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How Not To Teach Climate Change

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A lecture classroom.
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In a recent Washington Post piece, Diana Liverman, a professor at the University of Arizona, explains how she used to teach her undergraduates about climate change — and why she stopped.

"A few years ago, I discovered my undergraduates had informally renamed my Intro to Environmental Studies class. They called it 'Environmental Depression,' " she writes. She continues later:

"Many students left my class feeling despondent and powerless. As one wrote to me, 'what you have taught me makes me desperately sad, clinging to the last memories we will have of the planet as the world chooses material comfort over breathing fresh air.' "

What she hoped would catalyze action instead seemed to foster paralysis. Her experience reflected what we know from research: When it comes to climate change, instilling fear is not the most effective way to promote positive engagement and action.

So Liverman tried a different approach:

"Rather than lament the failures of U.S. policy to reduce climate risks, I point out how four decades of laws helped clean up our air and waterways, saving lives, money and ecosystems. At the global level, I now highlight successful collaborations to improve the environment. I explain how we discovered the ozone hole in 1985 and then signed an international treaty in 1987 agreeing to control the chemicals that caused it, reducing risks of cancer."

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Focusing on political and scientific progress seems like a good move. It communicates environmental problems while identifying potential means for addressing them. The message is decidedly more positive.

The only problem? It's unlikely to work.

According to a new paper on the social psychology of climate change, just published in a special issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, emphasizing scientific progress won't promote environmental action. In fact, it may do the reverse.

The paper, by Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens, tested the idea that questioning scientific progress creates an unpleasant sense of disorder, which people respond to by seeking alternative sources of order and predictability. One such source is an individual's "personal control" over the environment, which can take the form of environmentally responsible actions, like recycling. On the flip side, affirming scientific progress could create the sense that the world is already orderly and predictable. A strong source of "external control" could thus reduce the need for personal control, thereby decreasing environmentally friendly behavior.

Across four experiments, the researchers found evidence consistent with their proposal. For example, one experiment had participants read one of two (fake) newspaper articles: one questioned scientific progress on issues like cancer treatment and climate change; the other affirmed scientific progress. Participants then indicated how much they agreed with a statement designed to tap into their sense of order versus disorder ("Our lives are ruled by randomness"), and others about their environmental attitudes and intentions (for example, "I believe waste sorting is unnecessary").

As predicted, they found that affirming scientific progress increased perceptions of order (relative to questioning scientific progress), but that it also decreased environmentally friendly attitudes and intentions. The upshot? Emphasizing scientific progress could backfire when it comes to encouraging green behavior.

The predictions motivating this research are grounded in the theory of "compensatory control." The basic idea is that we find feelings of chaos and disorder aversive, so we react by exercising or affirming control of some form — be it "personal" (like individual actions) or "external" (like successful science). When personal control is high, the need for external control is diminished. And when external control is high, the need for personal control is diminished.

Affirming scientific progress is one way to increase feelings of external control, but it isn't the only one. Previous research finds that affirming a strong government or a powerful God can have the same effect. So it's likely that messages of effective governmental action, or of a powerful and benevolent God, could similarly reduce environmentally friendly behavior. (A related idea, which generates the same predictions, is that identifying another entity as responsible for addressing climate change — or as likely to effectively do so — could decrease the sense that one should or must act as an individual.)

Whether or not she realized she was doing so, Diana Liverman may have sensed the dangers of focusing on scientific and political progress when revamping her course in environmental studies; her changes weren't limited to those above. She also emphasized why and how to exert personal control: "I tell students that they can reduce their own environmental footprint through conservation, recycling and changing consumption patterns."

She writes: "I give examples of how individuals change laws, campaign for low carbon public transport and organize to elect officials who protect the environment."

So far, it seems to be working:

"I've taught this revised class two times now, and the student evaluations are different. Now, students say things like 'I'm motivated to follow a green career' and 'My roommates are fed up with me telling them all the things they can do to save the planet.' "

Here's to staying positive without quelling action.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo