An inconvenient truth - Emotion and thought - Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie

Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie (2010)

Part IV. Emotion and thought

Chapter 14. An inconvenient truth?

But back to Gore’s film. There is clearly something of a paradox about public attitudes to global warming and the public’s beliefs about the potential risks entailed. While there seems to be an extraordinary level of agreement and consensus among climate scientists about the seriousness of the risks posed by global warming, the public seem somehow less concerned. In the words of Weber (2006):

Some [climate scientists] hold this belief so passionately that they go to great lengths to alert the public and politicians to the magnitude of the risks, stepping outside of their typical scientific venues to provide congressional testimony or popular press accounts to trigger action (e.g., Hansen 2004). With some notable exceptions, the concern shown by citizens and governmental officials is smaller and less emphatic than that of climate scientists. (Weber 2006:1)

Weber’s analysis of the possible reasons for this apparent lack of concern on the part of the public is that ‘The time-delayed, abstract, and often statistical nature of the risks of global warming does not evoke strong visceral reactions’, and he continues: ‘The absence of a visceral response on part of the public to the risks posed by global warming may be responsible for the arguably less than optimal allocation of personal and collective resources to deal with this issue’ (Weber 2006:1). In other words, until we can produce a strong emotional response in the public to global warming we may not be able to get people to perceive the real risks involved in climate change. His conclusion is that ‘These results suggest that we should find ways to evoke visceral reactions towards the risk of global warming, perhaps by simulations of its concrete future consequences for people’s home or other regions they visit or value’ (Weber 2006:1).

In a study published in 2006, Leiserowitz found that, while many Americans believe that climate change is ‘real’, they consider it ‘a low priority relative to other national and environmental issues. These results demonstrate that most of the American public considers climate change a moderate risk that is more likely to impact people and places far distant in time and place’ (Leiserowitz 2006:64). His conclusions, and his call to action, are in many ways similar to those of Weber - ‘efforts to describe the potential national, regional and local impacts of climate change and communicate these potential impacts to the public are critical’ (Leiserowitz 2006:64). Like Weber, he believes that the targeting of people’s emotional responses is critical in this context because, following Zajonc (1980), he argues that ‘affective reactions to stimuli are evoked automatically and subsequently guide rational information processing and judgment. Affect and feelings are not mere epiphenomena, but often arise prior to cognition and play a crucial role in subsequent rational thought’ (Leiserowitz 2006:47).

Thus, there does appear to be an argument that the very nature of the phenomenon of global warming (which is somewhat abstract, statistical and ‘scientific’) inhibits our emotional response to climate change and constrains our thinking. After all, it is argued, the effects of global warming become visible only over a relatively long time frame. In addition, global warming really does require climate scientists to explain to us what we are witnessing, and they have to persuade us that this is different from some abstract statistical norm, or from what we should be witnessing. And all of this requires us to understand and believe the arguments of scientists (‘all with an axe to grind’, ‘just the latest scientific fad’). For these reasons, we may need global warming to be made much more concrete, much more personal and much more emotionally charged in order to make it a top priority for us all.

It was as if several important people in Hollywood had been listening to some of these arguments, because a number of major films were made at about this time that did specifically attempt to make global warming more real, to add emotional valence to its depiction, and to change how we both thought and felt about the phenomenon. They ranged from the award-winning film by Al Gore released in 2006, An Inconvenient Truth, to Ice Age: The Meltdown (also released in 2006, and aimed at a slightly younger audience). The goal of Gore’s film was to teach us all a valuable and urgent lesson, using something like a lecture mode to accomplish this. But did it work?

One underlying assumption behind movies like this is that, in the words of Kellstedt, Zahran and Vedlitz (2008):

providing information about global warming - in effect, taking the scientific consensus and popularizing it - will lead to increased public concern about the risks of global warming. The lack of public outcry about global warming, then, is not because the public does not care enough about global warming; it is because they don’t know enough about it. The more people know about global warming, the thinking seems to go, the more they will feel personally responsible for it, and also be concerned about it. (Kellstedt et al. 2008:114)

But this, of course, is a very big assumption, especially in the case of something like global warming. There is always the dangerous possibility that the more you know about something as potentially catastrophic as climate change, the less you will feel personally responsible for it and the more you may rely on defensive attributions that will shift blame and responsibility elsewhere (see Ross 1977 and Lee and Beattie 1998, 2000 for an analysis of defensive attributions in a somewhat different domain). There is even the strong possibility that you will feel more concerned and worried (primarily an emotional response), but that will not be tied in any way to the intended attributions of responsibility (primarily a cognitive response) or any change in behaviour (personal, political or social) that might actually do something about the impending catastrophe.

