Emotional Intelligence Needed to Influence Public Attitudes to Climate Change

New research published in Science Communication proposes that significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can only be achieved through understanding the emotional aspects of the public’s responses to climate change. Simply providing the public with information, and hoping this will cause them to drive or fly less, for example, is not enough.

Whilst three-quarters of the UK’s population recognise that changing their travel habits, flying or driving less, will have a medium or major impact on carbon emissions, only one third are willing to make these changes, possibly due to a feeling that such measures are ‘pointless’ when undertaken individually and without a commitment from others to do the same.

Similarly, Governments may not be willing to impose tough sanctions to prevent environmentally damaging behaviours as they stand to lose out at the polls through unpopular policies.

The researchers claim that a combination of ‘top-down’, intelligently formulated Government policy, combined with ‘bottom up’ facilitation of public acceptance of the measures needed to tackle climate change, is key. There is a need to engage effectively with the public, stimulating grassroots demand for tougher legislation. One technique which the researchers propose as effective is to appeal to the public on the basis of the local and personal benefits to be felt from climate change mitigation measures: better air quality and the health benefits this brings, and the financial benefits to be had through energy efficiency measures.

Changing the behaviour of the public in relation to climate change requires a sophisticated understanding of individuals’ emotional responses to climate change, which may cause irrational behaviour even in the face of scientific evidence and the ready availability of information in the public domain.

Ockwell, D., Whitmarsh, L. and O’Neill, S. (2009). Reorienting Climate Change Communication for Effective Mitigation. Science Communication. 30(3): 305-323.