Is polarisation on climate change limited to the US? Is it evident at all levels of government in the US? And what can communicators do to overcome this polarisation?
These are the questions the papers reviewed this month attempt to answer. What they show, in terms of polarisation on climate change, is that the US is a special case. This is a hopeful message for climate communication: climate communication outside of the US is unlikely to contend with such ingrained scepticism. These papers suggest that in America, trusted authoritative voices will play an important role in shifting the opinions of the sceptics - it is a matter of identity, not science.
Boussalis, C., Coan, T and Holman, M (2018). Climate change communication from cities in the USA. Climatic Change, Vol 149 (2), pp 173-187.
Cities are important players on climate change in the US, delivering local level plans for mitigation and adaptation, even as action stalls at the federal level. What is less clear is how effective cities are in communicating about climate change to their residents. This paper reports the results from an analysis of press releases from 82 large US cities to see how climate change is communicated.
The authors found it was the most climate-vulnerable cities (Boston, New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh) that did the most climate change communication. Climate change (across all cities analysed) was most commonly discussed in relation to energy and climate change. Weather and transportation were the next two most common themes. Cities in the US are generally more liberal than the country at large, but the most liberal cities were not more likely to communicate climate change than the less liberal ones. The authors suggest the reason for this is that the lack of polarisation in cities means there is less focus on climate change as an ideological battle ground, and so less need to discuss and defend policies on climate change.
They say: This research highlights that climate communication is going on at different levels of government in the US, and that at the city level there is much less polarisation. There are a lot of factors at play in shaping city level climate policy that have not been addressed in this paper.
We say: It is difficult to assess the importance of city level climate communication without understanding how these communications are being received and interpreted by the city’s residents.
Benegal, S; Scruggs, L (2018). Correcting misinformation about climate change: the impact of partisanship in an experimental setting. Climatic Change Volume 148, Issue 1–2, pp 61–80
The authors of this paper wanted to find out if being told by a Republican politician that the scientific consensus on climate change is true would convince Republican voters to change their view on climate change.
The authors conducted an online survey with around 1300 participants in September 2016. The respondents were grouped according to partisanship, ideology, and other demographics. They were then assigned articles which argued climate change was a hoax. Three of the groups received additional short corrective statements, which named specific Republican Congressional representatives who support the scientific consensus on climate change. Respondents then completed a short survey which included measures for an understanding that scientists agree that climate change is occurring, whether climate change is anthropogenic, and whether it is a serious problem.
The results showed that those who read the additional corrective statement were less sceptical about the consensus on climate change, indicating that polarisation can be reduced by highlighting the views of elite Republicans who acknowledge the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.
They say: The reason why showing Republicans speaking against their expected partisan positions on climate change is so effective in changing opinion on the scientific consensus is because this is a politically risky action, which they wouldn’t take unless they were convinced of the science.
We say: This is a welcome addition to the research demonstrating how vital it is to prioritise values, worldviews and identity in climate change communication strategies. It is important to understand whether this trusted messenger approach can be equally effective in building support for climate policies (rather than simply accepting climate science).
Fielding, K; Harris, E; Hornsey, M.J. (2018). Relationships among conspiratorial beliefs, conservatism and climate scepticism across nations. Nature Climate Change
A comparison between 24 countries reported in this paper showed that the ideological divide on climate change is greater in the US than elsewhere, a situation which the authors attribute to the political culture in the US.
The research also examined whether people who express an ideology and worldview that rejects climate science also endorse conspiracy theories and hence were more likely to think climate change is a hoax. Data was collected from 5,323 participants from across the globe. Attitudes to four conspiracy theories were measured, and people also placed themselves on both a left/right and liberal/conservative axis. These measures were then correlated with level of scepticism about climate change.
The results showed that ideology and belief in conspiracy theories were strongly correlated with climate scepticism in the US. In contrast, relationships between conservative ideologies and climate scepticism appeared to be relatively weak and inconsistent in Europe. The authors also concluded that the organisations working to undermine belief in climate science are predominantly based in the US and so it is there that the ideological battle is fiercest, and there that polarisation is greatest.
