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Gloom and doom warnings about climate change do not work

If we want people to act to curb climate change, we have to find a way to motivate them

April 2, 2024
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
How do you spread a message about climate change? According to an international study involving 59,000 participants, some tactics may actually reduce support.

If you want to spread a message about climate change and global warming, you need to adapt the message according to your intended audience and what you want to achieve.

Researchers have now developed an app to help people who want to spread their message on climate issues to ensure they generate the most support possible -- be they researchers, politicians, various decision makers or legislators.

Huge survey involving 63 countries

59,000 people participated in surveys as part of the work on creating the app, and Norway was among the 63 countries involved. (You can read about what works best in Norway later in the article)

"The research team created this app that can help raise climate awareness and climate action globally. It is important to highlight messages that research shows are effective," says Isabel Richter, Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU's) Department of Psychology.

In total, nearly 250 researchers were involved in the work of testing out different climate messages and tactics. Richter was part of the research team along with colleagues Senior Researcher Stepan Vesely and Professor Christian Klöckner, also from NTNU's Department of Psychology.

Previous studies have concentrated on checking attitudes towards individual measures. These might include recycling, use of public transport and energy-saving measures in the home. However, this study looked at a number of different variations. It also received answers from people all around the world, and not only Western, industrialised countries.

The researchers collected data between July 2022 and May 2023, so the figures are very recent. Both the app and the method behind it have now been presented in the Science Advances journal.

Multiple variations

The researchers exposed people to different variations of climate messages and tasks related to climate change. They then investigated their attitudes towards the different climate measures and other types of responses.

To measure how effective the methods were, they checked how willing the participants were to support different points of view and measures regarding climate change. For example, participants were asked whether they saw climate change as a serious threat, whether they supported a carbon tax on fossil energy, or whether they would plant trees themselves as part of the solution.

The researchers also tested whether participants were willing to share messages on social media, such as eating less meat in order to mitigate climate change.

Here are some of the results:

  • INTIMIDATION: "Climate change poses a serious threat to humanity."

All tactics increased the likelihood of people sharing the climate message on social media, and this doom and gloom messaging style was most effective, at least globally. However, sharing requires little effort from the person doing it. In some countries, scare tactics reduce support for reforestation, a real measure that requires more effort but may work. Scare tactics also reinforced the negative attitudes of people who are already climate sceptics.

  • KNOWLEDGE: "99% of climate experts believe the planet is getting warmer and that climate change is primarily due to human activity."

Some messages produce different results in different countries. This message, which appeals to the recipient's sense of knowledge, increased support for climate measures in Romania by 9 per cent. In Canada, however, it reduced support by 5 per cent.

  • EMOTIONS: Writing a letter to a child who is close to you about the climate measures we are taking today to make the planet a liveable place in 2055.

This tactic increased support for climate measures in Nigeria, Russia, Ghana, Brazil and the United States by between 5 and 10 per cent. However, in countries such as India, Serbia and the United Arab Emirates, it had little effect, or even reduced support slightly.

Other variations the researchers tested included presenting climate measures that have already been successfully implemented in the past, or portraying climate measures as patriotic or popular choices. Participants were also asked to imagine writing a letter to their future self telling them what type of climate measures they should have taken.

86 per cent believe climate change is a threat

Attitudes varied widely from country to country and depended on both demographics and beliefs. The researchers also divided people into groups according to their nationality, political ideology, age, gender, education, and income.

The results showed that 86 per cent of the participants believed that climate change poses a threat.

More than 70 per cent were supporters of systematic and collective measures to address climate change.

No point in using scare tactics in Norway

Gloom and doom messages about climate change do not work in Norway.

"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," Klöckner said.

Dire warnings and writing a letter to your future self were the least effective measures in Norway.

"All the alternatives made people in Norway less inclined to share a climate message on social media," adds Richter. In other words, in complete contrast to the results seen globally.

However, people in Norway are quite eager to do something themselves, like planting trees. Here, it is most effective to focus on moral responsibility, the fact that many people acknowledge that climate change is a problem, and also that there is consensus among climate experts.

"The way that I choose to interpret it is that people in Norway like to do something concrete instead of just sharing things on social media," says Associate Professor Richter.

Researchers from New York University and the University of Vienna led the study, but NTNU's contribution was also significant.

