That’s A Good Thing
The Yale Project on Climate Change tests public opinion on global warming. A dive into the thick report issued this week surfaces new data that relates to one of the longest running and most frustrating debates in the work to stop climate change: “is hope or fear the more powerful emotion for mobilizing public action on global warming?”
TLDR: The answer is that neither hope nor fear is the key. Rather anger is the most powerful emotion for mobilizing Americans. And that’s good news because the data released this week indicates that there are a LOT of voting age Americans who are angry about climate change, 95 million.
And 30 million of them report that they are very angry.
The “hope vs. fear” question is a perennial debate, with new threads popping up regularly, perhaps fed by the increasing numbers of people new to the movement, climbing on board the climate wagon and questioning the direction of travel. Champions of hope argue that “fear-based” messaging only leads to despair and withdrawal. Champions of fear point out that “hopeful” messaging undermines any budding notion of urgency among the complacent, those who see climate change as a distant threat far off in the future.
The back and forth is frustrating not just for its perennial nature, but also because it largely misses the mark altogether, focused on a false choice. The answer is that neither fear nor hope are the key to sparking action. Broadly speaking, in the American political arena the most potent emotion is anger.
While the last four years of political history in the U.S. provides considerable evidence for the potency of anger, this dynamic has been well known to campaign consultants and politicians for decades. For one look at how anger mobilized youth in the wake of the 2016 election see this analysis by Jennifer Hoewe who also reviews the recent literature on the role of emotions in U.S. political communication
Academics documented the effect 30 years ago characterizing it as “hot cognition,” a concept first put forward by William Gamson in his pioneering and award-winning work Talking Politics. From this perspective, establishing trouble isn’t sufficient to provoke public mobilization, particularly when the problem is seen as part of the natural course of events, such as illness, natural disasters or economic cycles. Those kinds of troubles tend to prompt personal action first to protect friends and family.
To prompt public action, advocates must provoke hot cognition, that moment of realization and anger that surfaces when hard times are suddenly understood to be the result of wrong-doing by others. In other words, that moment when one realizes you’re getting screwed.
This moment was famously played out in one of the all-time great movie scenes by the character Howard Beale, a longtime news anchor in the 1975 film classic Network, who shouted out from his news desk: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” — a moment that rang with the zeitgeist of the Watergate era.
In this context, the Yale data released this week provides good news. The Yale survey tested 16 different types of feelings and asked respondents: “How strongly do you feel each of the following emotions when you think about the issue of global warming?”
For it’s report, Yale highlighted the top-ranked emotion -“interested”- for which 19% of respondents reported feeling “very strongly.”
I would argue that “interested” doesn’t truly count as a feeling. Instead, that response more likely indicates curiosity coupled with emotional detachment.
However, there is more to be found if one digs into the Yale data table and then does a little math.
The other 15 emotions surveyed by Yale are close cousins of each other. And they can be grouped into the three categories discussed above: anger, hope, and fear. For example, four emotions tested Yale — outrage, anger, betrayal, and disgust — arguably could be grouped into the “anger” bucket.
When the 15 other emotions are grouped, averaged and ranked, the emotion with the highest total is anger, with 11.8% of Americans reporting that they are not just angry, but that they are very angry. And another 35% report that they are moderately angry.
The 2nd ranked emotion is hope, with 7.3% of Americans reporting they are very hopeful. And 6.5% Americans report feeling very fearful.
[While I have included all the 15 emotions in this analysis by aggregation, the findings still hold true if you just rank individual category leaders, e.g. “outraged.” 40% of Americans report feeling very or moderately outraged.]
While 12% may not sound like very much, that translates into 30 million voting age Americans saying they are “very angry” about climate change, and another 65 million saying they are “moderately angry.” Those are the kind of numbers that can move and is moving a issue. The rising level of anger has been palpable to those following the progress of the climate movement. And that spirit clearly helped propel climate change to the top of the 2020 election agenda for Democrats.
Pulling back the camera for a wider look, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no one silver-bullet emotion. In fact, we need to spark all three emotions because all three are essential parts of the emotional response to climate change.
Anger is a natural emotion in the face of wrong-doing and provides the spark for action. But the response must be grounded in hope (and love) in order to build a better world.
There is a community narrative that elegantly weaves together all three key emotions — fear, hope, and anger.
Here is my version:
“We are already paying a steep cost for the damages incurred by climate change to date, and we now face the very real threat of widespread catastrophic losses in the future. Fortunately, a better way is available. Clean power is now the cheaper option and clean transportation isn’t far behind. But the fossil fuel industry and their ideological allies are blocking the way.”
Close cousins of this narrative have been developed independently across the climate movement, all helping to fuel the progress we have witnessed in recent years. See, for example, the version put forth by Climate Solutions For A Stronger America.
In this framework, the last message — about the fossil fuel industry blocking the way — provokes the hot cognition, the spark of anger. It explains why there is no action despite the fear and the hope invoked earlier in the narrative. In fact, the logic of the narrative won’t work without that third message. If we’re facing a dire threat and a solution is available, then what’s the problem? In short, the answer is politics.
And this is why so many frame the climate narrative in terms of hope and/or despair but leave out the anger. In mainstream (i.e. white middle class) American culture talking about politics is considered impolite and distasteful, and political anger is shunned in particular.
The ability to ignore politics that disenfranchise so many is, of course, a privilege. And the framing of climate change as a non-political issue is an exercise of that privilege. Until recently, the climate movement has largely been a white, middle class and middle-aged movement, which helps to explain why the discussion of narrative strategy for many years stayed away from “distasteful” messages that invoke politics.
The recent broadening of the movement to include youth, people of color and other marginalized communities is helping to broaden the narrative, and that in turn has helped move the issue forward. These are communities for whom being apolitical is simply not an option.
As the climate movement grows and broadens, the faces of those who tell our story are becoming more diverse, and the narrative is getting stronger.
Public anger is a complicated issue fraught with danger for marginalized communities. And personal anger operates differently across racial lines.
Davin Phoenix, a political scientist at UC Irvine, has recently analyzed this landscape in which he finds an “anger gap.” Rather than re-capping his insightful offering, I encourage you to read his some of his own words here.