They say: Outside of the US, it is difficult to reliably predict participants’ views on climate change from knowing whether they are chronically prone to conspiratorial thinking, or where they are in terms of being individualistic or communitarian, hierarchical or egalitarian, left or right, liberal or conservative.
We say: These results confirm the unique conditions underpinning polarisation on climate change in the US. Finding effective methods for communicating climate change which can speak to Republican voters in the US is important not just for domestic climate policy in the US, but of global significance.
The world we inhabit is a social one. What other people say and do - and what we imagine they are saying and doing - matters to us. The three papers reviewed this month offer new research revealing how what the public and politicians think about what other people (and politicians) think about climate change shapes our beliefs and attitudes.
Mildenberger, M and Tingley, D (2017). Beliefs about Climate Beliefs: The Importance of Second-Order Opinions for Climate Politics. British Journal of Political Science
People underestimate levels of public support for action on climate change. This belief about other people’s opinions negatively affects their own beliefs (that is why it is called second-order opinions). However, when told about the true levels of support for action on climate change, people’s own level of support increases.
In order to arrive at these findings, the researchers conducted an analysis of public opinion in the US and China, asking participants whether they thought climate change was happening, what they thought was causing it and whether they believed scientists agree humans are causing climate change. They were also asked what percentage of the public in the US and China would agree with these statements. The researchers found people consistently underestimate the percentage of the public that agree that climate change is real. This underestimation is especially great amongst those sceptical about climate change. They also found US politicians underestimated the level of public support for political action on climate change.
They say: Researchers should focus more closely on second-order beliefs as a key factor shaping climate policy inaction. Better understanding of the social patterns of belief formation promises to offer up new insights for building a deep and broad social consensus for ambitious action on climate change.
We say: This research confirms the importance of encouraging a sustained, broad and high profile social conversation about climate change. The sense of shared concern that people feel about climate change is a vital component of building an ambitious international agenda for ambitious action on climate change.
Willis, RE. (2018). Constructing a ‘Representative Claim’ for Action on Climate Change: Evidence from Interviews with Politicians Political Studies , 1-19.
The author of this paper interviewed more than 20 UK Members of Parliament (MPs) in order to find out why climate change is so absent from the UK political discourse.
The MPs said the main reason they don’t bring the issue up more frequently is because voters are not asking them to act. Climate change simply never arises in their discussions with the people they represent. One answer to this impasse is for MPs to take the initiative by making claims about what is important, and what issues require action. Voters can then accept or reject these claims at the ballot box. The challenge for MPs is to find ways of representing the claim for action on climate change that are meaningful and relevant for their constituents.
Currently, when MPs do talk about climate change, they do so in four main ways. The first is to argue that we have a duty towards the people of the world to take action. The second is that action is needed to protect the local environment from dangerous impacts such as flooding. The third, most common strategy, is to identify the co-benefits of action, such as the creation of new industries and jobs. The fourth approach - what the author calls a ‘surrogate claim’ - is not to mention climate change at all but instead talk in terms of issues such as improved public transport.
They say: MPs can seek to make representative claims which are relevant and meaningful to their audience and should do so, if they can make a representative claim which is accepted. However in order to understand how to do this effectively, MPs need support in order to tailor the right message to the right audience.
We say: This timely article confirms the evidence emerging from other research and our own experience - climate change has to compete in people’s minds for a host of other worries. The way forward is to find ways of representing action on climate change as meaningful, achievable, and relevant to people’s lives.
Merkley, E and Stecula, D (In Press). “Party Elites or Manufactured Doubt? The Informational Context of Climate Change Polarization”. Environmental Communication
US Republicans weren’t always sceptical about climate change. The shift in opinion, the authors argue, was not the result of a disinformation campaign by fossil fuel industries. Nor can it be explained by the ideological orientation of individual Republican voters, because Republican ideology has remained unchanged even whilst attitudes to climate change have become more sceptical. The increase in scepticism is instead explained by the messages communicated by political elites through the mass media.
Media coverage of climate change has been dominated by Democratic Party politicians. The authors suggest a boomerang effect may have been at play, with the result that the dominance of Democrat voices on climate change in the media has driven a negative reaction amongst Republican voters.
