One thing you need to switch when advocating for climate change initiatives

People only see the threat of climate change if you use the right measure.

Josh Gonzales
Jul 10 · 3 min read
Photo by Bob Blob on Unsplash

A recent study by Dr. Eugene Chan shows that the efficacy of climate change advocacy depends on whether you use Fahrenheit or Celsius to explain temperature change.

Technically, -24°C is no different than -11°F; both “feel” like the exact same temperature. The same goes with -16°C and 3°F; if you were out on a -16°C day it would feel identical to a 3°F day because, well, they are exact same.

However, people in Dr. Chen’s study reacted differently to climate change when the unit of measurement changed.

Participants who were told the earth’s average temperature was -24°C believed climate change was a more important issue than those who were told it was -11°C. But participants who were told the average temperature was -11°F thought it was less important than those who were told it was 3°F.

Remember though, -24° C is the same as -11° F and -16° C is the same as 3° F. The results were opposed when the only thing that changed was the unit used to measure temperature.

You might think this inconsistency depends on which unit people were more familiar with. To test whether this bias existed, Dr. Chan ran two experiments in the study. One experiment was run in Australia, where people typically use Celsius to measure temperature. The other was run in the United States, where people use Fahrenheit. Both experiments had the same result, regardless of which unit marked the participants thermometers at home. They also tested perceived threat versus actual pro-environmental behaviour towards climate change, and the results were the same.

Dr. Chen explains that this discrepancy is likely due to two psychological pressures: numerosity and goal pursuit.

Numerosity research posits that we tend to consider the size of the number without properly considering the base unit. As Dr. Chen puts it,

Interestingly, this had not been studied in a temperature context until Dr. Chen’s research.

Goal pursuit, the second psychological pressure used to describe the results in this study, centres around the idea that people “want to avoid an undesired end-state”. In this theoretical framework, gains at the beginning are more impactful than gains at the end. For example, losing the first two pounds is more motivating than losing the last two pounds when you’re trying to shed weight.

So, based on the results, which should you use for climate change advocacy: Fahrenheit or Celsius?

Your strategy should depend on the scenario! Show the stats that have the biggest psychological impact. If Celsius shows a larger numerical change, use it. If using Fahrenheit makes the initial impact of the numbers bigger, use that instead.

Hopefully, both are the same. But as we’ve seen in this study the numbers don’t always add up. Regardless, you should always deliberate the unit of temperature instead of just using the one you’re most familiar with.

Josh Gonzales

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M.A. Experimental & Applied Psychology. Songwriter, Photographer, Lost Boy. All articles: