How to build support for climate policies?

By Mark Hurlstone
Assistant Professor, School of Psychology, University of Western Australia
Posted on 10 February 2015
Filed under Carbon Reduction, Cognition
and Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol

Our paper, entitled “The effect of framing and normative messages in building support for climate policies”, was recently published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. The paper reports a media analysis of the framing of Australia’s carbon pricing scheme along with two studies exploring approaches to building public support for reducing emissions. The abstract for the paper reads as follows:

Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are required to mitigate climate change. However, there is low willingness amongst the public to prioritise climate policies for reducing emissions. Here we show that the extent to which Australians are prepared to reduce their country's CO2 emissions is greater when the costs to future national income are framed as a “foregone-gain”—incomes rise in the future but not by as much as in the absence of emission cuts—rather than as a “loss”—incomes decrease relative to the baseline expected future levels (Studies 1 & 2). The provision of a normative message identifying Australia as one of the world's largest CO2 emitters did not increase the amount by which individuals were prepared to reduce emissions (Study 1), whereas a normative message revealing the emission policy preferences of other Australians did (Study 2). The results suggest that framing the costs of reducing emissions as a smaller increase in future income and communicating normative information about others' emission policy preferences are effective methods for leveraging public support for emission cuts.

Reducing emissions and the “worse-off” fallacy

Our paper builds on previous work by Hatfield-Dodds and Morrison (2010) who found that a significant minority of Australians believe that taking action to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions will cause future incomes to decrease. However, this perception is misguided because most economic modelling indicates that cutting emissions will not reduce incomes—it will merely slow the rate at which incomes rise. Indeed, as noted elsewhere, Australian Treasury modelling (Johnson, 2008) indicates that reducing emissions by 90% will still result in average national income, per person, rising from its current level of $50,000 to $80,000 by 2050.

The researchers suggested that this “worse-off” fallacy—the misbelief that people will be financially “worse-off” by reducing emissions—could be a pivotal factor underpinning people’s reluctance to support climate policies. They further speculated that this misperception might be the consequence of a bias in the way that the economic impacts of reducing emissions are communicated to the public.

To understand this putative bias, we need to examine the distinction between two different approaches to framing a negative outcome. A negative outcome can be framed either as a loss or a foregone-gain.  The distinction between the two is best illustrated with an example:

(1) “Reducing Australia’s emissions would mean that national income per person would be about 1.7% lower by the year 2020 than it would be without emissions cuts.  This is equivalent to a cost of $1000 per person.” (Loss frame)

(2) “Reducing Australia’s emissions would mean that national income per person would increase from its current level of $50,400 to $54,900 in 2020.  This increase is $1000 lower than without emission cuts.” (Foregone-gain frame)

In the two above examples, the cost of reducing Australia’s emissions is objectively identical—viz. $1000. However, in (1) the cost is judged as an out of pocket expense. Since no information is conveyed about how incomes will change in the future, relative to today, the cost is interpreted with reference to one’s current income level, potentially leading one to infer that reducing emissions will cause future incomes to decrease below present levels. By contrast, in (2) the same cost is judged as a reduction in a future gain. Although reducing emissions incurs a (relatively small) cost, it is apparent that incomes will nevertheless continue to rise above current levels.

Hatfield-Dodds and Morrison suggested that the “worse-off” fallacy might arise because most communications about the economic impacts of reducing emissions are cast within a loss frame. However, they did not provide any concrete evidence to substantiate this claim.

Evidence for the communication bias

In our paper, we provided this evidence by performing a search of major Australian newspaper articles for communications regarding the future costs of Australia’s carbon pricing scheme—more commonly known as the “carbon tax”. We examined 1,481 articles from major Australian news outlets published over a two year period and classified them according to whether the future costs of reducing Australia’s emissions were framed as a loss or a foregone-gain. Our analysis revealed overwhelming support for the communication bias: communications that used a loss frame outweighed communications that used a foregone-gain frame by a staggering ratio of 10:1.