The conclusion is based on analysis of over 30 years of news coverage between 1980 and 2014. The researchers found the amount of coverage in the media given over to the opinions of political elites, compared to scientific experts, doubled over the study period. Meanwhile coverage given to climate sceptic organisations casting doubt on the science has declined over the same period (though this is not to say those views are not being communicated by other people in the media, such as newscasters themselves).
They say: The boomerang effect in environmental communication appears to have polarised attitudes amongst the American public. The solution is to find a way of bridging the climate change divide between Republicans and Democrats.
We say: The influence of elite cues is an important factor in shaping public attitudes to climate policy. The research reinforces the importance of also building a voice amongst the electorate to demonstrate support for action on climate change. Further research should take account of blogs and other online communication channels.
In this month’s round-up we get all emotional as we summarise the results from two articles that look at the role emotions play in the communication of climate change. We also look at a paper which reports what people say when they are asked an open ended question about what should be done about climate change.
Chapman, D; Lickel, B; Markowitz, E (2017). ‘Reassessing emotion in climate change communication.’ Nature Climate Change 7 , 850-852
The authors argue the role emotions play in attitudes to climate change should be understood as one part of a ‘complex interplay of cognitive processes’ rather than simply ‘levers to be pulled’ in communication. The paper was written in response to the debate surrounding an article published in July 2017 in The New York Magazine. The article was titled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ (and is the most read article in the magazine’s history). This academic paper is an intervention in the ensuing argument about whether ‘doom and gloom’ has a positive or negative impact on public attitudes to climate change policy.
The paper argues that this dichotomy over-simplifies a complex argument. Even the idea of being able to easily separate emotions from each other, or group them as good/bad, or positive/negative is not straightforwardly supported by the research. Emotions are modified by, and in turn modify, responses to information in an evolving manner over time.
In short, we simply do not know much about how the interplay between emotions and attitudes to climate change evolve over time. In fact, recent papers indicate hopeful or positive messages may sometimes undermine the motivation to act on climate change.
They say: Any effort to harness emotions to specific climate communication goals needs to be tailored to the specific characteristics, needs and values of the audience concerned. A one-size-fits-all strategy is unlikely to succeed.
We say: Effective climate change communication begins with understanding your audience and meeting them on their own ground. Emotional triggers may have a role to play in building powerful communication strategies, but they are not a substitute for getting to know what matters to your audience.
Jones, M and Anderson Crow, D. (2017) ‘How can we use the ‘science of stories’ to produce persuasive scientific stories?’ Palgrave Communications 3, 53. Doi 10.1057/s41599-017-0047-7
Research into the communication strategy of ‘narrative persuasion’ is used to highlight how science can be communicated in a way that aligns with the problem solving narratives that policy makers are likely to understand and engage with. This approach is presented as an alternative to communications based on the ‘knowledge deficit model’. The knowledge deficit model assumes just presenting the facts will result in the audience changing their attitudes or behavior in light of these facts.
Policy narratives are defined as having a setting, characters, plot, and moral. The ‘setting’ of a narrative is made up of the ideas and facts that are relevant to the policy being addressed in the narrative Characters are the ‘emotional engines’ of the narrative, the villains and heroes. The plot describes the actions of the characters in time and space, and the moral is the point of the story, the take home message.
The purpose is to use these narrative elements to communicate the evidence in a way that it is ‘legitimate and memorable.’ However, by understanding how these elements act on the sense-making process one can ensure the narrative has greater congruence with the listener’s values and norms. This will make the narrative more persuasive.The authors stress that these elements should not be included at the expense of remaining true to the actual scientific evidence being communicated to policy makers.
They say: Understand your audience, ensure your stories have heroes as well as villains, ensure you weave the evidence into your story and recognise how your own views and opinions will shape the story you tell.
We say: Understanding how to make best use of the ‘knowledge’ part of the knowledge deficit model in a more emotionally engaging narrative format is an important challenge for science communicators. We echo the author’s conclusion that integrity and honesty are key to effective science communication.
Tvinnereim, E et al. (2017). ‘Citizens’ preferences for tackling climate change. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of their freely formulated solutions’ Global Environmental Change 46, 34-41.
