For climate action to take hold, activists need more than just polar bears

  • A new study finds that people who do not have “biospheric concerns” are unconvinced by climate change arguments that hinge on such avatars as polar bears, coral reefs and pikas.
  • Researchers suggest policymakers, activists and the media must choose stories that hit closer to home, by focusing on the more personal impacts of climate change.
  • Scientists would also like to see more research on how to convince people who are largely concerned with their own narrow interests that climate change, and nature in general, matters.

Type “climate change” into any search engine and the results aren’t difficult to predict: you’ll probably see a woeful polar bear on a shrinking patch of ice. Either that or cracked, parched earth. But a new paper published in Global Environmental Change questions the power of nature to motivate climate action.

“Frequently, visual and verbal stimuli used in the media to describe threats of climate change feature plants, animals and other typical nature depictions,” said Sabrina Helm, associate professor of retailing and consumer science at the University of Arizona and lead author of the paper. “However, for people who are more concerned about possible effects on themselves, their family, or people in general […] such stimuli may not be effective.”

Helm’s paper distinguished three different forms of environmental concern among people: biospheric (concern for nature), social-altruistic (concern for other people), and egoistic (concern for oneself).

Participants in the study who showed biospheric concern were most likely to perform positive environmental behaviors. The paper concludes, however, that by catering only to biospheric concerns — and neglecting egoistic or social-altruistic concerns — policymakers and activists may be unintentionally “increasing the risks associated with delaying climate change adaptation.”

Hitting closer to home

Researchers presented 342 adults in the U.S. with questions about what most concerned them regarding global environmental problems. Participants could choose from prepared answers that indicated egoistic concern (“my lifestyle,” for instance), social-altruistic concern (“my children”) or biospheric concern (“marine life”).

The study also plumbed participants’ so-called pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs), such as whether they used reusable bags, actively reduced emissions, or ate organic food.

Results indicated that whereas respondents with higher biospheric concern tended to perceive ecological stress and engage in pro-environmental behaviors, participants with social-altruistic concern were less perceptive though did engage in similar actions. Participants with higher egoistic concerns neither perceived ecological stress nor engaged in behavior to mitigate it.

Researchers believe this is because egoistic and social-altruisic concerns are seen as less vulnerable to climate change impacts than biospheric concerns.

Egoistic and social-altruistic respondents “did not seem to perceive climate change threats as having a profound effect on their own or their families’ life,” the scientists wrote in the paper.

This finding is also backed up by other psychological studies.

“We summarize that policymakers frequently emphasize climate change as a global, distant, and abstract societal risk,” said Sander van der Linden, a researcher at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, who was not involved in the study. Pointing to the constant use of polar bears as an avatar for climate change, van der Linden said: “Instead, we recommend that policymakers should change their approach to emphasizing the local, present, and concrete aspects of climate change as a personal risk.”

Van der Linden, who is also a psychology researcher at the University of Cambridge, co-authored a paper in 2015 outlining five “best practice” insights for how psychological research could improve public engagement with climate change.

Helm echoed van der Linden’s sentiment, encouraging the deployment of stories that “hit closer to home” for people for whom biospheric concerns do not register strongly. Some examples she suggested include linking climate change threats to issues of personal health, national security, and the well-being of future generations.

The researchers suggest a nuanced finding that instead of using shock tactics to barge down the door of indifference, perhaps climate change communication is a matter of finding the right keys to different locks.

Using the plight of polar bears in the Arctic, which suffer from thinning sea ice, as a proxy for climate change communication could risk losing the interest of people for whom biospheric concerns don’t register all that strongly. Photograph credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Motivating climate action

In Helm’s paper, the scientists reference a 2009 publication by WWF-UK whose authors, evolutionary biologist Tom Crompton and psychology professor Tim Kasser, dissuade campaigners from encouraging egoism as a means to engage climate action. This is because, they argue, egoistic concerns can often engender a separation from nature: one feels superior to, rather than a part of, the natural world.

Instead, Crompton and Kasser recommend that increasing awareness of the inherent value of nature and empathy for non-human animals — in other words, biospheric concerns — is best for long-term environmental improvement.

Commenting on Crompton and Kasser’s research, Helm said that while “it may be desirable for all people to have biospheric concerns in mind,” she expressed doubt that “it’s just not a reality.”

Both Kasser and Helm agree there are people who simply don’t care much for the environment, but also that telling such people to be more sensitive to biospheric concerns is not the answer.

Kasser suggested a different way in which climate change communicators could effectively reach individuals who showed little concern for the environment: through a sensitive and empathetic approach to discover their value systems.

“Having done that, it then becomes even more possible … to engage that person in thinking about his/her behaviors and … ways that can help him/her to see how protecting the environment is actually supportive and expressive of those values,” he wrote in an email.

In Helm’s paper, individuals with social-altruistic concerns also showed fewer pro-environmental behaviors than individuals with biospheric concerns. However, where they did, the scientists hypothesized that it was because they felt their value system would be strongly affected by climate change — in this case, their children’s future.

Using this approach, communicators could both attract the attention of people with egoistic or altruistic concerns, while also promoting a message of nature’s inherent worth to every value system.

Helm expressed hope that future research might examine more links between egoistic concerns in particular and positive environmental behaviors to figure out how to motivate pro-environmental consumption and climate change mitigation.

Either way, it probably won’t involve a polar bear.

Sorry, polar bear. Photograph credit: Rhett A. Butler

Banner image: A polar bear on thin ice. Photograph credit: Arturo de Frias Marques.


Crompton, T., Kasser, T., 2009. Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity. WWF-UK, Godalming.

Helm, S. V., Pollitt, A., Barnett, M. A., Curran, M. A., & Craig, Z. R. (2018). Differentiating environmental concern in the context of psychological adaption to climate change. Global Environmental Change, 48, 158-167. DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2017.11.012

van der Lindern, S., Maibach, E., Leiserowitz, A. (2015). Improving Public Engagement With Climate Change: Five “Best Practice” Insights From Psychological Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science. Vol 10, Issue 6, pp. 758 – 763. DOI: 10.1177/1745691615598516

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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