"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

Today we take a look at two social-science questions: first, the efficacy of threat-based vs. solution-based appeals (something we’ve discussed at length here), and second, the "loss-aversion effect." The latter in particular was fascinating to me — it changed the way I look at a number of environmental messages.

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Threat-Based versus Solution-Based Appeals

Environmentalists are reportedly anxious to shed their stereotype as the chicken-little, sky-is-falling, gloom-and-doom, scare-mongering skunks at the garden party. That’s understandable, and it is based on a belief, echoed by many at the Conference, that a more positive, can-do approach will better motivate Americans. Better to appeal to Americans’ highest hopes than their fears, right?

This surely has some validity. Yet when one hears such advice, it is always worth asking what data it is based on. Yes, environmentalists’ popularity on national polls has receded a bit in recent years. But not enough research has been done to understand why. Could it have more to do with larger political realignments than an overly negative environmentalist message?

The point here is that armchair theories about what motivates people, or a general desire to shed an image, are not a solid enough foundation on which to reposition a movement or an issue. Existing theory and data should be tapped to help explain the psychological and cultural mechanisms that influence how environmentalists are perceived as messengers, as well as the persuasive impact of their use of threat-based versus solution-based appeals regarding climate change. It is important to distinguish, through controlled testing, the persuasive impact of the messengers from that of the message content — as well as interactive effects between them.

Social scientists have conducted extensive testing on the efficacy of so-called "fear-based appeals" in health messages intended to induce public compliance with medically favored behaviors. Many such findings and methods could be extended to research on human responses to climate change messages. Should public communications about climate change emphasize the threatening consequences of inaction or the practical solutions to the problem? Or a blend of the two? If a blend, how should they be sequenced? How does this vary, if at all, based on the target audience? Some health communications research has observed that threat-based appeals can induce timely behaviors, but can also be discounted or even ignored outright if the recipient of the message is not supplied simultaneously with information on how they can effectively contend with the threat.

Crafting the optimal message requires research; it should be meticulously based on accurate scientific information about the threat to begin with and calibrated in relation to the existing concern level of the audience and their perceived ability to do something about the threat. Findings are often situational to the specific threat, the point-in-time and the specific audience, and social scientists can usefully be recruited to assist in finding answers that are of great value to communications practitioners.

Adaptation and the Loss Aversion Effect

The Conference participants debated whether adaptation messages should be featured more prominently in climate change communications. Before considering its motivational impact, the central ethical argument should first be recognized: both adaptation messages and the actual adaptation behaviors themselves have merit in that they would help vulnerable populations who will need to contend with climate change, regardless of whether causation is human-influenced or not.

But beyond this, adaptation planning could serve as a back door to a more reality-based dialogue about mitigating climate change in the first place. It would move climate change from an abstract to a concrete issue and once people were engaged in preparing for the consequences of that amount of climate change to which we are already committed due to past emissions, they would naturally begin to ask how still more climate change could be avoided (hence the pathway to discussion about reducing emissions).

This could help level the playing field so that the much-discussed economic costs of climate change regulation would be compared not to the status quo but more fairly to the costs of inaction, including the burdens of human adaptation to unabated climate change. At the Conference, there was sufficient support, qualified by some reservations, for a recommendation calling for increased emphasis on adaptation and preparedness for climate change (Recommendation #22).

Given that this remains an area of debate and the recommendation was based largely on intuition, we can turn to the social sciences to do rigorous testing about how people might actually respond to adaptation-oriented messages and behaviors. Kahneman et al., for example, observed a robust phenomenon they dubbed "loss aversion," which showed how individuals’ preferences can actually reverse based on their perceived reference point, in violation of basic tenets of expected utility theory.

Let’s start with a simple example whereby the "loss aversion" principle becomes manifested in an "endowment effect." Let’s say I give you a coffee mug worth $10. I then ask you how much someone would have to pay you to relinquish it. It turns out that statistically significant numbers of people in this situation ask for more to relinquish the mug they already possess (say $12), than they are willing to pay to acquire that same mug if they didn’t already have it (say $7). This valuation asymmetry is based on their reference point (i.e., whether they possess the mug or don’t) and it defies standard economic analysis, in which the mug would be valued equivalently regardless of whether one possesses it or not at that moment. How people set their reference point (which is often but not always their perceived status quo) and what can induce a shift in it, then becomes a pivotal issue in explaining the decisions they make.

Extending this asymmetry to a more complex case, people who regard themselves as having already lost something (i.e., as being in a "domain of losses" relative to their reference point) will often choose a risky option over a sure gain, even if the probability-adjusted payout of the risky choice is lower than the sure gain. What draws them is the probabilistic chance that the risky choice will allow them to restore their losses all the way back to their reference point, typically the status quo ante. By contrast, those who perceive that they are positioned ahead of their reference point and therefore in a "domain of gains" will typically choose a sure gain over a risky choice offering a higher probability-adjusted payout (i.e., they make a risk-averse choice).

So what does all this have to do with adaptation? If Americans perceive their reference point to be the status quo of a fairly stable, hospitable climate, these findings could be interpreted to posit, subject to testing, that they would be less likely to invest in costly emissions reductions efforts with a higher probability-adjusted payout in the future than to take what they regard as a sure gain (i.e., keep the money they would have otherwise invested in emissions reductions). If, on the other hand, they can be induced to recognize that we are already in a domain of losses by virtue of past emissions and the adaptation "overhang" they have created, then Americans may be more inclined to invest in more intensive emissions reductions efforts that hold out the chance of stabilizing greenhouse gases at a non-dangerous level in the atmosphere. Without testing, we cannot know whether adaptation messages, or actual engagement in adaptation planning, would induce this kind of reference point shift and prompt Americans to favor more stringent or more "urgent" emissions reduction policies, but it bears rigorous investigation.

This exploratory sketch is not meant to suggest that this or any other body of cognitive research can be applied to climate change in a paint-by-numbers fashion. Extending and applying social science work requires the caution, rigor and expertise of social scientists, working in tandem with real-world practitioners. But the point is that we have not begun to scratch the surface of what such investigations could yield in terms of promoting civic engagement and action on climate change, so there is much promising work ahead.