Most surveys of public opinion on climate change ask people to express how strongly they agree or disagree with a list of pre-set questions. This paper presents the results from a less structured survey method. The paper analyses the results from an an open-ended survey question posed to a Norwegian internet panel. The survey generated 4634 written answers to the question of “what should be done” about climate change. The authors argue this approach leaves respondents free to include what is important to them, and leave out that which is less important. The average length of response was was 21.5 words.
The authors conclude that respondents favoured mitigation over adaptation. Men discussed the causes of climate change and policy options; women focused more on lifestyle changes and individual behaviours. The results suggest a willingness to accept stronger mitigation action, but that central and local government needs to take a stronger leadership role on this.
They say: By giving respondents free reign on how to respond, this method addresses the issue of which policies the public actually favour, showing politicians which actions to prioritise. Also, this approach avoids the problem of respondents giving the interviewer the answer they think the researcher wants to hear.
We say: Giving citizens the chance to formulate what should be done about climate change in a more open manner is a welcome innovation. However the individualisation of the method combined with the brevity of the answers provided means the results should be treated with caution. The answers given appear in many cases to be as generic as those derived from other methods.
This month’s roundup summarises a selection of the themes that have emerged from a selection of our own research in 2017 (some completed, some ongoing). This was a year that saw a rapid expansion in the diversity of issues, countries and people Climate Outreach worked with. The variety and volume of work undertaken offers a unique perspective on the state of play in climate communication, and some of the audiences we’ve worked with: centre-right, youth, business, and science communicators.
- The results of a project between Climate Outreach and researchers at Cardiff University to understand how to communicate climate change with centre-right audiences in the UK found messages that demonstrate patriotic support for the UK’s flourishing low-carbon energy technologies have broad appeal, but particularly resonated with those of centre-right values.
- An ongoing European project is examining the social factors that influence how and why young adults take the lead on climate change campaigns. The early results seem to show that moving from home to university is often an important part of becoming involved in climate change campaigns.
- But what young climate campaign leaders can actually hope to achieve is often shaped by the national political and cultural context. In many parts of the world there is low environmental awareness, which means it is easier to engage publics with local issues such as litter on the beach. Involving people in campaigns around the more abstract topic of climate change is much more difficult in the absence of a national dialogue on the issue.
- One final word on the project with young adults. Whether coincidental or truly representative of the situation, the majority of campaign leaders identified in this project are female.
It takes a lot of drive and commitment (as well as the right opportunities) to take on a leadership role in climate change campaigns. These are qualities often associated with business owners and entrepreneurs, two groups who have featured in very different projects we have been running.
- We completed two separate projects on the topic of decentralised renewable energy (DRE is electricity generated by small scale off grid mechanisms, normally solar and small scale wind power). One project focused on India, the other addressed DRE across the developing world. The purpose of both projects was to develop narratives that would accelerate the uptake of DRE in the developing world.
- Both projects showed that there is no one size fits all narrative; narratives of entrepreneurship were appropriate for financiers, and narratives of development and modernity were most appropriate for development banks and NGOs.
- A pilot project run with partners at the University of Oxford and the Open University, called Growing Green, gave the owners of small businesses the opportunity to reflect on the role of values in their strategies for growing their business sustainably. The pilot project (being followed in 2018 by a larger scale follow-up project - Growing Greener) showed that businesses who sell directly to the public (food, wine and clothes were the examples represented) were able to connect their values and business practices much more closely than those businesses who provided services to larger companies.
Those businesses interacting with the public at the human scale, as people and not as representatives of large, remote and opaque organisations, embody a key principle that runs through all of our work. That principle is the need to connect through shared values. In 2017 (and into 2018) we have produced three sets of evidence based resources detailing how climate science communicators can use values based messaging strategies and language to make these connections with their audiences.
- The first of these is an online guide to the science of science communication, based on a series of workshops for early career climate researchers delivered across Europe in partnership with the Helix project and the Tyndall Centre.
- Mistra commissioned Climate Outreach to produce a report summarising the current state of play in environmental science communication, and to make recommendations on future directions for research. Our report (to be launched within the next few months) recommends a shift in the relationship between environmental science and society away from a model of ‘doing the science and then telling people about it’ towards a closer and ongoing dialogue between science and society.
- And coming up shortly is the release of a climate science communication handbook for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Rather than focusing on any one area of climate science and climate modelling, this handbook uses the evidence base on effective science communication to develop a series of principles that IPCC scientists can use as a guide to communicating the broader sweep of science collated in the IPCC reports.