Prima facie evidence for this possibility comes from the study by Kellstedt et al. (2008), who carried out a large telephone survey of randomly selected adults in the US in the summer of 2004, questioning them about climate change risk perception (specifically measuring the risks of climate change to personal health, finance, environmental welfare, public health, the economy and environmental integrity), their perceived efficacy to have an effect on climate change and the information they had about climate change (measured simply as a response to the question ‘how informed do you consider yourself to be?’ on an 11-point scale). Extraordinarily, their results revealed a negative correlation between perceived level of knowledge and concern about global warming, such that ‘respondents with higher levels of information about global warming show less concern about global warming’ (Kellstedt et al. 2008:120). In addition, ‘as the level of self-reported knowledge increases, the perceived ability to affect global warming outcomes decreases’ (Kellstedt et al. 2008:120). These are very pessimistic results in many ways, because at first sight they would seem to be saying that films like An Inconvenient Truth, as brilliant and as informative as they might seem, could easily have the opposite effect on audiences to that expected, leaving people feeling less concerned and less empowered after viewing, which is hardly the intention of the film, or Al Gore! (See also Durant and Legge 2005; Evans and Durant 1995 for some comparable evidence from related domains).

But it is important to consider the possible limitations of the design used in the Kellstedt et al. study and the implications of these for any interpretations of the findings. The design of the study was essentially cross-sectional and correlational. Thus, it offers just a snapshot of a particular point in time (in a popular culture where there is a flux in terms of which climate change issues are currently being discussed and how they are reported and represented). In addition, the correlations of self-reported knowledge and concern about global warming do, by their very nature, allow for multiple interpretations, and do not demonstrate a clear causal connection. Thus, there is always the possibility that respondents who are not very concerned about global warming rate themselves as being very informed about the issues, perhaps because of the pressures of social desirability. The internal implicit reasoning might go something like this (if it were to be made explicit for a moment):

I am not concerned about global warming: other people (including Al Gore and other famous politicians) clearly think that I should be; they must think that I am particularly ill-informed on these issues and therefore do not hold me in high regard. They might even think of me as ‘stupid’. But they are wrong. ‘How informed do you consider yourself to be?’ That is what the survey asks. I consider myself very informed, thank you.

This hypothetical interpretation would essentially reverse the dynamic of the correlation, with ‘lack of concern’ directing ‘self-rated knowledge’ (rather than vice versa), and in many ways this allows for a more benign and comfortable interpretation of the empirical findings.

The other major correlation reported in the Kellstedt et al. study, that ‘as the level of self-reported knowledge increases, the perceived ability to affect global warming outcomes decreases’, is in Kellstedt’s terms ‘a reasonable finding. Global warming is an extreme collective action dilemma, with the actions of one person having a negligible effect in the aggregate. Informed persons appear to realize this objective fact’ (Kellstedt et al. 2008:120). But their own conclusion here is pessimistic (and biased) in the extreme. Collective action is the joint behaviour of individuals, and without individual behaviour change there will be no collective action. It is not satisfactory to say that informing the public about global warming may reduce self-efficacy, but that is okay, because that is the objective reality. Empowering individuals is the best way of instigating collective behaviour change.

But the effects of information presented in the media on major issues, such as climate change, on public response are clearly a very significant issue in societal terms, and for this reason we decided to employ an experimental design to consider this issue in an attempt to allow more direct interpretations of directionality and ultimately causality. We focused on the Gore film An Inconvenient Truth partly because of the brilliance of sections of the film, and partly because of its assumed effect on audiences worldwide. The Gore film has many classic scenes that attempt to manipulate both emotions and social attitudes to achieve their desired ends. It is important to attempt to evaluate the effects of sections of the film on both emotions and cognitions because we now know not only that both are important in terms of behaviour change, but we also know a little more about how these two systems work.

