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Informing About Deadlines for Climate Action Is Effective, Not Alarmist: Study

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Sep 6, 2021

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Climate change is a global concern and a rapidly growing one at that. Naturally, scientists have been debating the best strategy to get people to care about what’s to come so that we may still be able to stop it. While some researchers believe setting a deadline to turn things around is alarmist and doesn’t really get people to do anything about climate change, in the long run, some disagree and insist that setting a deadline is actually effective in garnering public support to initiate change.

Published in Environmental Communication, the study involving more than 1,000 online participants found that using “deadline-ism” in climate change-related public messaging, led to a greater acknowledgment of the severity of the impending threat. This, in turn, translates into greater support for making climate change-related action a priority for governments. 

“It also increased a sense of collective and individual response efficacy in addressing climate change,” the study noted.

In addition to providing environmentalists with a strategy to get people to care, the study also debunks the notion that deadline-related messaging simply causes people to feel hopelessness, despair, and disengagement — and in the process, fails to mobilize them to take action. “A more fundamental problem with deadline-ism is that it might incite cynical, cry-wolf responses and undermine the credibility of climate science when an anticipated disaster does not happen,” a paper from 2019 reads.

However, the authors of the present study disagree. “I understand why critics worry that the idea of a deadline for meaningful action in avoiding catastrophic climate change might cause people to throw up their hands in defeat… But our research suggests that assumption might not be quite right,” Patrice Kohl, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, said in a statement.


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In fact, the researchers found participants exposed to deadline messaging felt a greater sense that they can do something about it — be it individually, or collectively.

“We did not find any evidence of deadline-ism resulting in disengagement or other counterproductive responses. Our results more closely align with arguments in favor of presenting climate change in more proximate terms,” Kohl noted, adding, “communication scholars often propose portraying climate change in more proximate terms could play an important role in engaging audiences by making climate change more personally relevant.”

Essentially, as Kohl notes, one of the objectives of studies on the nuances of climate change-related public messaging is how to get people to care. Another study, published last month, delves into the language used in such messaging and concludes that people often find the complicated jargon used by scientists to address climate change rather confusing. Technical language may be more suited to accuracy but subjecting lay persons to obscure terms can leave them feeling confused and disengaged, the study noted, making a case for simpler language.

With climate change truly upon us, experts continue their research into the most optimal way to communicate with the masses. “We’re going to have to learn how to talk about tough climate change realities in ways that engage rather than disengage audiences,” Kohl notes.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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