Charities looking for donations after a natural disaster may want to avoid linking the disaster to climate change, a study from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, suggests.

Researchers found that climate change skeptics are more likely to justify withholding aid if a drought, typhoon or flood is attributed to climate change than if appeals for aid do not mention the phenomenon.

“What our work suggests is that when a disaster occurs and organizations are appealing to the public for aid, it is best to minimize the inclusion of heavily politicized topics,” Daniel Chapman, lead author of the study and a graduate student in social psychology, said in an email. “The primary objective in the aftermath of a disaster is to work out the best means of aiding the victims.”

It can also be difficult to attribute natural disasters to climate change, he added, so leaving climate change out of discussions about aid is best.

Chapman and his adviser, Brian Lickel, divided more than 200 participants into two groups. Each group was given a hypothetical news story about a famine in sub-Saharan Africa, but one group’s article linked drought-related famine to climate change, while the story given to the other group did not mention climate change.

Participants were then surveyed to assess whether they believed they should help famine victims and whether they thought the victims were to blame for the situation. Participants were also asked about their political and climate change beliefs and whether they would donate money to relief efforts.

Changing thoughts, but not behavior
The researchers found that people who considered themselves climate skeptics were more prone to making justifications for not providing aid when climate change was linked to the disaster than both conservative and liberal people who said they were not skeptical.

“One’s perceptions of whether victims of a disaster are taking steps to help themselves should not be affected by whether the disaster was caused by climate change or not, as this information is not logically connected to the victims’ efforts,” said Chapman. “Nevertheless, our findings suggest that some individuals are motivated to use these justifications to withhold aid specifically when the disaster is framed as related to climate change.”

He added, “These justifications do not necessarily tell us much about people’s views of climate change; instead they suggest that people’s views about climate change itself affects how they view disasters that have been framed as related to climate change.”

Justifying inaction is often a way of coping with cognitive dissonance, or inconsistent thoughts, said Robert Gifford, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria who was not affiliated with the study.

For example, if someone owns shares in fossil fuels and is told his actions are contributing to the destruction of the world, the person is more likely to find a justification for maintaining his shares than to change his behavior, Gifford added.

“The tendency is to reduce this dissonance,” he said. “We don’t like to have these conflicting ideas in our head. It’s easier to change belief than to change behavior.”

Gifford’s research focuses on identifying the “dragons of inaction,” or the reasons people don’t engage in climate change adaptation or mitigation. He found 32 different justifications for inaction. These justifications are not limited to climate skeptics. People who believe climate change is caused by human action also find reasons not to change their behavior.

Does an ‘impurity’ theme influence climate skeptics?
Often, people think they do not personally have control over climate change, Gifford’s research shows. In these cases, religious people will often say God is in control, while others will say Mother Nature is in control and do not feel a sense of personal responsibility.

People also think reducing their carbon footprint will not have a significant impact on mitigating climate change.

“One of the real problems with climate change discourse is that people don’t believe they have agency,” said Matthew Seeger, a professor of communications at Wayne State University. “It’s really important for the conversation to shift so that people realize their actions have an impact.”

Some researchers say reframing climate change, now largely considered a political issue in the United States, could be an effective method of getting people to respond to it.

study in 2013 from George Mason and Yale universities found that climate skeptics respond positively to themes of impurity, like polluted rivers and air.

When conservative Republicans were given a passage about purifying the air and water, 64 percent of respondents said they thought the United States should address climate change. Past research from George Mason and Yale also suggests that when conservative Republicans are presented with information about science supporting environmental regulation to address climate change, their skepticism increases.

Still, framing climate change differently is not a silver bullet, said Gifford.

“A lot of framing efforts don’t work,” he said. “Finding a frame that is effective is not as easy as pulling a framing study out of a hat.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500