Personal-level barriers and action ideation
After watching Years episodes, participants had high levels of concern about climate change, but generally low perceived susceptibility to climate change risks. Storylines and imagery demonstrating the impacts of air quality on human health (“Uprising”), the role of drought in mass extinction events (Extinction), and the scale of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest (Deforestation) were particularly impactful elements for elevating concerns about climate change. However, participants rarely discussed or identified their own personal vulnerability to climate change risks. Some of these images also invoked fear. For some participants, the imagery of mass extinction (Extinction) in particular was over the top and evoked perceptions of fear mongering.
When asked about behavioral intentions after watching Years, participants often responded with uncertainty about what they could do beyond what they already do. In general, behaviors that participants reported engaging in to address climate change included routine behaviors such as recycling, turning off lights and water when not in use, and using public transportation. Engaging in a behavior or taking a particular action in the past gave participants a sense of efficacy for continuing those behaviors or taking additional action in response to what they saw. Some participants had a sense of efficacy for doing routine individual-level behaviors such as recycling, conserving energy, and driving less, which are largely behaviors that they were already doing as part of their daily lives. Participants largely framed these routine behaviors as environmentally friendly behaviors that they are already doing. Fewer participants had a sense of efficacy for political actions. Some political behaviors such as voting or providing signatures on petitions were also mentioned, although these behaviors were mentioned much less frequently and were also usually mentioned by participants who had watched an episode that highlighted this particular type of involvement in climate action (“A Race Against Time”) and had participated in this type of action in the past. This was also the case with intentions for future actions which may indicate that participants’ ideation of climate action is typically limited to individual behaviors in the personal sphere (in particular, activities they have already participated in), as opposed to outward-facing behaviors such as collective or political action.
The primary barrier to action discussed was not knowing what to do or where to start. On this front, self-efficacy was low in our sample. We heard several explanations for lack of efficacy in addressing climate change. They included perceived personal-level barriers, a lack of national-level action, and lack of a feeling of collective efficacy. Some specific barriers mentioned have been previously reported in the climate change literature. These personal-level barriers included lack of interest, lack of mobility, difficult family situations, lack of time, lack of financial flexibility, lack of resources at school, lack of clout, lack of decision autonomy (being part of a home owner’s association or living in an apartment), lack of public transportation, and politicization of the issue. In reaction to a storyline in the “Priceless” episode where a college student is shown to be organizing on campus and traveling to Canada to speak with a local politician, one participant stated:
I mean, I have a problem where I want to do things but then I can’t think of how to actually accomplish them so that’s probably what this video did. I mean we don’t really have anything like that at ____ like what that guy had, like with that student council, we don’t really have anything like that. (Democrat, Toledo, Student Organizing)
The primary barriers demonstrated in the storyline about the solar power industry in the USA is collective action, protesting and signing petitions, but participants sometimes focused on barriers to personal installation of solar power. One participant said:
The information is empowering, but I’m disempowered in that, what can I do about it? I rent an apartment so I can’t go out and get solar. (Independent, Portsmouth, Solar U.S.)
Interviewees generally lacked a feeling that they could engage in specific behaviors, primarily because they were unsure of what actions to take beyond current behavior. One interviewee expressed:
There was frustration like what I said. About the knowledge being power but what do we do next. All of these call to actions, what do I do next but I don’t know what to do and no one knows what to do (Democrat, San Francisco, “A Race Against Time”).