"We were involved from the very beginning, developing possible interventions. We assessed intervention proposals from other partners, improved them in collaboration with the group and helped determine which interventions should actually be implemented," says Vesely.

Vesely and Klöckner led and funded the collection of data in Norway.

Richter has good contacts in a number of African countries, the involvement of which is not always that easy to get in these types of studies. Among other things, she co-funded and participated in the collection of data from Kenya in particular.

Approximately 50 per cent of the Norwegian funding came from the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH). NHH also organised data collection through Ipsos.

Messages need to be adapted

Some activists believe that scare tactics are precisely what is needed in order for people to take action themselves. Others are of the opinion that it is depressing, demoralising and counterproductive. The study supports both of these hypotheses, but it depends on what you want to achieve.

Scare tactics work if your main focus is on getting people to post about their support on social media, but the venting of anger and frustration on Facebook, TikTok or X doesn't necessarily help the environment. If you want to gather support for things that may actually work, you need to use other means.

It is quite easy to get people to do things that do not require much effort, such as sharing a message on social media.

"Sharing something on social media can in itself feel like taking action. People may feel like 'Now that I have done something, I can get on with my life'. This is behaviour with a very low threshold," says Associate Professor Richter.

However, based on the results from around the world, none of the methods made people more willing to plant more trees for the sake of the environment -- a measure that means people have to put an effort in themselves.

