters.

People with a strong sense of place attachment – a sense of connectedness to a local area – are more likely to take action to combat the threat of climate change in their area.

The study’s findings suggest residents who “have stronger place attachment” are “more engaged with climate change issues.” According to the researchers, place attachment is a good indicator of climate change engagement because people are often “more willing to exert effort to protect their meaningful places.”

Local Messages are more compelling than global ones.

Local messages work even for those with transient lifestyles. When the impact is framed on a local level and shows the negative effects of climate change, people, wherever they live, are more likely to respond to climate change warnings, Scannell and Gifford concluded.

When study participants were presented with messages focused on threats from climate change “in terms of their broad effects expected to occur on a global scale,” such as the melting ice sheets in polar regions and rising global sea levels, the messages had little effect on the participants’ engagement with climate change. In fact, participants who were shown global messages were no more likely to take action than participants who were not shown any message at all about climate change.

In contrast, messages that emphasized the impact of climate change on a local level – the likelihood of forest fires in the Okanagan region or pine beetle infestations in the Kootenay region, for example – led to greater climate change engagement among participants.

Women are more likely to respond than men.

Scannell and Gifford also found that women were more likely than men to pay attention to warnings about climate change, even though both sexes were shown the same messages.

Although this suggests that women are better targets for climate-change communicators because “women often report more environmental concern than men,” the article also cites other research that shows women take less practical action against climate change, “particularly when they lack access to financial capital, cannot implement low-carbon options, or are excluded from climate change-relevant decision making.”

Considering the barriers that women may face, the study concludes that more research should look at “how to empower and educate women of lower socioeconomic statuses in climate change issues.”

Overall, the level of place attachment, locality of the message, and gender of the audience can play a large role in the effectiveness of communication about climate change. In addition to reaching out to people who feel connected to their area and women who are more likely to care about environmental issues, messages that expose the local threats of climate change have a greater chance of inspiring audiences to take action.

Environment and Behavior, January 2013

Zoe Green is a third year English major at the University of Florida, minoring in Mass Communications and Education

Posted: November 4, 2014
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