An inescapable conclusion from 2017 is that where people live still matters. Yes, climate change is a global problem and governments are working to deliver on internationally agreed targets. Yet people’s immediate experience of the world continues to play an important role in connecting with climate change. The national scale also exerts an influence, through political leadership, culture and level of economic development.
At Climate Outreach our mission is to turn climate change from a scientific reality to a social reality. Our approach uses ideas from the field of social psychology, and a lot of psychological research is in the form of experiments which take place within the lab. This work has produced a fountain of powerful insights into how we respond to, and engage with, the warnings coming from the climate scientists. However what really matters is what happens when people interact with other people. That is why our Narrative Workshop model is central to our work - it brings people together and provides a space for ordinary people to discuss climate change with their peers.
This month’s Research Round-up focuses on the social dimensions of climate change communication and engagement, paying particular attention to the factors which make it difficult for people to talk about climate change.
Brick, C, Sherman, D and Kim, H. (2017) “Green to be seen” and “brown to keep down”: Visibility moderates the effect of identity on pro-environmental behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology Vol 51 226-238
There is research indicating environmentalists will signal their identity through environmental behaviours that are highly visible, whereas people with negative attitudes to environmentalism are less likely to take environmental actions that are highly visible. For example, liberals pay extra for the Toyota Prius over other hybrid cars because it signals the owner’s environmentalist identity more effectively than less well known hybrid car brands. (Sexton & Sexton, 2011). Meanwhile conservatives shunned energy-efficient lightbulbs when paired with a sticker reading “Protect the Environment” because the motive given for buying the bulbs did not resonate with their sense of identity (Gromet, Kunreuther, & Larrick, 2013).
This study presents the results of an investigation to test the claim that environmentalists will be more likely to adopt highly visible environmental behaviours and anti-environmentalists will be more likely to avoid those behaviours. The results of three online surveys with 1126 US residents were analysed. The results from the first two surveys showed that the more visible the pro-environmental behaviour, the less likely it was that respondents would engage in it - whether or not they identified as environmentalists - whereas the third study showed that anti-environmentalists were more likely to avoid high visibility anti-environmental behaviours and environmentalists more likely to adopt those behaviours. No definitive explanation could be found for this difference.
They say: The impact of visibility on attitudes to pro-environmental behaviours varies widely across contexts. Highly visible environmental behaviour may be less likely in areas where there is an overall negative view of environmentalists, but more likely when there is an overall positive view of environmentalists.
We say: With attitudes to environmental science becoming increasingly polarised, it would not be surprising if people felt wary about behaviours that signal a particular identity if that identity runs counter to the surrounding social norms. Advocates of behaviour change should be mindful about the issue of identity.
Steentjes, K., Kurz, T, Barreto, M. and Morton, T. (2017) The norms associated with climate change: understanding social norms through acts of interpersonal activism. Global Environmental Change Vol 43 pages 116-125
The willingness to express social disapproval is identified here as a form of interpersonal activism. Examples of interpersonal activism include the confrontation of sexist and racist behaviours. This interpersonal activism has helped build social norms which have made racist and sexist behaviours much less acceptable. Our current social norms promote carbon intensive lifestyles and hinder environmental actions.
The researchers carried out two studies with a total of 234 British university students. In the first study, they examined how participants evaluate an individual who confronts someone who has made potentially racist comments with someone who confronts a person expressing disregard for climate change. The results of the first study show that the person confronting negative comments on climate change was perceived less positively than someone who did not confront negative comments on climate change. The opposite was true for confrontation of racism - the person confronting racism was perceived more positively than the person who did not confront racism.
The second study analysed the manner in which the confrontation occurred; in essence how confrontational was the challenge and how did this impact on perceptions of the person doing the challenging. With respect to climate change, the more confrontational the challenge the greater the social cost to the person making the challenge. However this pattern did not emerge in perceptions of people challenging racism.
They say: there are high social costs for people who confront negative comments on climate change. This is because climate change and high-carbon lifestyles are not seen as moral issues in the wider public discourse. Until climate change is broadly recognised as a moral issue, interpersonal activism on this topic is likely to fail.
