Climate Change Campaigns: The Role of the ‘Boomerang Effect’

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Ever wonder why - despite overwhelming scientific evidence - there remains such a large pool of climate change skeptics?  New research suggests that this may not be a result of sheer ignorance or denial of anthropogenic climate change, but rather an unintended (and undesired) consequence of climate change campaigns.  

The study shows how concerns regarding climate change that are brought to the public’s attention, such as increasing awareness and action for threats posed by climate change overseas, actually end up being viewed in a way that is opposite to the initial intention.  This phenomenon, known as a ‘boomerang effect’, may be at least partially to blame for skepticism towards the concept of a rapidly changing planet caused primarily by human activity.

The authors look closely at motivated reasoning and social identification – two influential factors in viewpoint construction, which further demonstrate complex dynamics behind the boomerang effect.  In general, when a problem affects those who are socially distant to an individual, that individual is unlikely to support requested action (in this case, prevention and mitigation of natural or anthropogenic climate change).  The opposite also stands, as determined by studies focusing on change at a local scale, whereby support for action was stronger.

Of course, this is not an attempt to even remotely claim that every climate change skeptic acquired such opinions as a result of the boomerang effect, but rather that it has been shown to play a role in the process of opinion formulation.  The role of spatial scale appears to be the most prevalent within this study, as social similarity (likely to be more similar for individuals living within close proximity to the campaign’s focus – a result of Tobler’s First Law of Geography) influenced how people perceived the campaign’s message.

Many of the aspects of this study go into great political depth, much beyond the scope of climate change itself (and beyond my qualifications as a ‘Biodiversity and Conservation’ writer, I suppose), but the main message stands: the way in which climate change campaigns are designed may significantly effect the public’s outlook on the issues at hand.  At what point do views regarding climate change begin to deviate from a person’s original belief?  And what aspects of climate change campaigns other than scale are responsible for the boomerang effect? Language?  Point of view?  Density of scientific facts?  More research into the relationship between the boomerang effect and climate change awareness (among other important global issues) will hopefully allow politicians, activists, scientists, and the general population to formulate opinions regarding this issue in a more productive manner.

A PDF of the study can be found here