What we know more generally from research in neuroscience on emotion and thinking is that one system (the emotional system) often precedes and directs the other, and that, according to some psychologists, much of so-called rational thought is little more than a post-hoc justification for our behaviour. Some psychologists have even suggested that when we specifically target thinking in which people are apparently making up their mind about certain things, we may be targeting not thinking itself, with implications for subsequent behaviour, but no more than a store of rationalisations for behaviour that is already primed and ready to go as a result of our immediate unconscious emotional reaction (see Beattie 2008).

Antonio Damasio (see Damasio 1994) has been at the centre of much of this new research in neuroscience into how emotion and conscious rational thought connect. His research shows that emotion focuses attention, has a major effect on what we remember and is more closely linked to behaviour than are cognitions (see Walsh and Gentile 2007). But we also now know that in normal people, activation of the emotional system precedes activation of any conceptual or reasoning system (at least in certain domains) and, perhaps as importantly, that the two systems are quite separate. Damasio and colleagues famously showed all of this with a very simple gambling experiment. In front of the participant are four decks of cards; in their hands they have $2000 to gamble with. The task is to turn over one card at a time to win the maximum amount of money: with each card you either win some money or lose some money. In the case of two of the decks the rewards are great ($100) but so too are the penalties. If you play either of these two decks for any period of time you end up losing money. If you concentrate on selecting cards from the other two decks you get smaller rewards ($50) but also smaller penalties, and you end up winning money in the course of the game.

What Damasio found with people playing this game was that after encountering a few losses, normal participants generated skin conductance responses (a sign of autonomic arousal) before selecting a card from the ‘bad deck’ and they also started to avoid the decks associated with bad losses. In other words, they showed a distinct emotional response to the bad decks even before they had a conceptual understanding of the nature of the decks and long before they could explain what was going on. They started to avoid the bad decks on the basis of their emotional response. Damasio also found that patients with damage to a particular area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex failed to generate a skin conductance response before selecting cards from the bad deck, and did not avoid the decks with large losses. Patients with damage to this part of the brain could not generate the anticipatory skin conductance response and could not avoid the bad decks even though they conceptually understood the difference in the nature of the decks before them. In the words of the authors, ‘The patients failed to act according to their correct conceptual knowledge’ (Bechara, Damasio, Tranel and Damasio 1997:1294). In other words, Damasio and his colleagues demonstrated that ‘in normal individuals, non-conscious biases guide behaviour before conscious knowledge does. Without the help of such biases, overt knowledge may be insufficient to ensure advantageous behavior.’ In normal people activation of the emotional system precedes activation of the conceptual system, and we now know that the neural connection between these two systems is located in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

More recently, Damasio and colleagues demonstrated the powerful role of emotions in the generation of moral judgements in that patients with bilateral damage to the same brain region, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, were more likely to opt for ‘heroic’ and highly emotional personally aversive responses in a series of moral dilemmas presented to them (Koenigs et al. 2007). Haidt (2001) developed a new model of moral judgement (and evaluative judgement generally) in which moral judgement (or evaluative judgement) appears in consciousness automatically and effortlessly, but ‘Moral reasoning is an effortful process, engaged in after a moral judgment is made, in which a person searches for arguments that will support an already-made judgment’ (2001:181). In other words, we make our mind up pretty quickly and the ‘arguments’ presented to us may play little role in our judgement except in the subsequent justification of our behaviour to ourselves or others.

This research explains why some behaviour change campaigns work so well. They have targeted the non-conscious biases head-on. Storey (2008) writes that ‘Numerous studies have identified that emotional stimuli make far more effective prompts than purely rational arguments when it comes to changing opinions and provoking a response’ (2008:23). The way that the brain is hardwired suggests that this might well be the most appropriate strategy. These non-conscious biases affect behaviour long before we understand the significance of the thing that we are acting towards.

Al Gore tries to manipulate both emotions and cognitions in his film An Inconvenient Truth (exactly as Weber and Leiserowitz had recommended). He attempts to make the whole issue of global warming real and concrete for individuals; he attempts to work against the dismissive idea that global warming is something abstract and statistical and just the latest scientific fad, and something that really does not concern us. But does it actually work? We considered the effects of a series of extracts from the film on both emotional and cognitive responses. The emotional responses were measured through a mood questionnaire and the cognitive responses were measured through a series of explicit scales relating to both social attitudes and social cognitions. We wanted to know whether extracts from the film impact on our psychological mood in a measurable and reliable way, and how any changes in mood relate to how we think about the film and what we believe that we can do about global warming and the future of our planet.

