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Posted at 12:10 PM ET, 11/16/2010

Gloom and doom on climate can backfire, new study says

By Juliet Eilperin

Talking gloom-and-doom about global warming may backfire with the public, according to a new study on climate attitudes from the University of California, Berkeley.

While the researchers' sample is hardly comprehensive or representative of America--the two psychologists conducted one experiment on 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates, and a second with 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist--it raises an intriguing question about how environmentalists' outreach on climate change.

In the experiment involving undergraduates, the subjects read a news article that began with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, but had two different endings. Half ended with warnings about the disastrous consequences of climate change, while half offered potential solutions to the problem, such as clean energy innovations.

The results--which will be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science--showed that those who read the upbeat ending were more open to believing in the global warming's existence and were more confident about science's ability to solve the problem.

"The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it," said Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology who co-authored the study along with Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist.

The new paper comes as environmentalists are pondering why their strategy to pass a broad climate bill failed this year, and how they might make progress in the face of a much more hostile Congress in 2011.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, lays out his thinking Tuesday in the Huffington Post, in which he suggests his group will focus more on grassroots activism and will seek to punish some companies that obstruct curbs on greenhouse gases even as it seeks to enlist new allies. The move would mark a decided shift for EDF, which has focused on promoting its goals inside the Beltway.

And while the Democrats might be losing their majority as of January, that's not stopping the House Committee on Science and Technology from having a climate hearing Wednesday on the science and physics of climate change, the evidence concerning global warming and its impacts. It promises to be a lively debate, even if many of the new climate skeptics elected this month won't be participating.

By Juliet Eilperin  | November 16, 2010; 12:10 PM ET
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Over at Big Think, I discuss how this study fits with an emerging body of research that indicates that traditional appeals on climate change that emphasize environmental risks are unlikely to be engaging to many audiences and in fact might actually backfire, increasing skepticism and dismissal.

Posted by: MattNisbet | November 16, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

I also posted on this story over at I link to an old Rush Limbaugh transcript where he basically says the exact same thing. He says he can't believe in global warming because his belief in a "just world" prevents it. It's all a part of an interesting theory called the just world theory.

Posted by: Quackling | November 17, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

The trouble is that the damage is just not known in certain terms, or it hasn't until recently. This has made it easy for the wishful side of the audience to posit that maybe the change will be good. However, recently, studies have been able to describe the damage in very certain, intuitive terms.

For instance, drought will increase overall, and rain when it happens will be a deluge. That is, agriculture output WILL decrease (due to droughts punctuated by deluge) and damage to property WILL increase (due to deluges). Continuing to use fossil fuel will make this increasingly costly weather pattern worse.

Instead of avoiding predictions, researchers and policy advocates should state disturbing present conditions and the newer, more specific research predictions that agree with them in succinct terms that explain the real economic and human cost of avoiding a conceptually simple change in energy production that once implemented will give a substantial return on investment.

Posted by: anderlan | November 22, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

The difficulty of drawing reliable conclusions from a mediocre study aside, it still doesn't seem to support some of the strident headlines:

Posted by: AlexJ1 | November 22, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

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