Climate communicators are working overtime to translate the findings of climate researchers into information that the public can comprehend and respond to with action. New research offers some guidance about how to do so effectively.
Study findings published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Climate Risk Management examine how people respond to two distinct climate-change terms: resilience and adaptation. The study, conducted by researchers Gabrielle Wong-Parodi from Carnegie Mellon University and her colleagues, involved 450 participants.
“Resilience” refers to a trait which “reflect[s] a general ability to master challenges.” It usually implies growing new capacities to deal with a challenge. “Adaptation,” on the other hand, is “a state, reflecting how individuals deal with specific” situations, and typically involves preserving the resources one already has.
Although these two terms are distinct and unique for climate change researchers, Wong-Parodi wanted to see how well they translated for the public. That is, when it comes to mobilizing the public to deal with climate change, is one term better than the other?
In an experiment, they asked participants to imagine moving to a fictional coastal town, Seaside. Participants were asked to research coastal flooding and then respond to the question, “How do you think that your family might use information about coastal flooding?”
Some participants (the control group) answered the written prompt immediately, while others were taken to Seaside’s fictional website, where they read about Seaside’s policy of either adapting to or being resilient in the face of coastal flooding.
For example, the welcome page of the adaptation group read, “Seaside and its citizens are investing increasing their ability to adapt in the face of coastal flooding risks. One of our programs helps Seaside adapt by helping families make emergency plans…Your family can feel good about Adapt Seaside.”
The welcome page of the resilience group read, “Seaside and its citizens are investing increasing their resilience in the face of coastal flooding risks. One of our programs helps Seaside become more resilient by helping families make emergency plans…Your family can feel good about Resilient Seaside.”
The participants then explored the risk of coastal flooding on the Seaside page before answering a survey about their concern about flooding and their motivation to prepare for floods.
The researchers found that people who read about resilience were less likely to prepare for floods and saw the proposed actions as less helpful in dealing with flooding.
“Adaptation appears to make flooding risks seem more manageable and individual preparatory action as more worthwhile,” the researchers explain, “while Resilience appears to raise concerns, to the point of making individual actions appear less useful.”
“’Resilience’ appears to evoke a more cautious attitude regarding the effectiveness of individual actions, whereas a policy of ‘Adaptation’ may suggest that the risks are manageable,” they note. “Adaptation appears better for motivating individual action.”
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Gabrielle Wong-Parodi and Baruch Fischoff, Carnegie Mellon University
Benjamin Strauss, Climate Central