We say: this research has important implications for climate change communication. The findings reaffirm the importance of the broader social context in which climate communication takes place. Bottom-up engagement is important, and so is top-down communication. Defining climate change as a moral issue requires strong and consistent cues from politicians and other influential voices.
Geiger, N of., Swim, J and Fraser, J. (2017). “Creating a climate for change: Interventions, efficacy and public discussion about climate change.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol 51 Pages 104-116
Talking about climate change is an important part of the process of building momentum towards a low carbon future, but most people do not discuss the subject. Previous studies have connected this reluctance to discuss the subject with both a sense that nothing can be done at an individual level and a lack of knowledge making people feel unconfident about discussing climate change. This research combined an experiment with 173 university students and 907 visitors to what the authors call informal science learning centres (e.g. aquariums, national parks and zoos) to test whether an intervention which communicates climate change information in a simple, accurate and engaging manner will promote increased public discussion of climate change.
The results showed both that the participants’ belief in their own ability to discuss climate change accurately, plus the belief that by doing so they could create positive impacts, were important factors in motivating participants to talk about climate change. The effect of feeling confident about talking about climate change was more significant than the belief that talking about climate change will create a positive impact.
They say: Providing information about climate change science in a simple, clear and accessible manner and combining that with discussions of solutions that can be enacted at that community level, and hence are within the participative sphere of influence, can play a meaningful role in breaking through the climate silence.
We say: This study highlights potential next steps for climate science communicators who are keen to move beyond the dead end of the information deficit model. While just giving people information is not enough, it is not possible to avoid some element of knowledge transfer in the engagement process. Improved understanding of how to communicate climate science remains central to strategies for making climate change a social reality.
How the cultures, economies and politics of different countries shape public attitudes to climate change
Climate change is a global problem requiring a globally coordinated response. Recent events such as the Brexit vote and Trump’s election suggest a possible shift away from a global approach in favour of a more nation-focused approach to policy. In addition, targets for reducing emissions following the Paris agreement have been devolved to individual nations through what is called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions framework.
This shift reinforces the importance of understanding how the cultures, economies and politics of different countries shape public attitudes to climate change, and what these differences mean for effective climate change communication. The three new research papers summarised below explore attitudes and media representations of climate change in four different countries - China, India, and a comparative study of Adelaide (Australia) and Lisbon (Portugal). The China study examines how Weibo (the Chinese social network) is used to communicate climate change stories. The India study explores the relationship between media use and attitudes to climate change. The comparative study assesses the difference in willingness to pay for effective climate mitigation policies between Portugal and Australia. The results of these studies highlight the risks of following a one-size-fits-all global climate messaging strategy on climate change.
The more we can understand about national differences on climate perceptions, the better public engagement will be. Look out for the findings of a major new four-country European survey, the European Perceptions of Climate Change project, led by Cardiff University and three other international academic teams, in collaboration with Climate Outreach, and funded by the Joint Programming Initiative (JPI).
The three papers summarised in this month’s Research Round-Up share our interest in the potential of COPs, as important global media events, to engage the public with climate change. They seek to understand the extent to which the conferences impact public awareness, as well as whose stories, images and representations dominate the coverage. The research shows that COPs do indeed increase public awareness of climate change and that - because of the rather dry and procedural nature of what happens inside the conference halls - COPs present a unique opportunity for NGOs, through their protests and campaigns, to get their messaging out to a global audience. However our research suggests that currently the visual messaging employed by NGOs around COPs is fairly restricted and predictable and we are seeking to catalyse a new, more diverse and inclusive visual language for climate change at key moments in the climate calendar (like the COPs) and beyond.
Leiserowitz A; Thaker J; Xiaoquan Z (2017). Media Use and Public Perceptions of Global Warming in India. Environmental Communication.
This paper investigates the relationship between media coverage (how different stories about climate change are ‘framed’) and attitudes to climate change in India. Relatively few studies have examined media coverage and public understanding of global warming in developing countries where, the authors argue, a high proportion of people have never heard of climate change or do not understand its causes and consequences.
