Character  &  Context

Climate Change and Disasters: How Framing Affects Justifications for Giving or Withholding Aid to Disaster Victims

Illustration of a massive wave about to crash on men, women and children

By Daniel Chapman

Anthropogenic climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our generation. In the midst of increasingly dramatic predictions of climate change impacts, large-scale efforts at mitigating human contributions through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions have been anything but successful. Meanwhile, researchers are accumulating a body of evidence linking changes in patterns of extreme weather events (e.g., droughts, heat waves, flash flooding) to climate change (IPCC, 2013; Fischer & Knutti, 2015). It is still quite difficult, if not impossible, in the immediate time frame following an extreme event to directly link it to anthropogenic climate change. However, those who have followed the news coverage of recent natural disasters and extreme weather may have noticed a growing media trend of linking these events to climate change. A simple google search returns headlines such as “Which of 2013’s Many Natural Disasters Can We Blame on Climate Change,” from the Smithsonian, and “Hot Hands: Fingerprints of climate change all over California Drought” from the Washington Post.

In our research, we have been interested in what impact linking disasters with climate change might have on individuals’ perceptions of these events, the victims, and their willingness to provide humanitarian relief (e.g., Chapman & Lickel, 2015). On the one hand, one might hypothesize that linking a dramatic event such as a natural disaster to anthropogenic climate change would increase concern about climate change and enhance intentions to provide aid to the victims of these disasters. However, drawing on the psychological literature on motivated reasoning, we predict and observe a different effect.

Decades of research on motivated reasoning has found that individuals construe information in biased ways or self-select streams of information that conform to pre-existing beliefs and values (Kunda, 1990; Liu & Ditto, 2013). The pervasive influence of motivated reasoning has recently been demonstrated in the literature on political polarization over climate change. Greater reported knowledge of climate change is associated with more political polarization over the issue rather than less (Kahan et al., 2012). Other research supports and expands our understanding of how these biases affect the interpretation of climate change information (e.g., Hart, Nisbet, & Myers, 2015), suggesting that it is not just lack of knowledge of the science that contributes to polarization and subsequent inaction. What the existing literature has not yet explored however is whether these motivated processes could also have secondary effects on how individuals perceive real world events that have been linked with an issue as polarized as climate change (e.g., a disaster framed as being caused by climate change). Therefore, in our recent paper (Chapman & Lickel, 2015) we proposed a “second order” motivated reasoning effect whereby framing a disaster as related to climate change might motivate those skeptical of climate change to construe information about the disaster and the victims in a biased way (e.g., downplaying the severity, reporting aid as more ineffective) as a means of disengaging from helping the victims.

To test this hypothesis, we recruited just over 200 participants through Mturk for an experiment. There were two conditions in the study, both of which read a hypothetical news article. In the control condition, participants read a report describing an ongoing famine due to severe drought in Sub-Saharan Africa (adapted from materials from Zagefka et al., 2011). The report ended with an appeal highlighting the ongoing need for humanitarian relief in the region. In the climate change condition, one extra paragraph was included which described the link between the severe drought and anthropogenic climate change.

Participants in both conditions then responded to questions about their perceptions of the disaster, the victims, and their attitudes about potentially donating if they were asked. These measures included things such as whether participants felt like there was a lot of need for outside help to alleviate the victims’ suffering, whether they believed that the victims might be partially at fault for their situation, and their beliefs about the effectiveness of humanitarian aid, among others. Each of these justification measures (5 total) have been shown in past research to be important determinants of donation decisions (Zagefka et al., 2011, 2012). We also asked whether participants thought they might donate to the relief efforts if they were asked. At the end of the study, we asked questions about their political beliefs and climate change beliefs.

Consistent with our hypotheses, those highly skeptical of climate change engaged in greater justifications to withhold aid from the victims when the famine was framed as caused by drought linked to climate change (i.e., greater victim blaming, less perceived need and aid effectiveness, etc.), which also negatively affected their attitudes toward donating to the relief efforts. Overall, these findings contribute a novel addition to the motivated reasoning literature and extend its implications beyond the construal of scientific information itself and into the domain of how perceptions of world events are affected when linked with a polarized scientific topic.

In light of the growing urgency to act in order to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts, the motivation for relief organizations and media outlets to try using the link between certain natural disaster events and climatic changes as a means of enhancing the public’s concern is understandable. However, we would suggest that charities and the media be cautious about mixing discussion of climate change-disaster links with appeals for aid in the immediate aftermath of disasters, as in our research this appears to have some negative impacts on public support for relief efforts.


Daniel Chapman is a PhD student enrolled in UMass Amherst’s psychology of peace and violence and social psychology programs. His interests include environmental decision making, the psychology of disaster resiliency and humanitarian relief, climate change adaptation, and interdisciplinary research approaches to large-scale social and environmental problems. Contact: Website:




Chapman, D. A. & Lickel, B. (2015). Climate change and disasters: how framing affects justifications for giving or withholding aid to disaster victims. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/1948550615590448

Fischer, E. M., & Knutti, R. (2015). Anthropogenic contribution to global occurrence of heavy- precipitation and high-temperature extremes. Nature Climate Change, 5, 560-565.

Hart, P. S., Nisbet, E. C., & Myers, T. A. (2015). Public attention to science and political news and support for climate change mitigation. Nature Climate Change, 5, 541-545.

IPCC (2013). Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (Eds.). Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.

Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2, 732-735. doi: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1547

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480-498. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.108.3.480

Liu, B. S., & Ditto, P. H. (2013). What dilemma? Moral evaluation shapes factual belief. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(3), 316-323.

Zagefka, H., Noor, M., Brown, R., Hopthrow, T., & Randsley de Moura, G. (2012). Eliciting donations to disaster victims: Psychological considerations. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 15, 221-230. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-839X.2012.01378.x

Zagefka, H., Noor, M., Brown, R., Randsley de Moura, G., & Hopthrow, T. (2011). Donating to disaster victims: Responses to natural and humanly caused events. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 353-363. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.781


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