Thinking about climate change like Bob Ross.

Jamie Gibson
Aug 17, 2017 · 8 min read
Image Source

Take a minute to close your eyes. Breathe in, clear your mind. Now think about what the world will look like in August 2037. What part of the world are you in? What did you have for lunch? When was the last flood? How far do you have to walk to dip your toes in the water?

While Bob Ross advocated the Joy of Painting, when it comes to painting the future impacts of climate change, it’s a very different experience. For a new project we’re working on with the World Resources Institute, I’ve been exploring how people think about what the future will look like as a result of climate change. By understanding how people think about the future and climate change we can create more informative and evocative products, convincing key figures to make bigger commitments and act sooner. In this blog I want to share some of my findings with you, so you too can once again find joy in painting a future of climate positivity — where people feel they can make a better future — not climate panic.

Choose your words carefully.

The first place to start is your choice of words. Do you go with the more scientifically accurate ‘climate change’, or use ‘global warming’ instead? A study in the USA showed that using the phrase global warming elicits much stronger emotional responses than climate change does. Test subjects were more likely to say the phenomenon was happening, and perceived it as a greater threat. Using this, recent news that US Government officials have been asked to talk about “extreme weather” and not climate change (or global warming) could be read as an attempt to reduce concern about the issue.

The idea of ‘priming’ is also well established: introductions or summaries you give before providing information, asking questions or starting discussions directly biases their answers. Another study in America indicated that just a short introduction about what climate change is, without even mentioning the likely risks or their magnitude, increased a person’s perception of risk. When you link that to studies highlighting the apathy and disempowerment associated with exposure to the more extreme potential scenarios, it appears that you don’t need to say much to change the way people imagine climate futures.

Choose your questions carefully too.

Related to the idea of priming, studies have found that asking the right question can lead to much stronger commitments to act. One study compared willingness to pay for a flat gasoline tax or a percentage income sacrifice, in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It found that people would tolerate a $0.44 per gallon tax, or a 6% income sacrifice. The total dollar amount per year generated by the income sacrifice would be significantly larger than that generated by the flat tax. The theory behind this — percent thinking bias — suggests that these people are willing to pay a larger absolute figure because they are being asked to express it as a proportion of a larger figure (their income compared to their gasoline expenditure). This might be interesting to consider when talking about greenhouse gas emission pledges: would countries commit more if asked to commit to a percentage of global emissions, rather than just their national emissions?

The framing of when you ask your questions is also hugely important. The results of one study conducted in 2004 bore the imprints of the events going on at the time: the second George Bush Junior election and a particularly bad hurricane season. Studies in the UK also often recall extreme flooding events, and there’s evidence that these local experiences increase the perception of risk.

The role of numeracy.

The type of education a person has will influence how they create their picture of the future.

One study compared different groups of people and the way they constructed a picture of the world in 50 years time. They found that a young professional group was most likely to lean on facts in their responses, but also least likely to rely on their imagination: they were much more happy to point out the limits of the knowledge and uncertainties. Other groups of people, with different educational backgrounds, were more likely to use their imaginations to fill in things they didn’t know.

You also see education level affecting how people construct the future if you compare individualists (people motivated by individual goals) to communitarians (people motivated by group objectives). The communitarians always perceive climate risk to be higher than their individualist counterparts, but increased numeracy and educational attainment leads to an increased polarisation in opinion.

Education level and how individualistic you affect how your perceive Climate Change risk. Thanks to Kahan et al (2011) for this graph.

Come closer.

We’re often told to “live in the moment”: turns out the brain is predisposed to do that. People favour things now, even if they can be given a bigger or better thing in the future. The further away that valuable thing is, the higher the rate of discounting. This is often applied to how people think about climate change, especially as the value of someone acting today to reduce their emissions would be felt decades in the future. There are a few techniques to overcome this distance, including:

  • Use models or data to talk more concretely about the future — making it less hypothetical can reduce the chances of people discounting the risk

As well as bringing things closer in terms of time, you can also help people think more concretely about the future by making the topic geographically close. Groups asked to discuss climate change in the context of their local area also led to more salient accounts of the impacts: you get more focussed statements like “more rainfall would be bad for my crops” or “coastal erosion is going to be a big problem around here”.

Shortcuts and dead ends.

Humans often think very quickly, and we use mental shortcuts called heuristics to make fast (and mostly accurate) interpretations of the information we see. When you feel pain, the body reacts almost automatically: you don’t have to wait to feel the pain and consider your reaction. There’s a huge range of heuristics, but there’s one particular one that may be affecting the way people think about the future, called the “Pattern-matching Heuristic”. I’m going to borrow an experiment from John Sterman to illustrate this.

When you look at predictions of past, present and predicted future greenhouse emissions, you often see two points: the emissions of greenhouse gases (going up) and the total emissions concentration (also going up). Because of the pattern-matching heuristic, most people think reducing emissions will also reduce total emissions, but that’s not correct because the greenhouse effect is cumulative. Every year, with more greenhouse gas emitted, the effect gets stronger. Like water going into a bathtub, you need to actually remove something from the system in order to lower the level; just reducing the rate of additions doesn’t stop the water/ temperatures rising. In this case, the key to increase comprehension about the future is to be considerate in the construction of a graph, so that it conveys the dynamics of the climate system more accurately. In this example plotting net removal as a negative (as it is in the climate system) and adding a “net emissions” would solve this problem.

To achieve net emissions removal, the need to rise and emissions need to go down! Image source

To the future, from the past.

In general, people will interpolate the future based on their recent experiences. There are two main sources for this. For many this recent experience was grounded in media reports, which tend to selectively report on catastrophes. As such depictions tend to focus on the big shifts, rather than the subtleties: so people will see the rise in sea level, but they won’t necessarily see the resulting salinisation of farms, and decline in food output. It’s also the local or nationally relevant images that strike the biggest chord. The other source is their own lived experience, whether that’s changes they observed in their environment or discussions with friends, again suggesting that the more local experience enhances recall.

So what does all this mean for me?

Humans are complicated. Everyone follows different processes when they think about the future. If you want people to care more deeply, and feel more positive about the future, here are some tips.

  • Start with the basics — the right grounding can help people picture the future more easily, and more confidently

Want to read more?

  • Ahern (2008) “Psychological responses to environmental messages: the roles of environmental values, message issue distance, message efficacy and idealistic construal,” Pennsylvania State University.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

Jamie Gibson

Written by

Social Scientist @ Citizens Advice

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

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