Seven clips that were identified as being particularly powerful and emotional were picked out from An Inconvenient Truth. These were as follows.

Clip 1: China

This clip shows that global warming is a global issue, involving every industrialised and developing nation. We see film of China’s industrial progress, its manufacturing industries feeding the world’s markets. China’s economic advantage is that it has huge coal resources to exploit, but it is still using old technologies in coal-burning power stations to accommodate its rapid economic expansion. The message here is that all countries must unite to do something about this global problem, including or maybe even especially the US and China, the two biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. (According to some reports, China now has the dubious distinction of having overtaken the US as the top emitter of greenhouse gases, but the US still heads the league table in emissions per person, 24.0 tonnes/person compared with 5.0 tonnes/person for China. As many have pointed out, the US and certain Western nations bear ‘very significant historical responsibility’ for the greenhouse gases already out there; see Walker and King 2008:209.)

Clip 2: Natural Resources

Of course, a film like this cannot be all doom and gloom, and Al Gore does try to present an argument and a powerful set of emotional images (images that derive their emotional impact from the implicit message that harm can be undone, that time can be reversed, that we can indeed travel backwards in time ‘to pre-1970 levels of emissions’) that are essentially empowering for the audience in this clip. The argument is basically that every little helps, that we can all do something, that because aspects of consumerism were the root cause of the problem they therefore can be a major part of the solution, and that if we just use more efficient electrical appliances, more fuel-efficient cars, etc. then we can do something significant about climate change.

Clip 3: Small Planet/The History of the Human Race

This is a particularly powerful clip that shows images taken from space of the small blue planet, ‘our only home’, grabbing our attention with both a cognitive and an emotional hook, and feels very motivating. This particular vista of our earth makes us stop to wonder, to see things differently. The point Gore makes is that the entire history of the human race is contained in this little blue dot: it is our only home.

Clip 4: Paradox

In this clip, Al Gore attempts to explain some of the paradoxes of global warming, such as the fact that it not only creates more flooding (as evidenced by an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons across the globe) but also creates more drought. The images here are of Lake Chad on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Chad was once one of the biggest lakes in the world but it has now dried to almost nothing, causing major political and social upheaval for the region. Gore painstakingly explains that not only does global warming increase evaporation from the sea, but the higher temperatures also increase soil evaporation, taking all the moisture from the ground.

Clip 5: Drowning Polar Bear

Here, Al Gore explains the effects of global warming on the arctic ice caps with simple graphics, explaining that the ice caps act as mirrors reflecting 90% of the sun’s rays. However, as the temperature of the sea rises, the ice caps begin to melt. When the sun’s rays hit the ocean instead of the ice caps, 90% of the rays are absorbed, increasing the rate of melting. He tries to manipulate our emotional response with an animation of a polar bear trying to clamber onto a floating raft of ice; the ice raft isn’t thick enough to hold the weight of the bear. The message, both very concrete and highly emotional, is that polar bears are now drowning and that some bears are having to swim up to sixty miles to find ice.

Clip 6: Population Growth/Baby Boomers

This clip presents us with powerful images and metaphors to understand the nature and the extent of the problem we face. Thus, Al Gore illustrates the rise in population growth using the benchmark of his own life to show how the population has changed in one baby boomer’s lifetime, his own. After the Second World War the population passed the 2-billion mark for the first time, but by 2005 it had reached 6.5 billion. With a single graph he shows how the population would grow to 9 billion in his own lifetime. He makes the simple but powerful point that this is extremely worrying given that it took ten thousand generations for the population to reach 2 billion in the first place.

