Dead in the water: mortality messaging in water crisis communication and implications for pro-environmental outcomes.

Published online
22 Sep 2023
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Smith, L. K. M. & Wolfe, S. E.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
USA & Canada


All nature relies on water, yet climate change threatens water availability to the highest degree-from too much (e.g. extreme weather; flooding) to too little (e.g. droughts; wildfires). These water shifts threaten all life on earth. Societies' safe and reliable water accessibility faces growing uncertainty from climate change; however, water crisis communication may inadvertently remind audiences of their mortality. According to terror management theory, these mortality reminders can hinder pro-environmental efforts in humans and even increase intergroup biases-a significant challenge for developing environmental solutions. While climate change has been examined as a mortality reminder, water remains untested. We presented participants with either a mortality-laden message, an aversive but not-life-threatening message, or one of three threatening water-related messages-experiencing drowning, dehydration or contaminated water consumption-to determine if the water-related messages function similarly to the mortality message. Some (e.g. drowning; contaminated water), but not all (e.g. dehydration), water messages increased death-thought accessibility, which could lead to paradoxical environmental behaviours, depending on the audience. Our research findings should inform policymakers, non-profit organizations and other water correspondents' communication strategies. As some threatening water messages elicit similar responses to known mortality reminders, the way water crises are framed is important for water-related decision-making and ensuring equitable, successful pro-environmental outcomes.

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