So close, yet so far: Making climate impacts feel close by may not inspire action

Although scientists warn that urgent action is needed to stop climate change, public engagement continues to lag. Many social scientists say people are hesitant to act on climate change because, especially in Western industrialized countries like the U.S., it feels like such a distant threat.

New research from a Cornell communication professor upends that conventional thinking.

Jonathon Schuldt ’04, assistant professor of communication, says it is possible to make faraway climate impacts feel closer. But that doesn’t automatically inspire the American public to express greater support for policies that address it. The paper appeared Feb. 7 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

The research offers a more complex, alternative view of current assumptions in climate change communication. The conventional thinking is based on a theory in social psychology based on psychological distance. It says we generally think about things that are physically close to us in much more concrete and vivid ways compared with things that are far away.

“Normally, reducing psychological distance is talked about like a panacea for climate change engagement. ‘Just talk about local impacts; just make it feel closer and then people will do something,’” Schuldt said. “We’re saying, well, maybe that’s overly simplistic.

“Our findings suggest it’s possible to make faraway climate impacts feel closer to people, but that it’s wishful thinking to assume that’s automatically going to translate into greater policy support.”

The researchers had U.S.-based participants watch a video about climate change occurring in the Republic of the Maldives, a chain of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean. As the lowest-lying country in the world, the Maldives is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change. “In fact, some models predict it is at significant risk of being completely submerged due to sea level rise within a century,” Schuldt noted.

The participants then looked at an online map, similar to a Google Map, designed to make the distance separating their location in Ithaca, New York, and the Maldives seem relatively short (in one condition of the experiment) or relatively long (in the other condition). “If you were in the large map condition, you had to scroll many more times to trace that line all the way over to the Maldives, which took more time” Schuldt said. “In the shorter map condition, you scrolled just a few times.”

Then participants judged the distance separating the U.S. and the Maldives on a scale from one to 10. Participants who viewed the smaller map judged the two countries as closer in space. Those in the wide map condition rated the Maldives as significantly farther away. “This suggests we were able to make the Maldives feel a little bit closer than it normally does,” Schuldt said. “And that people’s feelings of distance, to the same climate impacts, can be affected by something as simple as the size of the map they’re using.”

Then the participants described the video in their own words. Half of the participants in the small map condition described the video in concrete ways, compared with only 35 percent in the large map condition – suggesting that how people thought about the climate impacts matched their relative feelings of closeness to the Maldives.

Last, the participants took a standard measure of policy support for climate change, answering questions such as, “How much do you favor reducing carbon dioxide as a pollutant?” In the end, the participants’ support for climate change policies was the same, whether they were in the small or large map condition. “We found no difference – no difference at all,” Schuldt said.

This is not the final word on this topic, he cautioned. The researchers used a common measure of policy support, but it’s certainly not the only one. “Just because we didn’t find an effect in our measure doesn’t mean that we won’t find an effect with another.”

The study suggests more research is needed to tease apart the different factors involved in engaging the public on climate change. “Reducing psychological distance is a promising strategy for climate change communicators, but it’s probably not a silver bullet,” Schuldt said.

His co-authors are Laura Rickard of the University of Maine and Z. Janet Yang of the University at Buffalo.

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Jeff Tyson