Research Summary

Examining the impact of climate change film as an educational tool

Climate change film positively impacts student responses to climate change

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2021

Climate change is rapidly progressing and must be addressed immediately. To do so, educators must come up with unique and creative ways to communicate the impacts climate change has on society. One suggestion for increasing engagement is using film as a means of encouraging people to act against the ongoing threats to the climate. Previous studies have shown film to be conducive to changing perspectives and ideas about environmental topics in general, but not as much research has been published about the impact of climate change films in particular. The researchers in this study chose a documentary focused on climate change and explored how it impacted students’ responses to climate change.

The Human Element is a documentary that focused on climate change in America. The researchers tried to understand the reactions of college students towards climate change after watching this documentary. Based on previous studies, the study hypothesized that students’ pro-environmental responses would increase immediately after watching the film but may not endure for the long-term. There has been evidence that pro-environmental responses remain intact when people are constantly exposed to additional climate change materials, so it was hypothesized that those exposed to additional material would continue to practice pro-environmental responses, unlike those who were not.

The film was shown at two small liberal arts colleges in the United States in 2018 to a total of 129 participants. Participants were selected through a marketing campaign with email and flyers, and they were offered incentives like gift cards for completing the study. To measure climate change engagement and response over the long-term, the researchers used a three-level survey perspective, which involved 1) showing the film; 2) analyzing self-reported responses from participants in one pre- (taken before viewing the film) and two post-film surveys (one taken right after viewing the movie, and the other taken nine weeks later); and 3) creating a website with additional climate change information. Each survey asked participants about their overall personal views on climate change with questions from the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication’s (YPCCC) Six Americas Super Short Survey (SASSY). Further, the surveys included scaled questions to assess five types of climate change responses: motivation, concern, understanding, optimism, and personal confidence in taking specific steps to combat climate change. In addition to the SASSY and scaled questions, the first survey asked demographic questions, the second survey asked open-ended questions for participants to document their thoughts after watching the film, and the third survey asked the same open-ended questions as the second survey, with additional open-ended questions about the long-term impact of the documentary. A total of 65 randomly selected participants were sent emails linking to a website with additional climate change material repeatedly for 8 weeks following the documentary showing, and their third survey asked additional questions on the effect of the website. The survey responses were analyzed to understand any variation in responses over the course of the three surveys. Tests were used to evaluate the difference in responses relative to demographic information, and qualitative analysis was used to interpret and understand the open-ended question responses.

All 129 participants completed the first two surveys and 96 completed the third. The majority of participants were women, 50% identified as part of the Democratic Party (the remaining split between Republican, Libertarian and Independent), and most were from the northeastern United States. Participants also had a wide range of majors at their respective colleges. The four SASSY questions used in the three surveys were used to assign participants to one of six different American categories based on reaction to climate change (Dismissive, Doubtful, Disengaged, Cautious, Concerned, or Alarmed). The results showed that by the third survey, there was an increased amount of people who fell into the Alarmed group. In the first survey, 4% of participants were in the Disengaged and Doubtful groups, but in the second and third surveys, 100% of the participants were in the Alarmed, Concerned, or Cautious groups.

There was a significant increase in students’ motivation to act on climate change between the first and third surveys, as well as their confidence to speak about climate change as a result of watching the film. Concern and understanding also increased over the three surveys, while optimism decreased in the third survey. For the participants who had access to the website, the majority viewed the material. Of which 81% said the website was useful for climate change information and understanding global impacts, and 70% said it was useful for learning how to make an impact in reducing the effects of climate change. There was a statistically significant difference in responses toward climate change when comparing men and women. Before watching the film, women were more concerned about climate change, but after the film, men and women were both equally worried about climate change. Over the course of the study, women showed greater concern and a better understanding of climate change. Those who identified as Democrats reported greater concern than those affiliated with the Republican Party throughout, but members of the Libertarian Party reported the most motivation and understanding of the material in all three surveys. The open-ended questions showed that 126 out of 129 participants believed that climate change was real after watching the film. When asked who is responsible for fixing issues related to climate change, 108 participants said “everyone” and of those, 27 specifically mentioned “government” or “businesses.”

The film proved to shift participant opinion on climate change; concern, motivation, understanding and confidence all increased throughout the surveys, and remained high nine weeks later. However, optimism decreased throughout and remained low. The researchers believed this was because of the way the film presented solutions, as in it did not focus enough on solutions to issues, and the time period in which the film was shown, meaning there were many climate events that year. The participants who were provided access to the website developed an even greater understanding to act on climate change. Only understanding was affected probably because students only spent about 12 minutes on the website each week. The study showed some variation in response to climate change in relation to demographics. For example, men were generally less worried about climate change than women. Political views also affected motivation to act on climate change as Democrats and Libertarians were much more likely to act than Republicans based on the surveys.

There were a few limitations to this study. First, the researchers purposely focused on college students from private liberal arts schools. This may have skewed the results because these students may have had more access to information on climate change and more resources to make change compared to others in this age group. Second, motivations to act in a climate-conscious way increased over the 8-week period, but this may not be due exclusively to the film’s impact as the participants’ own environments or current events may have also influenced their motivation changes over time. Finally, the study focused on changes within a short timeframe of just a few weeks whereas a longer-term study may better reflect actual motivation of individuals to act in environmentally friendly ways.

The study showed that watching a documentary about climate change can have positive effects on climate change concern, motivation, and the confidence to act in college students, which may be sustained over the long-term. While documentary films cannot make changes by themselves, they are a useful tool in climate change education and are encouraged to be used when teaching about the impacts of climate change on the planet.

The Bottom Line

Previous studies have shown film to be conducive to changing perspectives about environmental topics. The researchers in this study chose a climate change documentary, The Human Element, to find ways to encourage students to engage positively in climate change responses. The film was shown at two small colleges in the United States in 2018 to 129 participants who were assessed using three surveys: one before viewing, another immediately after, and a third nine weeks later. Additionally, a website was provided after the film with additional information on climate change. The survey results showed a significant increase in participants’ motivation to act on climate change between the first and third surveys as well as their overall confidence to speak about climate change. While films cannot make changes alone, they are a useful tool in climate change education and are encouraged to be used when teaching about the impacts of climate change.