The Inertia Trap

How the way we think can be an enemy of change

Are We Losing the War on Climate Change Cinema?

Films made by skeptics may be more effective than films by environmentalists.

Views on climate change tend to have the unfortunate quality of being influenced by exposure to partisan media rather than through careful, unbiased research. This is not a quality unique to climate change, but environmental issues do seem to generate a large number of prominent movies relative to other public policy disputes. There's not a steady release of mainstream films about the value (or atrocity) of food stamps.

The proliferation of such media poses a problem for environmentalists only to the extent that a) a larger audience encounters climate-skeptic films relative to environmentalist films, or b) skeptic films have a relatively stronger impact. I'll ignore the first point for now, but with regard to the second point a new study suggests that there may be something to worry about.

The study, which was conducted by Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck, examined the impact of different climate change films on the environmental attitudes of Austrian collge students. In Greitemeyer's initial experiment a skeptic film, "The Great Global Warming Swindle," induced stronger negative attitudes toward the environment, but a climate change-affirming film, "Children of the Flood," did not lead to stronger positive attitudes. The results suggest that there may be something about climate skeptic films that makes them more powerful.

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A follow up experiment dug a bit deeper into how climate change films influence viewers. This time the climate change-affirming film was a documentary, "Six Degrees Could Ghange the World," rather than a fictional film about a world ravaged by climate change. (The skeptic film, a documentary titled, "The Climate Swindle: How the Eco-Mafia Betrays Us," was also different from the film used in the initial experiment.) Prior to viewing the films participants completed a survey that aimed to gauge their baseline level of environmentalist behavior. After viewing the films participants responded to three sets of questions that measured their mood, their general propensity to consider future consequences, and their apathy about the environment.

The results of the second experiment largely confirmed the findings from the initial experiment. Even when controlling for prior views on the environment, the skeptic film had a significant negative impact on concern for the environment, but the climate change affirming film did not have a significant positive impact on concern for the environment. Interestingly, a follow-up analysis revealed that the reason the skeptic films were effective was that they altered the degree to which people considered future consequences. In fact, after viewing the films a person's reported consideration of future consequences was a better predictor of their concern for the environment than the type of film they saw. While the study comes with all the caveats of an experiment restricted to Austrian college students, the findings suggest that climate change skeptic films do in fact have a stronger impact, but only to the extent that they do more to influence people's consideration of future consequences.

So what, if anything, does this mean for the fight against climate change? Obviously it's bad news if films produced by climate skeptics have a stronger impact. On the other hand, the importance of considering future consequences may at least hint at some worthwhile countermeasures. One possibility is that simple nudges to induce more foresight, even in domains that have nothing to do with the environment, will lead to greater consideration of the future and an increase in concern for the environment. For example, getting people to think more about saving for retirement may change how they think about the future in such a way that they become more environmentally conscious.

The study also helps explain why, economically speaking, environmentalism functions as a "luxury good" (i.e. as countries get richer they "consume" more environmentalism.) The standard reasoning is that richer countries care more about the environment because they can afford to make economic sacrifices for the sake of the planet. People in America can afford to buy green lightbulbs or pay taxes on the carbon they use. People living in Bangladesh cannot.

But Greitemeyer's study tells a slightly different story about the connection between wealth and environmentalism. When you're living paycheck to paycheck you don't expend a lot of energy thinking about long-term issues, and thus you don't spend as much time considering future consequences. On the other hand, if you're relatively wealthy it's not uncommon to think about what you'll be doing in 30 years. And so the poor might not be less concerned with climate change simply because they can't afford it, they might be less concerned because they don't generally think about the distant future. Such an explanation doesn't open the door for any particular panacea, but it ought to strengthen the case for economic growth as a long-term solution to climate change. In the meantime, people should probably be more wary of crackpot climate skeptic films.

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Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and education researcher.

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