Tipping points ahead? How laypeople respond to linear versus nonlinear climate change predictions

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We investigate whether communication strategies that portray climate change as a nonlinear phenomenon provoke increases in laypeople’s climate change risk perceptions. In a high-powered, preregistered online experiment, participants were exposed to linear or nonlinear predictions of future temperature increases that would be expected if global greenhouse gas emissions were not reduced. We hypothesized that the type of climate change portrayal would impact perceptions of qualitative risk characteristics (catastrophic potential, controllability of consequences) which would, in turn, affect laypeople’s holistic risk perceptions. The results of the study indicate that the type of climate change portrayal did not affect perceptions of risk or other social-cognitive variables such as efficacy beliefs. While participants who were exposed to a nonlinear portrayal of climate change perceived abrupt changes in the climate system as more likely, they did not perceive the consequences of climate change as less controllable or more catastrophic. Notably, however, participants who had been exposed to a linear or nonlinear portrayal of climate change were willing to donate more money to environmental organizations than participants who had not been presented with a climate-related message. Limitations of the present study and directions for future research are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number1-2
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 01.11.2022

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