A representative sample of 4031 people were surveyed for this study. The survey questions were designed to investigate if media use, news attention (that is, the amount of time that respondents spent on environment and world affairs news) and trust in informational sources are associated with three key outcomes: the belief that global warming is happening and human-caused; the belief that it poses a serious risk; and support for policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The researchers were simply looking for positive associations between media use and the key outcomes, and did not seek to establish causal links between these variables. They found a positive relationship between greater general media use, news attention and trust in information sources, and key global warming beliefs and policy support.
The results showed that whilst scientists were the most trusted sources of information for the Indian public, the second most trusted groups were environmental organisations. They also found high levels of agreement that the climate is changing (89%), though 31% of respondents attributed this change to natural causes. TV use was the media most positively associated with risk perception and policy support. It was surmised that this was because even though there is low TV coverage in India, TV provides a more powerful visual stimulus than print media, and may provide more easily accessible visual cues about global warming. They also found personal experience of extreme weather events was a strong predictor of belief in climate change.
They say: The results suggest the Indian media, through consistent and accurate coverage of global warming using trusted sources, can play a positive role in increasing public engagement.
We say: The fact that environmental organisations are the second most trusted source of information on climate change in India stands in marked contrast to the situation in the West. Understanding the reasons behind this may have important implications for building engagement in developing countries.
Chung-En Lui J; Zhao B (2016). Who speaks for climate change in China? Evidence from Weibo, Climatic Change 3, 413-422.
Weibo is China’s most popular social media platform and ranks as the 17th most visited website in the world. Its format combines elements of Twitter and Facebook.
The researchers examined the extent to which Weibo facilitates democratic discussion about climate change, whether the Chinese public use the site as a platform to push for climate actions, and what types of framing catch people’s attention. In order to do this the study analysed discussion about climate change on Weibo over a two month period around the Paris Climate Summit. The researchers analysed all posts with a topic of “climate change” or “global warming.”
The results show that state media and large international institutions dominate the discussion of climate change on Weibo. A significant proportion of Weibo posts aim to raise climate change awareness; few users discuss topics such as climate science, climate change’s actual impacts on China, or China’s low-carbon policy measures.
In terms of discourse the researchers found that climate change mostly appears as far removed from everyday life in China. The most talked about content was President Obama’s appearance on an American television show in which he traveled across Alaska to showcase the impacts of climate change. Obama made a much larger impact in China with his trip to Alaska than in the USA.
They say: Climate change is represented on Weibo as a global threat that has little connection to China's national context. The researchers summarise the impact of this framing as making sure climate change remains “safe” as long as it appears to be a global and disembodied subject matter.
We say: The discourse around climate change on Weibo appears superficial and marginal, with minimal connection to the daily lives of Chinese citizens. Finding ways to overcome this particular form of 'psychological distance', and making climate change a social reality for the 1 billion members of the world's largest country is a crucial priority for public engagement.
Carvalho M; Casanova J; Chaffee D; Everuss l; Lever-Tracy, C (2017). Assessing the public willingness to contribute income to mitigate the effects of climate change: A comparison of Adelaide and Lisbon, Journal of Sociology
The authors surveyed residents of Adelaide (Australia) and Lisbon (Portugal) to ask if they would be willing to contribute regularly a significant but affordable part of their income to prevent or reduce negative impacts of climate change that will occur within their lifetime, and also negative impacts of climate change that will affect their descendants in centuries to come. That is, they explored people’s ‘willingness to pay’ for climate policies now or in the future.
The results showed that the people of Lisbon are more willing to contribute than those of Adelaide, despite Portugal’s poorer economic conditions. Furthermore, willingness to contribute in both Lisbon and Adelaide did not diminish even when the impacts were described as likely only to affect future generations. The authors interpret these results as suggesting that economic calculations are not the only criteria shaping attitudes to climate change.
The authors argue that previous studies on how people view future risks have focused purely on how far in the future the risks occur, and ignored considerations such as perceptions of ‘intergenerational equity’ (i.e. fairness between generations). Another possible explanation for the results is that attitudes to climate change are, in part, shaped by levels of trust in political leaders - will these leaders actually use the money to ensure climate change policies are effective and implemented? That trust is greater in Lisbon than Adelaide. A third possible reason is media framing: the media is more sceptical in Australia than Portugal, and more likely to associate natural disasters with climate change in Portugal than in Australia.
