Guilt and Shame in U.S. Climate Change Communication
- Jennifer JacquetJennifer JacquetNew York University
Some of the major misconceptions in the United States about climate change—such as the focus on scientific uncertainty, the “debate” over whether climate change is caused by humans, and pushback about how severe the consequences might be—can be seen as communications battles. An interesting area within communications is the contrasting use of guilt and shame for climate-related issues. Guilt and shame are social emotions (along with embarrassment, pride, and others), but guilt and shame are also distinct tools. On the one hand, guilt regulates personal behavior, and because it requires a conscience, guilt can be used only against individuals. Shame, on the other hand, can be used against both individuals and groups by calling their behavior out to an audience. Shaming allows citizens to express criticism and social sanctions, attempting to change behavior through social pressure, often because the formal legal system is not holding transgressors accountable. Through the use of guilt and shame we can see manifestations of how we perceive the problem of climate change and who is responsible for it. For instance, in October 2008, Chevron, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, placed advertisements around Washington, DC, public transit stops featuring wholesome-looking, human faces with captions such as “I will unplug things more,” “I will use less energy,” and “I will take my golf clubs out of the trunk.” Six months later, DC activists reworked the slogans by adding to each the phrase “while Chevron pollutes.” This case of corporate advertising and subsequent “adbusting” illustrates the contrast between guilt and shame in climate change communication. Guilt has tended to align with the individualization of responsibility for climate change and has been primarily deployed over issues of climate-related consumption rather than other forms of behavior, such as failure to engage politically. Shame has been used, largely by civil society groups, as a primary tactic against fossil fuel producers, peddlers of climate denial, and industry-backed politicians.