Clip 7: Rising Sea Levels

The effects of global warming are also illustrated in this clip, which shows how some coastlines would look in the future if the ice on Greenland were to break up and melt, or even half of the ice on Greenland and half of Western Antarctica, which some scientists see as plausible scenarios for the future. This scene is introduced with the comment by Al Gore that Tony Blair’s chief scientific adviser has said that because of the rapid melting seen in Greenland the maps of the world will have to be redrawn. We then see what the consequences of global warming and rising sea levels would be on Florida, the San Francisco Bay, the Netherlands, the area around Beijing, the land around Shanghai, the area around Calcutta and Bangladesh and then (one suspects for many in the US) the clincher - Manhattan, including the site of the World Trade Center. The graphic that is used is maps of the regions concerned, with the green becoming blue as the land is submerged under the rising sea levels. The quantitative message here is stark in the extreme - think of environmental events in the past and their impact on tens of thousands of people; now think about a different order of magnitude altogether. We are told here that these events would involve the death or displacement of one hundred million or more human beings.

Mood questionnaire

In order to measure changes in mood states after watching each clip, a mood questionnaire adapted from the UWIST Mood Adjective Checklist (UMACL) constructed by Matthews, Jones and Chamberlain (1990) was used. The questionnaire was reduced from the original 48 items to 21 items, which were grouped into seven mood categories: happiness, sadness, anger, tension, calmness, energy and tiredness in order to make comparisons about changes in mood state. Responses were noted on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 to 5 where, for example, 1 = not at all cheerful and 5 = extremely cheerful.

The questionnaire was also designed to assess any changes in explicit attitude/social cognitions towards climate change after watching each clip. Thirty statements were designed that could be grouped under five broad categories of explicit attitude/social cognitions, namely: message acceptance, motivation, empowerment, shifting responsibility and fatalism (see Table 14.1). Participants

Table 14.1 Statements used to assess attitudes towards climate change




I believe most of what was said in the messages acceptance

I trust most of what was said in the messages

I believe that the climate is changing

Climate change is being over-exaggerated (reverse scoring)

Climate change is a serious issue facing the UK

I am concerned about climate change


I am more concerned about climate change after seeing these messages

Climate change is a threat to me personally

I will personally be affected by climate change

I am prepared to make lifestyle changes to reduce climate change

I am prepared to change my everyday behaviour to reduce climate change

I am prepared to do more to help reduce climate change


The UK can make a difference in the fight against climate change

Climate change is a problem to be solved by my generation

I can personally help reduce climate change

Everyone can do their bit in the fight against climate change

I feel empowered in the fight against climate change

I am already doing something to help reduce climate change

Shifting responsibility

Climate change is mainly a threat to other countries

It is the responsibility of other countries, not the UK, to reduce climate change

Climate change will only affect future generations

Climate change is a problem to be solved by future generations

It is not my responsibility to reduce climate change

I would do more to try and reduce climate change if other people did more as well


I have no control over climate change

There is no point in me trying to do anything to reduce climate change

I feel helpless in the fight against climate change

Climate change is too difficult to overcome

I feel powerless in the fight against climate change

Some people do not care about climate change

indicated on a 5-point scale the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement, where 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree.

Participants were asked to complete the mood questionnaire and the climate change attitudes questionnaire before watching the clips. After completing the questionnaires, participants (in small groups of three or more) were shown the first of the seven clips taken from An Inconvenient Truth; the clips were all shown in a random order to the groups. After watching each clip, participants were asked to fill in the mood questionnaire and the climate change attitudes questionnaire again before moving on to the next clip. This procedure was repeated after each clip. The mean responses for the mood questionnaire are shown in Table 14.2 and are represented graphically in Figure 14.1.

Statistical analyses were conducted on the data to reveal whether there were significant changes to mood state after the participants had watched each of the seven clips. The data were split by the midpoint (3) into two categories - high (4/5) versus low (1/2) - for use in the test. The statistical analyses revealed significant changes in mood state changes for happiness, sadness, calmness and tiredness (but none for anger, tension or energy), as outlined below.

Participants’ ratings of happiness dropped significantly from their baseline happiness levels measured at the start

Table 14.2 Mean responses on the mood questionnaire


Overall mean responses


Clip 1

Clip 2

Clip 3

Clip 4

Clip 5

Clip 6

Clip 7
































































Figure 14.1 Mean responses on the mood questionnaire.

of the experiment (mean = 3.01) to their ratings after watching each of the seven clips.

Aside from the pre-viewing condition when levels of happiness were at their highest (mean = 3.01), the Natural Resources clip (mean = 2.64) and the Small Planet clip (mean = 2.62) left participants with the highest levels of happiness of all the clips, which seemed appropriate as these clips were viewed by the experimenters as ‘optimistic clips’. Surprisingly, the China clip came third in the happiness ratings (mean = 2.56). For the remaining clips, however, there seems to be a significant drop in levels of happiness after viewing.

