Two Theories to Spur Action in Climate Communication

Solutions-driven storytelling that stimulates hope and self-confidence can increase motivation to act on climate change.

Climate anxiety insidiously bleeds into our everyday lives. Crisis after crisis fills our social media feeds, from a disappearing glacier to a species facing extinction. But are these anxiety-laden messages working in a way that spur action?

This blog explores climate communication and the application of two theories from renowned psychologist Albert Bandura. These two theories are self-efficacy and moral disengagement theory. Researchers have applied these theories to understand behavior change in a variety of areas within science communication.

As a note, this is not an official study nor an academic article. Rather, we are reflecting on their potential to inform visual communication strategies that can inspire action. We’ll provide examples of how this research translates to practice through two video examples.

In a nutshell

We’ll summarize these theories in a digestible way to avoid getting tangled in the web of related theories and interpretations. Self-efficacy is confidence in one’s ability to perform a behavior. This can also be applied to groups, or a collective, coined as collective efficacy. The theory says individuals and groups are less likely to solve a problem unless they have the belief, or sense of efficacy, that these actions can make a difference.

Moral-disengagement theory asserts that while people try to do things that align with their morals, they justify scenarios where these ethical standards do not apply. For example, many of us have witnessed villains in films saying, “this is for the greater good,” while doing something that makes us scratch our heads.

Applying self-efficacy

Belief is fuel for action. The belief that addressing a problem is within one’s own individual or collective capabilities is a powerful precursor to act. Bandura calls for initiatives that build people’s sense of collective efficacy to make an impact for future generations.

How does this translate into communication approaches on digital platforms? There isn’t a template or how-to out there. But we can assume that it’s essential to help viewers visualize themselves doing a particular action. It’s also important to be clear on how those actions can lead to specific results.

Our approach on the CSU Social team has been to localize the issue and provide examples of home-grown solutions. There’s something about seeing your colleague, neighbor, or fellow student doing something that makes it seem easier. Last year, we produced a video outlining student-driven initiatives to make CSU more sustainable.

This video showcases a student-driven initiative to foster a culture of clothing restoration. Waste and pollution is a significant issue plaguing the fashion industry. In response, students organized sewing workshops to encourage restoring and reusing clothing. In addition, students collaborated to push for composting at the Lory Student Center. This is an example of solutions-driven storytelling, a key component in strong science communication.

Applying moral-disengagement theory

Many of us have lied, taken advantage of others, or ignored injustices throughout our lives. Moral disengagement theory explains the psychological justifications that occur that enable folks to feel like good human beings while breaking away from their morals.

Some experts argue that the lack of viewing climate change as a moral issue has led to climate silence and neglect. Sixty-eight percent of Americans rarely or never talk about climate change with family or friends. There’s a lack of self-examination and diffusion of responsibility.

New studies say moral arguments about climate change are effective, especially among those concerned about climate change. Also, talking about it more raises awareness and others’ confidence about talking about the issue.

In this video project, we featured “Science Moms,” a nonpartisan and nonprofit group of parent scientists working on a national campaign to provide mothers with reliable information. The information helps moms demystify climate science and urge action on climate change.

The project makes the issue a moral one for mothers. Two moms and climate researchers at CSU pose a difficult question about whether or not their kids will enjoy the landscape around them in the same way they did. This tugs at the heart in a different way, as it combines motherly instinct and morals with climate action.

Bottom line

These theories can help us rethink climate communication. Solutions-focused content that fosters hope is key. In addition, it’s essential to show clear examples to promote efficacy. Combine inspiration with feasibility. As CSU student Sam Moccia puts it in the first video, these issues may seem “insurmountable,” causing people to be “afraid to do the small things.” Moccia, in the piece, emphasizes starting small. These small projects add up into something bigger.

Finally, dig into your audiences’ identities and the morals tied to those identities. As always, narrowing down your audience refines your content. What duties define a mother’s role? What duties define a Coloradan? What about a student? These moral duties are intertwined with instinct and identity. Tug at both to dig deeper.