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Can panic-driven climate messages save the planet? Maybe not

You’ve heard it all before – the planet is heating up, ice caps are melting, and we’re all doomed unless we act now. But does this “gloom and doom” approach using climate messages actually make people want to help? A surprising new study suggests there might be a better way.

How to talk about the climate crisis

Researchers wanted to find the absolute best ways to spread awareness about climate change – the tactics most likely to actually get people to do something. They weren’t just interested in theoretical solutions.

They developed an app to test different communication strategies and partnered with a massive international survey including nearly 60,000 people from 63 countries (including Norway). This hands-on approach helped them gather real-world feedback on what messages resonate best.

Bad news: Scary climate messages might backfire

Turns out, those scary “end-of-the-world” warnings we hear so often might work for getting folks to share social media posts, but don’t always translate into real action. Here’s the problem:

Lazy action

People may feel like they’ve made a meaningful contribution to the cause simply by sharing a dramatic message online. This requires minimal effort and can create the illusion of having taken significant action when, in reality, it might not lead to any tangible change.

Negative reinforcement

Scare tactics can alienate and further discourage individuals who are already skeptical about the severity or urgency of climate change. These messages can be perceived as manipulative or exaggerated, leading to increased skepticism rather than a sense of shared responsibility.

Limited results

Even when scare tactics do lead to some level of engagement, they primarily motivate low-effort actions like social media sharing. They rarely inspire people to make lifestyle changes, support climate-friendly policies, or engage in activities that have a real-world impact, such as planting trees.

Alternatives to panic-driven climate messages

The researchers tested many approaches. Here are a few that got more positive (and surprising) results:

The power of knowledge

In some countries, simply stating the broad agreement among experts (“99% of climate experts believe the planet is getting warmer…”) significantly boosted support for climate action.

This approach leverages the human tendency to trust credible sources of information. When presented with evidence of overwhelming consensus among experts, people are more likely to accept the reality of climate change and the need to address it.

Dear future me…

Asking people to write a letter to a loved one describing what they did to help the planet in 2055 was effective in many countries. This emotional connection got people thinking.

This strategy works because it forces people to visualize the future consequences of their actions (or inaction) today. It fosters a sense of personal responsibility and encourages long-term thinking, making climate change feel more immediate and relevant.

Personal touch

Messages focused on moral responsibility (“It’s up to us to protect the planet”) or highlighting how many others are already worried about climate change often resulted in greater support. These tactics tap into two powerful motivators:

  • Moral obligation: Emphasizing our ethical duty to protect the planet can stir a sense of collective responsibility and inspire action.
  • Social proof: Knowing that others care about climate change creates a sense of social belonging and can reduce feelings of isolation or hopelessness.

“Writing a letter to future generations is most effective in increasing political support for climate measures, and in increasing the belief that climate change is a problem. The second most effective measure is to say that almost all climate experts agree,” explained Professor Christian Klöckner of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology-NTNU.

Climate messages in Norway

Norwegians were put off by all the doomsday messaging. Instead, they respond best to messages focused on:

  • Taking action: Planting trees is seen favorably.
  • Moral duty: Emphasize our shared responsibility to the planet.
  • Consensus: Most people here already believe the science – reminding them of this is persuasive.

A big takeaway is that people respond differently based on where they live and what they already believe. For instance, what works in Norway is quite different than other parts of the world.

Ways to share our message on climate change

“The findings show that spreading a climate message depends on people’s attitudes towards climate change in the first place. Legislators and campaigners must adapt their messaging to the public,” says Madalina Vlasceanu, Assistant Professor at New York University (NYU).

The next time you’re discussing climate change, think before you share that panicked post. While there’s certainly a time and place to express urgency, consider these study-backed tips:

Know your audience

Are you talking to someone already concerned, or someone who needs convincing? Tailor your message accordingly.

  • Already concernedFocus on action. Share specific ways they can get involved (volunteering, supporting local climate initiatives, changing their own habits) and emphasize that every effort contributes.
  • Needs convincing: Start with common ground. Do they value nature, their children’s future, the health of their community? Connect climate change to things they already care about. Avoid overwhelming them with stats; a few key facts can be persuasive.

Focus on solutions

What can people do? Provide concrete steps, not just fear. Break it down into manageable actions, from small (changing light bulbs) to larger commitments (advocating for climate-friendly policies).

Highlight positive success stories of individuals or communities already making a difference. This offers a blueprint and combats feelings of helplessness.

Include local matters in climate messages

Climate impacts hit different communities differently. Bring it closer to home.

Instead of talking about melting glaciers, discuss how climate change might impact your region – increased wildfires, flooding, or threats to local agriculture. Connect these changes to things people value, like outdoor recreation, food security, or the local economy.

Hope over fear

Remind people that working together, we can make a difference. While it’s important to be realistic about the challenges, end the conversation with optimism and empowerment.

Emphasize that solutions exist, and that collective action creates momentum. People are more likely to engage when they feel their actions matter.

The full study is published in Science Advances.


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