Don’t scare the public too much about climate change or you’ll push them away. That’s been the advice from certain experts to build wider support for serious action to stop global heating before it’s too late.
But what if this advice turns out to be wrong?
“We found that people who learned that a growing number of folks are angry about climate change were more inclined to believe that the U.S. public is likely to take collective action to address climate change,” write three researchers in political science, sustainability and psychology. While not climate scientists, the team of researchers from the London School of Economics, Pomona College and Princeton has taken a scientific approach to testing the effectiveness of messages about climate change to motivate people on the fence to get more involved in demanding serious action.
We found that people who learned that a growing number of folks are angry about climate change were more inclined to believe that the U.S. public is likely to take collective action to address climate change.
In a survey of more than 1500 American adults across the political spectrum, the researchers presented different messages about other people’s opinion on climate change to two groups of people. One group got messages that other Americans were angry about climate pollution and the other group didn’t. Guess which group then expressed more of their own concern about the issue?
Learning that others are angry emboldened people in our study to express their own outrage about climate, and they were more likely to support action to mitigate the crisis. Of those who saw the anger graph, 73 percent reported strong support for taking action; that figure was 56 percent among those who learned about other trends…Our findings suggest such messages might also be perceived as more empowering than those emphasizing the scientific consensus or growing public concern. Anger appears to convince more people that others will soon act, and that makes them want to join.
Even more interesting, messages about anger didn’t scare away Republicans. Quite the opposite — such messages helped close the gap between liberals and conservatives about the need for climate solutions.
Surprisingly, these effects were as pronounced for Republicans as they were for Democrats. In fact, over 40 percent of Republicans who viewed the anger consensus message reported moderate or strong agreement that others should take action on climate change, whereas only 20 percent of Republicans shown the control message expressed this belief. In other words, learning that a growing majority of Americans were angry about climate inaction helped to bridge the partisan gap on climate change.
After the Capitol insurrection, the dangers of anger in politics spilling over into violence are clearer than ever. And when protest meetings on climate or the environment turn violent, the bad behavior of eco-hooligans decreases public sympathy for their cause.
Even without violence, polarization makes it difficult for Americans to work across party lines to solve problems together. Climate is such a big problem that it will require both liberals and conservatives to pitch in. At a minimum, Republicans should get out of the way. But that’s a pretty low standard for a healthy democracy. It would be better for our country and the climate if conservatives could set their minds to applying market-based solutions to a challenge that affects red states like Texas and Louisiana as much as it threatens blue states like California and New York.
To be sure, protests that result in damage to physical property may undermine popular support for social movements or inflame existing political divisions. But expressions of public anger can be powerful mobilizers. Research suggests angry messages are more likely to be re-shared on social media sites than many other types of content.
So, the answer seems to be don’t get violent, but do get worked up. And then tell your family and friends that you’re worked up, and so are a lot of other people too.
That’s what abolitionists figured out in the 18th and 19th centuries. They first tried a campaign of “moral suasion” to convince slaveowners to voluntarily free their enslaved people.
We all know from history that asking politely didn’t have much effect. Once abolitionists figured that out in the 1830s, they took a more active approach, working to whip up people of conscience into a moral fervor over the evils of holding fellow humans in bondage in an enlightened era and in a country founded on the proposition that all people were created equal.
That’s where Uncle Tom’s Cabin came in back then, and where Greta Thunberg comes in today.
My book Abolish Oil Now! tells the story of how abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic embraced their anger as a powerful positive force that ultimately succeeded in freeing nearly five million enslaved people, first in the West Indies, and then in the United States.
“Climate change and ecological breakdown may one day be viewed with the same universal repugnance as slavery,” says naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough.
Just released this month, Abolish Oil Now! will inspire anyone who cares about saving the climate in time to save our civilization to make what John Lewis called “good trouble” by getting good and angry about the greed of fossil fuel companies.
After 30 years of failing to stop climate pollution, we don’t need more scientific research. The solutions are here today and they’re affordable. We need to end the control of oil companies over Washington, DC and the other capitals of the world.
Abolish Oil Now! provides a proven model of success for going up against the most powerful moneyed special interest of its day — King Cotton back then, Big Oil today.