When compared to the Natural Resources clip (mean = 2.64), participants were significantly less happy after watching the Population Growth clip, mean = 1.94, and after watching the Rising Sea Levels clip, mean = 1.13. When compared to the Small Planet clip (mean = 2.62), participants were again significantly less happy after watching the Population Growth clip, mean = 1.94, and the Rising Sea Levels clip, mean = 1.13.

However, it was the Rising Sea Levels clip (mean = 1.13) that appeared to have the most significant impact on participants’ levels of happiness as, compared to the pre-condition and every other clip, happiness levels were significantly reduced after watching this clip. The Rising Sea Levels clip made participants significantly less happy than any of the following clips.

Further analyses revealed that ratings of sadness were significantly higher after participants had watched the Polar Bear clip, mean = 1.69, and the Rising Sea Levels clip, mean = 1.89, compared to when they watched the more optimistic Small Planet clip (mean = 1.25). These were the only significant effects for sadness.

Here the analyses revealed that participants’ ratings of calmness significantly dropped from their initial level of calmness at the start of the experiment (mean = 2.47) after watching each of the seven clips.

Analyses here revealed that participants’ ratings of tiredness dropped significantly after watching the Rising Sea Levels clip (mean = 1.39) when compared to the previewing condition, mean = 1.78, and two of the other clips - the Paradox clip, mean = 1.76, and the Polar Bear clip, mean = 1.73. There were no other significant differences for this mood state.

The responses for each statement were grouped under the five category headings of message acceptance, motivation, empowerment, shifting responsibility and fatalism, and the mean responses were calculated as shown in Table 14.3. These responses are illustrated in Figure 14.2.

Statistical tests were conducted on the data to test whether there were significant changes to explicit attitudes/ social cognitions after watching each of the seven clips. Changes to attitudes were found for the categories of motivation, empowerment, shifting responsibility and fatalism but not for the category of message acceptance, as detailed below.

Participants’ levels of motivation significantly increased after watching each of the clips compared to the pre-viewing condition.

Table 14.3 Mean responses on the climate change attitudes questionnaire grouped by category


Overall mean responses


Clip 1

Clip 2

Clip 3

Clip 4

Clip 5

Clip 6

Clip 7

Message acceptance



























Shifting responsibility


















Figure 14.2 Mean ratings on the climate change attitudes questionnaire coded by category.

Motivation significantly decreased from the pre-viewing levels after watching the Paradox clip. After watching the Polar Bear clip, levels of motivation were significantly higher than after watching either the China clip or the Natural Resources clip. After watching the Rising Sea Levels clip, motivation was again significantly higher than after watching either the China clip or the Natural Resources clip.

After watching the Population Growth clip, motivation levels were significantly higher than after watching both the China clip and the Natural Resources clip. Levels of motivation were also significantly lower after watching the Paradox clip than after watching the China clip. Compared to the pre-viewing levels, empowerment significantly increased after watching each of the clips.

Levels of shifting responsibility increased significantly after watching the China clip compared to the Rising Sea Levels clip. None of the other comparisons reached statistical significance. Levels of fatalism were significantly lower after watching the clips compared to the pre-viewing levels of fatalism.

Levels of fatalism were also significantly lower after watching the Small Planet clip than they were after watching the China clip.

Thus, we found that selected extracts from the film An Inconvenient Truth do have a significant effect on the mood state as well as on the explicit social attitudes/social cognitions of the people who watch them. After watching each of the clips our participants were significantly less happy and significantly less calm than they were in the previewing baseline. Watching the clips did not significantly affect their anger or their level of tension or energy, but some of the clips did have an effect on sadness and tiredness. The mean response for happiness was lowest for clip 7 (1.13 on a five-point scale, with 1 being not at all happy and 5 being extremely happy). This is a clip about rising sea levels and the effects of global warming on the future landscape of the world. This clip also produced the highest rating on the sadness scale (a mean of 1.89). In other words, when the impact of global warming is illustrated with its impact on various regions around the world and a figure put to the number of people who would be killed or displaced by this tragedy, this has a more profound impact on the mood of those who watch the film than any of the other messages in any of the other clips. Indeed, happiness level is significantly lower after watching this clip than after watching any of the other six other clips. Interestingly, the Rising Sea Levels clip also made people feel significantly less tired (a mean rating of 1.39 compared to a pre-viewing baseline of 1.78). It is as if this clip is jolting people awake, producing a tiredness rating quite different from all of the rest (with the closest response on this mood state being to the Population Growth clip, with a mean of 1.46). In other words, extracts from the Al Gore film have a significant impact on our mood but they are not all equal in their force. One clip in particular stands out in producing the most dramatic effects, and this is the clip about rising sea levels.

