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Showing people the effects of the climate emergency fails to shift attitudes, study finds

Showing people the effects of the climate emergency fails to shift attitudes, study finds

A 3D simulation of the disastrous effects of climate change failed to shift attitudes. - Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Written By

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

  • A 3D simulation of the disastrous effects of climate change failed to shift attitudes.
  • Instead of receiving a wake-up call, people became less likely to change their behaviour.
  • Now scientists must look for new ways to communicate the dangers of the climate crisis.

How seriously do you take the threat of the climate crisis? You might think that the currently available data would be enough to convince anyone of the need to take action – but you’d be wrong.

For a new study, conducted by a team from Singapore Management University, Hong Kong citizens were shown a life-like 3D simulation of a climate-induced six-metre storm surge on their city. According to the findings, their perceptions of the risk from climate-related threats actually reduced after watching the simulation.

Reactions ranged from outright denial about the climate crisis to the belief that they, personally, would be OK whatever happened. Others said they were less worried because they were already taking steps to protect the environment.

Climate-related impacts were rated in the top-five near- and long-term global threats in the 2023 Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum. Predicted effects ranged from extreme weather to large-scale forced population movements.

“The energy and food crises that have exacerbated this year’s number one near term risk (cost of living) are fundamentally linked to having failed to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” said Antonia Gawel, Head of Climate Change at the Forum.

“Almost 3.6 billion people worldwide are dangerously exposed and vulnerable to climate impacts. The latest IPCC report made clear that these impacts will not be felt equally. Developing countries, despite their limited contribution to climate change, are shouldering the burden, but no country and no economy is immune from the climate crisis.”

The growing threat of climate change

Temperatures in Hong Kong have already increased by 1.8°C – compared to a global rise of 1.2°C – and the city experiences an average of six typhoons (severe tropical storms) every year with wind speeds of up to 130km per hour.

Seeing the effect of this Super Typhoon in Hong Kong failed to move people to climate action. Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The simulation was based on the actual effects of Super Typhoon Mangkhut, which killed 134 people and caused more than $3.8 billion worth of damage when it struck the Philippines, Guam and China in 2018.

Among the 1,500 Hong Kongers in the survey, overall perceptions of the risk to their way of life from climate change actually reduced after seeing the simulation. In order to understand these counterintuitive findings, the researchers asked people to explain their feelings.

Of those who gave detailed answers, more than a third said they did not believe that human-induced climate change was happening and that the simulated storm surges were not going to occur.

Another group said the likelihood of such an event was too far in the future to worry about now, while others said it would not affect them as they lived in mountainous areas away from the coast and some said they felt helpless to do anything.

Seeing isn’t believing

“Our findings suggest that, on average, exposure to our simulation led to a decrease in risk perceptions of climate change and had a negative… effect on individual mitigation behaviour,” the researchers said, raising “a fundamental cautionary issue on the use of 3D visualisations to communicate risk to the general public.”

One of the report’s authors, Dr Terry van Gevelt, told that the simulation should have provided “the wake-up call needed to modify individual behaviour and support costly climate adaptation and mitigation measures.

“Unfortunately, our results suggest that ‘seeing is not believing’, especially for climate sceptics,” he added. As Hong Kong has some of the world’s best climate defences, he said it was “hard to get people to think that climate impacts will get much worse”

The Forum’s Gawel said urgent action to tackle climate change remains a top priority for the world, and that “technology and renewables offer solutions, these need to be scaled up”.

She added: “It requires a focus on tackling non-economic barriers like permitting and fast-tracking approvals. In emerging and developing markets, we also need to address the high cost of capital. We need to help pull the commercialization of emerging technology by drawing down the costs of these solutions through partnership and collaboration.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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