We found that individuals’ efficacy was related to the larger context in which participants lived. Interviewees often felt that the problem of climate change was so large that they would be unable to make a difference. Despite the Years narratives of individuals participating in specific actions as champions for change, the impact of their own behaviors was viewed in the context of perceptions of (in)action by others. This undermined the willingness to change. One interviewee said:
It’s obviously going to take a huge number of people to change and affect how like how we get our energy and affect like reducing climate change. I feel like one person obviously can’t have that much of an effect when you have everybody else doing something different. (Republican, Toledo, “A Race Against Time”)
Similarly, another interviewee said:
If one person wants to put solar panels on their house, that is great they are taken off the grid, but you have how many other like millions of people without solar panels so they are still using coal and natural resources rather than renewable. That one person is not going to really have an effect. (Republican, Toledo, “A Race Against Time”)
As another example:
If I see any petitions I will do something. I don’t really know what I can do as not being a politician and being a singular person. I don’t know what I can do and affect by myself. (Independent, Las Vegas, “A Race Against Time”)
Perceptions of collective action and need for specific strategies
The need for collective action also included governmental action both in the USA and internationally. Individual interviewees linked their feelings of personal inability to act after watching a video to the need for national government action and to the need for action in other countries. However, challenges to individual-level action were further exacerbated by a lack of understanding regarding how to engage in political or collective action and the need for specific instructions on how to address climate change at the individual level. One interviewee said:
It made me less empowered because I am not in control of the government and they are the ones that have the control to stop. If they are truly good people and they care about us, they can make it stop and definitely can if they can stop the big companies from benefiting. If a few people don’t want to stop eating meat, then the government has to do something about it. (Democrat, San Francisco, Deforestation)
This reaction stemmed from the framing, in multiple episodes, of individuals fighting against state or national governments for change. This framing may signify to audiences that policy-level change is the measure for success and is needed to achieve the desired goal. While these narratives may be hoping to stimulate participation in collective or political processes, they may also have the unintended effect of decreasing efficacy beliefs by highlighting the challenges individuals face when petitioning governments and failing to demonstrate a positive outcome. For instance, only one of the storylines demonstrated clear, positive outcomes from the actions of the characters. In that story, a college student’s conservative family agrees to support his efforts to advocate for a carbon tax. However, none of the other storylines show concrete outcomes beyond the characters’ participation in actions such as attending meetings, canvasing, or giving advocacy presentations. This connection between self-efficacy, empowerment and expectations for outcomes of social or political action, was a common theme across interviews.
Feelings of lack of control over what happens in other countries further had similar effects. One participant said:
On the rainforest side, how much can we do since it is in a country that we aren’t in? Besides the whole part where people could stop and become more vegetarian like more vegan and stop with the meat production and the importing. In general, are you going to tell people that go to In-N-Out Burger? (Democrat, Las Vegas, Deforestation)
Another interviewee qualified what might facilitate taking political action:
… that it would be nice to have some support or group at our college that would support these things. I don’t feel as driven to go advocate for these things on my own. (Democrat, Toledo, Student Organizing)
Although interviewees claimed the need for collective action to motivate their own action, portrayals of collective action were ineffective in instigating self-efficacy for several reasons. Stories in Years included groups of people organizing, demonstrating, and utilizing resources at institutions like non-profits and universities to circulate petitions and initiate contact with political officials. Even this type of action seemed complex and inaccessible to the average American in our sample who lacked familiarity with the political system or resources with which to organize. These activities may seem simple but many of our participants desired more explicit guidance about what types of things they could do to make a difference. In particular, for political behaviors, because most people’s only interaction with the political system is through voting, the actions demonstrated in the Years episodes (for example, organizing, canvasing) may still seem difficult or inaccessible. This suggests a disconnect between the types of actions portrayed in the video and the types of actions Americans feel able to do on their own. One interviewee described his reaction to the story about air pollution in China:
I was waiting for the black screen to show what you are going to do or whatever…I am saying ya know I think that there was a lot of valuable information but it didn’t push an inspiration to go further in which I felt it could have done. (Democrat, Portsmouth, Coal China)
For other participants, this impact manifested in an understanding that collective action was necessary. One Republican participant did not believe that his individual actions, like changing types of light bulbs used, mattered, but he recognized the importance of lobbying government officials to enact change.
We did not see much evidence of positive outcome expectations; people’s beliefs that taking particular actions will result in favorable outcomes they seek, in our data, either after watching the episode or in their normal day-to-day lives. We found that viewers wanted to better understand the ramifications of their actions as a form of motivation for taking additional steps. For example:
If someone came to me and said that you’re driving a Tesla or a Prius and says they are saving the world, I would say you’re not because you could drive 10 Tesla’s and it is not going to change the fact that for every 1 Tesla you have there are 1,000 tanks. You are climbing uphill and you’re not making a significant enough change. It did enlighten me but it didn’t pivot my behavior. (Republican, San Francisco, “Fueling the Fire”)
Although Years episodes present storylines that show particular types of actions taking place, interviewees pointed out that the results of those actions are not discussed. This caused participants to question the action. One Republican participant identified that many people have low self-efficacy because there is a lack of information about what people can do to make an impact in their day-to-day lives, accompanied by information about what impact those behaviors will have. Similarly, some participants also expressed frustration at not knowing what happened next in the stories portrayed.