"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 and one of the people who led the research project.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Original written by Steinar Brandslet. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Madalina Vlasceanu, Kimberly C. Doell, Joseph B. Bak-Coleman, Boryana Todorova, Michael M. Berkebile-Weinberg, Samantha J. Grayson, Yash Patel, Danielle Goldwert, Yifei Pei, Alek Chakroff, Ekaterina Pronizius, Karlijn L. van den Broek, Denisa Vlasceanu, Sara Constantino, Michael J. Morais, Philipp Schumann, Steve Rathje, Ke Fang, Salvatore Maria Aglioti, Mark Alfano, Andy J. Alvarado-Yepez, Angélica Andersen, Frederik Anseel, Matthew A. J. Apps, Chillar Asadli, Fonda Jane Awuor, Flavio Azevedo, Piero Basaglia, Jocelyn J. Bélanger, Sebastian Berger, Paul Bertin, Michał Białek, Olga Bialobrzeska, Michelle Blaya-Burgo, Daniëlle N. M. Bleize, Simen Bø, Lea Boecker, Paulo S. Boggio, Sylvie Borau, Björn Bos, Ayoub Bouguettaya, Markus Brauer, Cameron Brick, Tymofii Brik, Roman Briker, Tobias Brosch, Ondrej Buchel, Daniel Buonauro, Radhika Butalia, Héctor Carvacho, Sarah A. E. Chamberlain, Hang-Yee Chan, Dawn Chow, Dongil Chung, Luca Cian, Noa Cohen-Eick, Luis Sebastian Contreras-Huerta, Davide Contu, Vladimir Cristea, Jo Cutler, Silvana D'Ottone, Jonas De Keersmaecker, Sarah Delcourt, Sylvain Delouvée, Kathi Diel, Benjamin D. Douglas, Moritz A. Drupp, Shreya Dubey, Jānis Ekmanis, Christian T. Elbaek, Mahmoud Elsherif, Iris M. Engelhard, Yannik A. Escher, Tom W. Etienne, Laura Farage, Ana Rita Farias, Stefan Feuerriegel, Andrej Findor, Lucia Freira, Malte Friese, Neil Philip Gains, Albina Gallyamova, Sandra J. Geiger, Oliver Genschow, Biljana Gjoneska, Theofilos Gkinopoulos, Beth Goldberg, Amit Goldenberg, Sarah Gradidge, Simone Grassini, Kurt Gray, Sonja Grelle, Siobhán M. Griffin, Lusine Grigoryan, Ani Grigoryan, Dmitry Grigoryev, June Gruber, Johnrev Guilaran, Britt Hadar, Ulf J.J. Hahnel, Eran Halperin, Annelie J. Harvey, Christian A. P. Haugestad, Aleksandra M. Herman, Hal E. Hershfield, Toshiyuki Himichi, Donald W. Hine, Wilhelm Hofmann, Lauren Howe, Enma T. Huaman-Chulluncuy, Guanxiong Huang, Tatsunori Ishii, Ayahito Ito, Fanli Jia, John T. Jost, Veljko Jovanović, Dominika Jurgiel, Ondřej Kácha, Reeta Kankaanpää, Jaroslaw Kantorowicz, Elena Kantorowicz-Reznichenko, Keren Kaplan Mintz, Ilker Kaya, Ozgur Kaya, Narine Khachatryan, Anna Klas, Colin Klein, Christian A. Klöckner, Lina Koppel, Alexandra I. Kosachenko, Emily J. Kothe, Ruth Krebs, Amy R. Krosch, Andre P.M. Krouwel, Yara Kyrychenko, Maria Lagomarsino, Claus Lamm, Florian Lange, Julia Lee Cunningham, Jeffrey Lees, Tak Yan Leung, Neil Levy, Patricia L. Lockwood, Chiara Longoni, Alberto López Ortega, David D. Loschelder, Jackson G. Lu, Yu Luo, Joseph Luomba, Annika E. Lutz, Johann M. Majer, Ezra Markowitz, Abigail A. Marsh, Karen Louise Mascarenhas, Bwambale Mbilingi, Winfred Mbungu, Cillian McHugh, Marijn H.C. Meijers, Hugo Mercier, Fenant Laurent Mhagama, Katerina Michalakis, Nace Mikus, Sarah Milliron, Panagiotis Mitkidis, Fredy S. Monge-Rodríguez, Youri L. Mora, David Moreau, Kosuke Motoki, Manuel Moyano, Mathilde Mus, Joaquin Navajas, Tam Luong Nguyen, Dung Minh Nguyen, Trieu Nguyen, Laura Niemi, Sari R. R. Nijssen, Gustav Nilsonne, Jonas P. Nitschke, Laila Nockur, Ritah Okura, Sezin Öner, Asil Ali Özdoğru, Helena Palumbo, Costas Panagopoulos, Maria Serena Panasiti, Philip Pärnamets, Mariola Paruzel-Czachura, Yuri G. Pavlov, César Payán-Gómez, Adam R. Pearson, Leonor Pereira da Costa, Hannes M. Petrowsky, Stefan Pfattheicher, Nhat Tan Pham, Vladimir Ponizovskiy, Clara Pretus, Gabriel G. Rêgo, Ritsaart Reimann, Shawn A. Rhoads, Julian Riano-Moreno, Isabell Richter, Jan Philipp Röer, Jahred Rosa-Sullivan, Robert M. Ross, Anandita Sabherwal, Toshiki Saito, Oriane Sarrasin, Nicolas Say, Katharina Schmid, Michael T. Schmitt, Philipp Schoenegger, Christin Scholz, Mariah G. Schug, Stefan Schulreich, Ganga Shreedhar, Eric Shuman, Smadar Sivan, Hallgeir Sjåstad, Meikel Soliman, Katia Soud, Tobia Spampatti, Gregg Sparkman, Ognen Spasovski, Samantha K. Stanley, Jessica A. Stern, Noel Strahm, Yasushi Suko, Sunhae Sul, Stylianos Syropoulos, Neil C. Taylor, Elisa Tedaldi, Gustav Tinghög, Luu Duc Toan Huynh, Giovanni Antonio Travaglino, Manos Tsakiris, İlayda Tüter, Michael Tyrala, Özden Melis Uluğ, Arkadiusz Urbanek, Danila Valko, Sander van der Linden, Kevin van Schie, Aart van Stekelenburg, Edmunds Vanags, Daniel Västfjäll, Stepan Vesely, Jáchym Vintr, Marek Vranka, Patrick Otuo Wanguche, Robb Willer, Adrian Dominik Wojcik, Rachel Xu, Anjali Yadav, Magdalena Zawisza, Xian Zhao, Jiaying Zhao, Dawid Żuk, Jay J. Van Bavel. Addressing climate change with behavioral science: A global intervention tournament in 63 countries. Science Advances, 2024; 10 (6) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adj5778

Cite This Page:

Norwegian University of Science and Technology. "Gloom and doom warnings about climate change do not work." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 April 2024. <>.
Norwegian University of Science and Technology. (2024, April 2). Gloom and doom warnings about climate change do not work. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 13, 2024 from
Norwegian University of Science and Technology. "Gloom and doom warnings about climate change do not work." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 13, 2024).

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