Thus, the communication bias is real and may be undercutting efforts to raise public support for reducing emissions. Having demonstrated the existence of a communication bias, we then set about exploring whether public support for climate policies could be increased by reframing the costs of reducing emissions as a foregone-gain.

The power of (re)framing

In two studies—one with university students and a second with a representative Australian community sample—participants were presented with several emission reduction policies that varied in terms of their future cost to national income and the extent to which they reduced Australia’s carbon emissions. To make our studies ecologically valid, the policies were based on real economic modelling conducted by the Australian Treasury (Johnson, 2008). The primary manipulation in both studies was that for one group of participants, the costs of the policies were framed as a loss, whereas for a second group the objectively equivalent costs were framed as a foregone-gain.

We anticipated that policy support would be higher in the latter group than the former, and across both studies that is precisely what we found: people were willing to reduce Australia’s emissions to a greater degree—and incur larger monetary sacrifices—when the policy costs were framed as a foregone-gain, compared to a loss.

The power of social norms

In conjunction with our framing manipulation, we also examined whether it would be possible to increase support for emission cuts by harnessing the known power of social norms to influence behaviour (Rivis & Sheeran, 2003). Social norms refer to people’s perceptions of how others behave in different social contexts, such as how much people tip waiters in restaurants, how much alcohol people consume at social gatherings, and how much people donate to charities.

Social norms are powerful motivators of behaviour because when people are uncertain about how to behave in a particular social context—e.g., how much to tip the waiter in a restaurant, or how much to reduce emissions—social norms provide information about what behaviour is most suitable.

Prior research has shown that exposing individuals to normative messages that highlight social norms can reduce household energy consumption (Allcott, 2011) and littering (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990). Normative messages have also proved effective at increasing recycling (Schultz, 1999) and conservation amongst hotel guests (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). We therefore reasoned that normative messages might also be effective at raising support for emission cuts.

In our first study, support for reducing emissions was high. Thus, there existed amongst the group of participants a social norm of strong support for reducing Australia’s emissions. We capitalised upon this in our second study by providing one group of participants with information about the frequency with which participants from our initial study chose the different emission reduction policies.

We found that people exposed to this social-norming information were willing to reduce Australia’s emissions to a greater degree than a second group who received no such information. Thus, seeing that most other Australians in our first study supported strong action on climate change caused these participants to increase the amount by which they were also willing to reduce Australia’s emissions.


As one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses (per capita and per kWh produced) and contributors to global climate change, Australia bears a heavy burden of responsibility to reduce its emissions. However, there is generally low willingness amongst the public to prioritise climate policies for reducing emissions. We have shown that this resistance may—in large part—be attributable to a misperception that climate policies are more costly than they are in reality, brought about by a communication bias in which the costs of such policies are framed overwhelmingly as a loss. We demonstrate that reframing those costs as a reduction in a future gain significantly increases policy support. Moreover, crafting social-norming messages that effectively communicate this high level of support also constitutes an effective method for increasing support for emission reductions. We conclude therefore that framing and normative messages represent two successful approaches by which climate policy communicators can raise levels of support for reducing emissions in Australia and elsewhere. 


Allcott H (2011) Social norms and energy conservation. Journal of Public Economics 95: 1082–1095.

Cialdini RB, Reno RR, Kallgren CA (1990) Theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58: 1015–1026.

Goldstein NJ, Cialdini RB, Griskevicius V (2008) A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research 35: 472–482.

Hatfield-Dodds S, Morrison M (2010) Confusing opportunity costs, losses and forgone gains: Assessing the effect of communication bias on support for climate change policy in the United States and Australia, CCEP working paper 9.10, Centre for Climate Economics & Policy, Crawford School of Economics and Government, The Australian National University, Canberra.

Johnson D (2008) Australia’s low pollution future: The economics of climate change mitigation. Canberra: Treasury.

Rivis A, Sheeran P (2003) Descriptive norms as an additional predictor in the theory of planned behaviour: A meta-analysis. Current Psychology 22: 218–233.

Schultz WP (1999) Changing behavior with normative feedback interventions: A field experiment on curbside recycling. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 21: 25–36.

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