Further evidence to support the importance of understanding possible outcomes in consideration of behavioral investment was demonstrated by some participants who expressed interest in knowing how much money would be saved by adopting solar, while others expressed interest in knowing what happened as a result of activist behaviors demonstrated in Years. Outcomes of particular actions are not being shown or discussed in these episodes or other types of climate change communications. Importantly, results of actions should also be relatable and understandable to a non-technical audience. One interviewee said:
One of the guys in India was like ‘if we do all this it will save eighty billion or eighty million tons of carbon,’ I’m going, I don’t know how much carbon causes a degree, it’s just a number. I don’t care about that fact. I mean I do but I don’t…it doesn’t have any meaning to me. It’s not like, you know, for every, if it was something where every eighty billion parts of CO2 makes one degree hotter, I mean one degree hotter doesn’t really reflect, but at least I kinda get an idea at least as a figure. (Republican, Miami, Solar India)
In the next section, we describe evidence of factors and approaches utilized in Years that positively influenced efficacy beliefs and discuss the influence of emotion.
Emotion, efficacy, and action
Specific story elements in the documentary influenced emotion. Participants described imagery, the presence of everyday people, and depictions of political challenges as primary elements that impacted emotions. Imagery was critical for engaging the audience. Participants frequently mentioned being shocked by the imagery of the scale of deforestation in Brazil which was shown from the birds-eye-view of a helicopter and maps (Deforestation). Imagery of pollution in China and Illinois raised concerns about health (Coal USA). Only one particular storyline generated strong reactions of fear, a story of drought in Africa and imagery of mass extinction (Extinction). The imagery and music seemed to be a significant factor in the development of fear and sadness. However, while some participants reacted with fear, others felt like through the extreme imagery, the video was fear mongering. The stories of everyday people taking action in Illinois (Coal USA) and in Texas (Student Organizing) were important for engaging participants in the story. They liked witnessing everyday people engaging with the issue, talking about why it was important, and then taking action. Particularly for the story about the college student advocating for carbon pricing in “Priceless,” some participants experienced feelings of hope by seeing the engagement and passion of young people. However, some of these stories were also met with frustration because the outcomes of their efforts were hardly discussed or were negative.
The “Uprising” and “Race Against Time” episodes on coal and solar power respectively generally led to anger and shock at the depicted dichotomy between action outside of the USA (in China and India, respectively) and political and corporate barriers to action within the USA. Viewers expressed greater interest in political behaviors in response to these episodes than in response to the Deforestation and Carbon Pricing episodes. These episodes framed the international stories as challenges and did not showcase the same contrast between implementation of action or policy like the other two episodes did. For example, in response to “A Race Against Time” which contrasts solar power development in India with political challenges to solar development in the USA, one participant said: “I would like to know, like yeah, I mean I would want to lobby my state reps as to go ‘hey why, why is FPL so...awful.’” (Republican, Miami, Solar USA). This particular participant may also have had lower perceived barriers to political involvement based on past political experiences.
Alternatively, people who primarily experienced sadness, hopelessness, depressive feelings, or apathy were less likely to want to act. One interviewee said:
It is very frustrating. It is a feeling of hopelessness. You start to think about why people don’t think of these things as much and that is because if you do, what can you really do? (Democrat, San Francisco, “A Race Against Time”)
For this participant, the issue of climate change and the political challenges to solar development in the USA lead to feelings of hopelessness.
Emotion appeared to play a critical role in impacting action in several ways. First, participants who had strong emotional reactions to Years (usually instigated through the dramatic imagery or compelling storylines) tended to express more concern about climate change than did those who did not have as strong emotional reactions. Second, in general, participants who experienced prevailing and strong emotions of anger, shock, and optimism more often expressed interest in taking action to address climate change. Additionally, participants who experienced these types of emotions were usually more confident in their own desire and ability to take action. Third, emotions like hopelessness, depressive feelings, and apathy were often accompanied by lack of motivation or beliefs about ability to make an impact by taking action. Fear and general concern seemed to generate interest in the issue but it was difficult to assess any relationship with action. This is in part due to the fact that most participants did not report strong reactions of fear. While participants did express being worried about climate change, most participants reported the emotions mentioned above when prompted to reflect on their feelings about what they watched. This could in part be due to the fact that these episodes did not focus primarily on impacts but also included extensive attention to solutions and action. Due to our study design, it is difficult to associate positive (or negative) emotions with greater (or lower) intentions and even less so actions. It is clear, however, that particular stories and imagery in Years episodes garnered specific emotions.