The Right Words to Make Change


When it comes to climate change, it’s not about you. It’s us.

It’s not all about you—at least when it comes to global warming. But you would never guess that based on messaging from advocacy groups. For example, a marketing campaign by the European Union centered around a personal appeal, “You Control Climate Change.” But do these statements work?

A recent study led by political scientist Nick Obradovich, M.A. ’13, Ph.D. ’16, found that framing the issue collectively is a significantly more effective motivator than emphasis on personal responsibility.

“Climate change is arguably the largest collective-action problem the world has ever faced,” says Obradovich, “yet we’re operating on a lot of baked-in assumptions on how to motivate people.”

Along with political science Ph.D. student Scott Guenther, M.A. ’12, Obradovich surveyed members of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest nonprofit environmental organizations, as well as members of the general public. One group of study participants was asked to write about ways they personally cause climate change, while others reflected on how it is collectively caused. A control group wrote about daily routines, like brushing teeth or drinking coffee, with no mention of climate change. Participants were then asked how much of a $100 award they would be willing to donate to The Audubon Society’s climate change efforts.

The collective frame consistently outperformed both the personal frame and the control condition. Among Audubon members, those writing about collective causes were willing to donate seven percent more. And among the general public, potential donations were a striking 50 percent higher for those thinking collectively.

Interestingly, where the collective frame dramatically increased potential donations, the personal frame had virtually no effect at all. “We had hypothesized that any thinking about climate change would incline people to donate more, but that’s not what happened,” says Obradovich. “People only consistently gave more when we encouraged them to think about the collective causes of climate change.”

And the effect persisted. In a follow-up experiment, Obradovich and Guenther found that people who had initially written about climate change in collective terms were still willing to donate more than the others, even several days later.  The collective frame also did best at producing the highest aspirations to reduce carbon emissions in the future.

The study’s authors note that participants were generally predisposed to believe in human causes of climate change, and more research should determine whether collective framing remains effective for those less supportive of climate action in the first place. “It is important to find out if we can also move people who are not already sold,” says Obradovich. “We hope this paper will open further inquiry in this area.”