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date: 13 November 2018

Summary and Keywords

There is mounting scientific evidence linking extreme weather events such as wildfires in the western United States and Hurricane Sandy with anthropogenic climate change. However, those in developed nations that contribute the most to carbon emissions associated with anthropogenic climate change are the least likely to suffer severe consequences. This asymmetry presents a challenge for climate change communication, given that those who most need to act on climate change (the largest emitters) are those likely to be the most removed from the impacts of carbon emissions, and may thus be less convinced of the critical need to act.

The psychological distance that people perceive from the impacts of climate change may also have implications for their belief in, concern about, and willingness to act on climate change. Psychological distance is the extent to which an object is perceived as distant from the self in time, space, certainty, or social similarity. Though climate change may be perceived by those in developed nations as distant on any or all of these dimensions, temporal and geographic distance are likely to be particularly important in the context of climate change, given the global nature of the problem and the long time horizons associated with predicted impacts.

Considering the potential distancing of climate change from the self, this review examines how perceptions of temporal and geographic distance impact public opinion about climate change, in terms of belief in anthropogenic climate change, concern, and support for action. Many researchers have suggested that the distal nature of climate change is a key reason for failures to engage in widespread mitigation action. However, studies of temporal and geographic distance reveal mixed effects on belief in climate change and support for action. For example, support for climate change action varies as a function of impacts being described as affecting near versus distant victims, and these effects vary as a function of political ideology, with Democrats more likely to support action when exposed to distal victims, and Republicans more supportive when victims are closer to them. Similarly, another study indicated that perceptions of global risk are associated with policy support, whereas perceptions of risk in one’s local area is linked to individual intentions to take action. These findings reveal that it may not always be ideal to perceive climate change as psychologically close in order to promote support for climate action, and a number of studies examined here explore when psychological distance and closeness may help or hinder climate change action.

Keywords: climate change, psychological distance, temporal distance, geographical distance, framing, public opinion, personal experience, climate change communication

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