The Emotions of Climate Change

by Brendan Busch

Although climate change is an extremely complex issue, past studies have shown that the general public’s opinion on climate change action is influenced by subtle, general emotions. Continuing this line of research, Nicholas Smith, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Division of Psychology and Language Studies at University College London, and Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, set out to determine the effects that discrete emotions have on people’s support for climate change action. Smith and Leiserowitz analyzed the strength of emotional factors in comparison to other factors that influence the general public’s support of climate change policies, as well as the effects of specific emotions on people’s climate change views.

Using a 2009-2010 survey of 1,001 American adults as the basis for their analysis, Smith and Leiserowitz statistically compared how well a variety of factors predicted an individual’s support for climate change initiatives. These factors included affective emotions (general positive or negative emotions), affective imagery (images associated with climate change), personal values, discrete emotions (specific emotions such as anger or fear), and sociodemographics (factors such as age, gender, race, and political identity). After constructing several models based on this survey, Smith and Leiserowitz concluded that discrete emotions were the best predictors of climate change policy support, as discrete emotions alone explained 50% of the variance in policy support. This conclusion supports the hypothesis that emotions play a critical role in the risk analysis process, and thus have a significant influence over people’s reaction to climate change.

More specifically, worry was determined to be the biggest indicator of positive support for preventative climate change action, while fear found to be a relatively weak indicator. Smith and Leiserowitz explain this result by pointing out that worry is related to long-term problems such as career, health, and family issues, and acts as a motivating agent to help people find solutions to these problems, while fear prepares people for immediate threats and is related with mainly short-term issues. Because of this, climate change literature that works to instill fear in its readers forces them to deal with climate change in the short run, and the most common short-term personal solution to fear (and hence climate change literature) is to simply disengage from the issue. Taking this information into account, Smith and Leiserowitz suggest that climate change activists take on the difficult task of appealing to people’s long-term sense of worry, while avoiding their short-term sense of fear. Furthermore, Smith and Leiserowitz note that positive emotions, such as hope and interest, are good indicators of climate change policy support, and propose that appeals to these emotions could also prove to be successful.


Smith, N., & Leiserowitz, A. 2014. The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition. Risk Analysis, 34, 937-948.


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