Transformative Environmental Threats: Emotions and Disrupting Inaction

By Kelly Bergstrand

Environmental problems have a long history of being difficult to resolve, from the frustrations of trying to manage collective resources (e.g., the tragedy of the commons) to environmental problems typically being ranked lower as national policy priorities relative to issues like the economy or terrorism, especially in the United States where there are strong partisan differences in environmental concern (Pew Research 2018). But with climate change’s global implications, the stakes have never been higher, and the irreversibility of a greenhouse gas build-up lends urgency to action. Despite this, inaction is stubbornly pervasive. Is there anything with the power to shake people out of complacency, resignation, or even denial?

Social movement scholarship can help us address this puzzle. Literature on moral shocks has shown their power to propel people into action (Jasper 1997). Environmental threats can be formidable shocks as demonstrated over several decades in the literature, from activism in response to the oil spill of 1969 in the Santa Barbara Channel (Molotch 1970), to the mobilizing effects of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident (Walsh 1981), to the fears and responses that emerge in communities affected by toxins of various forms (Erikson 1995). In research conducted with Brian Mayer at the University of Arizona, we examine the more recent case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Emotions are core to moral shocks and to a theory of action more generally (Jasper 1997; Jasper 2018). Here, we find empirically how central they really are. Respondents who were emotionally affected by the oil spill, such as feeling angry or distressed, reported increased pro-environmental changes across a range of outcomes: political actions, personal routine decisions, and attitudes about the environment. Perhaps most surprising is how powerful these emotional reactions were; no other variable produced such widespread effects. Emotions were more consistent in producing change than economic, social, or health losses from the oil spill or individuals’ demographic traits, and when it came specifically to political actions, emotions had the strongest effect size of any variable in the model. What is particularly interesting about this project is that it was conducted on the fifth-year anniversary of the spill, suggesting that these effects are not just ephemeral, but persist.

Connections between environmental threats and concerns about climate change make intuitive sense—such events reveal the vulnerability of human communities and ecosystems to environmental catastrophes, a visible and concrete reminder that humans are not as invincible to or disconnected from the natural world as we would like to think. But what about other types of threats? This has been the focus of a recent project with Christopher Robertson at the University of Arizona (draft in progress) looking at the ballistic missile scare that occurred in Hawaii earlier this year. We collected data in the days following the event, treating it as a natural experiment with participants in Hawaii compared to a pool of others from states with similar political leanings (Oregon, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island). Unsurprisingly, we find that participants in Hawaii placed greater importance on engaging in activities to control the spread of nuclear weapons, relative to the control group. But perhaps more surprisingly, they also said it was more important to engage in activities to protect the environment for future generations, and also to participate in activities to address climate change, controlling for the usual demographics. This suggests that the specter of catastrophe in one arena may seep into other arenas to make calamity seem more real or possible. And, reflecting other findings, we find this is true only for those most emotionally moved by the perceived crisis. Threats matter—but emotions are the engine driving change.

In order for a threat to spark mobilization, it has to be seen as real. I would also argue that it is advantageous, perhaps even necessary, for threats to evoke enough emotions that people feel the need to take action. Of course, not all who are emotionally moved mobilize, as there are a host of other factors at play, and some types of emotions discourage activism. What a threat like a disaster can do, though, is create an emotionally charged environment that disrupts routine and, in doing so, provide an opening for reflection and change. Disrupting the quotidian can inspire collective action (Snow et al. 1998). Disaster-based threats operate differently than some other types of threats because they do not always provide a target to campaign against (although some like the BP oil spill may). However, they do produce experiences that make calamity not just an event in the distant future, or something that happens to other people in faraway places, but a force that hits home. This gives even natural disasters like hurricanes—slippery targets for blame—power in affecting worldviews and action. The evidence for the effects of such extreme weather events on concern about climate change is mixed, and, if anything, tends to show short-term effects (McAdam 2017). However, not everyone is affected equally by a disaster; delving deeper into emotional reactions could prove insightful. And such extreme weather events may provide a powerful opportunity to draw connections to climate change (McAdam 2017).

Weber and Stern (2011) lament that the invisibility and complexity of climate change make it difficult for the public to understand. What is missing are visible demonstrations that can transform the abstractness of climate change into something more concrete that can arouse the public’s interest. Those with front row seats to the effects of a threat are likely to be most convinced of a need to mobilize. Indeed, a recent survey found that respondents living near the coastline were more likely to state that climate change is affecting their local communities than those living far from the coast (Pew Research 2018). Environmental threats, too, can serve this function. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, environmental disasters will proliferate, and the end result will be the combination of environmental, social and economic losses that inevitably emerge when human communities and ecosystems are entangled. What mobilization arises alongside these threats will depend on a variety of factors, including political opportunities and movement resources, but also how deeply people are affected emotionally by what they see and experience.

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