Portraying the Perils to Polar Bears: The Role of Empathic and Objective Perspective-taking Toward Animals in Climate Change Communication

J. K. Swim and B. Bloodhart

Environmental Communication (2015)

DOI: 10.1080/17524032.2014.987304

Images of animals, particularly polar bears, harmed by climate change are often used in environmental campaigns, despite warnings of potential reactance and resultant perceived distance from the issue. As an alternative to these emotional appeals, environmental campaigns could encourage an objective (i.e., emotionally detached) perspective on climate change impacts. The present research tests the effects of a message that encourage empathic vs. objective perspectives toward polar bears harmed by climate change on emotions and subsequent support for climate change activism among 241 American adults through an online survey. Contrary to popular warnings, the present research found no reactance toward portraying harm to polar bears from climate change and no benefits of taking an objective perspective toward the polar bears. Instead, portrayals of polar bears harmed by climate change motivated both environmentalists and non-environmentalists to donate money to environmental activist groups when they took an empathic perspective toward the animals. Empathy and hope explain effects for environmentalists and empathy, hope, worry, personal guilt, and boredom explain effects for non-environmentalists.

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