So now we know something about the effects of these clips on mood state, but what about their effects on our explicit attitudes to climate change and on our social cognitions and attributions about what is to be done about it? The results here were generally extremely positive. There were significant changes in motivation to do something to help reduce climate change after watching four of the seven clips. Participants also felt more empowered in their fight against climate change after watching each of the seven clips and levels of fatalism (‘I have no control over climate change’/‘Climate change is too difficult to overcome’) decreased significantly after watching four of the seven clips.

The only negative effect produced by any of the seven clips was on the dimension of shifting responsibility produced by the China clip. This clip shows that global warming is indeed a global issue, involving every industrialised and developing nation. It focuses on China’s developing progress, its manufacturing industries feeding the world’s markets. The clip emphasises that China has huge coal resources to exploit but that it is still using old technology in coal-burning power stations to accommodate its rapid economic expansion. After watching this clip our participants felt a shift of responsibility to other places and to other times (‘It is the responsibility of other countries, not the UK, to reduce climate change’/‘Climate change is a problem to be solved by future generations’). The mean response on this scale was 3.23 (compared to a pre-viewing baseline of 2.69). The implication of this finding is that it points to the psychological dangers of political scapegoating - when the developed countries highlight the inefficiency of developing countries like China in their manufacturing and in the production of greenhouse gas emissions the message gets through, and even a relatively short clip affects both mood state and what we think can be done about the problem of global warming generally. This should be a lesson to us all.

Compared to the results of Kellsted et al. (2008), whose study seemed to suggest that the more participants knew about global warming, the less concerned they felt about it and the less they felt personally responsible for the problem, this study produced a very different pattern of results. Short informative clips from Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth clearly provided our participants with a lot of new information about global warming, but instead of disempowering our respondents it had exactly the opposite effect. They felt more motivated to do something about climate change, more able to do something and less likely to think that they had no control over the whole climate change process. The whole process may have been partially directed by their strong emotional response to the clips. These are much more optimistic conclusions, and remind us of the power of strong informative (and emotional) messages on explicit attitude and social cognition generally. There was, however, just one fly in the ointment which reminds us of what to avoid when we seek to communicate about climate change. If we berate China too much for not doing what we currently expect in the West, then we can have a big negative effect on Westerners’ own sense of responsibility in the fight against climate change. This could prove to be a terrible own goal if we are not careful.

Of course our new research only attempted to measure and analyse momentary changes in mood state and explicit measures of social attitudes and attributions after watching extracts of a particular film, and an important follow-up study would be to consider how films like that of Al Gore impact on longer-term changes in emotional response when we think about global warming. Would the emotional responses be sustained over longer periods of time? Are those individuals who have watched the film less happy generally about climate change, and how does this impact on their social attitudes to climate change and their social cognitions about global warming in this longer time frame? And what about the significant changes in the ‘tiredness’ ratings that we observed? Would individuals still feel more ‘energised’ days and weeks after seeing the film, and how might this translate into any changes in their own behaviour relevant to global warming and climate change? Further, how might this impact on their broader political decision-making processes (and endorsement of ‘green’ issues in the political domain)? Would they still feel more motivated and more empowered and less fatalistic in this longer time frame, and what would the consequences of this actually be? Can films like this produce such a strong emotional and cognitive response that they make a real difference to how we live our lives? These are important questions with potentially very significant implications for the future of the planet and for us all.

What we do now know is that films like An Inconvenient Truth can produce a genuine (and measurable) psychological shock: a shock to both our emotional system and to our cognitive (or attributional) system. But how temporary or enduring this shock really is remains to be seen (and properly investigated in due course).