They say: Challenging the assumptions that the public will naturally reject action on climate change on the basis of cost-benefit calculations and a disregard for future generations is important because that reasoning ties inaction on climate change to supposedly deep-rooted aspects of human rationality, rather than modifiable aspects of culture and society.
We say: In demonstrating how attitudes to climate change are partly determined by social and cultural circumstances, this research adds weight to the idea that changes in the public discourse around climate change (and by extension how it is socially and culturally represented) is a crucial pathway to building policy support. People are not inherently opposed to climate policies, but they need to believe in the politicians delivering them and for there to be a vibrant national discourse about why climate change matters.
Making best use of the opportunities global climate summits offer for building public engagement with climate change.
The annual UN climate conferences (COPs) play an important role in focusing media attention on climate change, turning it from an ongoing and rather abstract scientific process into a news event. Given the coverage the COPs receive, there is a need for visual communication - just like all forms of communication - to be as evidence-based as possible. The international social research behind our 'Climate Visuals' programme produced a series of principles for effective visual communication. We have published a report examining the use of visual images at COP21 in Paris and will soon (in April) be publishing a report on the visual images used at COP22 in Marrakech.
The three papers summarised in this month’s Research Round-Up share our interest in the potential of COPs, as important global media events, to engage the public with climate change. They seek to understand the extent to which the conferences impact public awareness, as well as whose stories, images and representations dominate the coverage. The research shows that COPs do indeed increase public awareness of climate change and that - because of the rather dry and procedural nature of what happens inside the conference halls - COPs present a unique opportunity for NGOs, through their protests and campaigns, to get their messaging out to a global audience. However our research suggests that currently the visual messaging employed by NGOs around COPs is fairly restricted and predictable and we are seeking to catalyse a new, more diverse and inclusive visual language for climate change at key moments in the climate calendar (like the COPs) and beyond.
Bakaki, Z & Bernauer, T. (2017) ‘Do global climate summits influence public awareness and policy preferences concerning climate change?’. Environmental Politics, 26:1, 1-26, DOl: 10.1080/09644016.2016.1244964
Much research has been carried out into how events (for example extreme weather events) shape people’s attitudes to climate change. There is also a lot of research on how climate change is ‘framed’ (eg Nisbet, M., 2010) affects how people feel about climate change. In this study, the researchers wished to explore how people’s attitudes to climate change are shaped when framing is associated with a particular event. The study was based on a survey of 1200 people from the United States, undertaken around the time of the 2014 UN COP held in Lima, Peru. Participants were asked questions about their awareness of climate change and attitudes to policies both before and again after the COP. Also during the COP some of the participants were shown a positive story about the COP, and some were shown a negative story. The researchers found that exposure to stories about the COP increased climate change awareness, particularly among participants who start out with a low level of awareness. This was true regardless of whether or not the stories were positive or negative. In addition, people’s support for taking action on climate change was not affected by either the negativity or positivity of the story they were shown while the COP was on.
They say: Media coverage of the COP made the public more aware of climate change; however the use of negative and positive frames did not influence what they thought about climate change.
We say: By analysing attitudes prior to and after the COP, this research confirms the important role these conferences play in maintaining public awareness of climate change. There is much more work to be done to understand the depth of that engagement and the role that visual communication plays in that process.
Lück, J; Wessler, H; Wozniak, A (2016). ‘Who Prevails in the Visual Framing Contest About the United Nations Climate Change Conferences?’ Journalism Studies , 1-20
This study looked at which images are favoured by journalists, delegation spokespeople and NGO representatives, and which of these are most prominent in mainstream media coverage at the COPs. The researchers tested the idea that the lack of interesting visuals from inside the conference hall at COPs offers campaigners more opportunity to get the pictures they want into the news. The research examined the images used from the COPs held in Doha (2012) and Warsaw (2013). The analysis was based on coverage in the two most widely circulated newspapers from Brazil, Germany, India, South Africa, and the United States. They also interviewed 44 communication professionals about how they visually communicate climate change in their work. The researchers found that NGOs are substantially more successful than government delegations in getting their visuals covered in the global media. They conclude that the COPs do offer opportunities for NGOs -who are commonly sidelined in mainstream media coverage on public policy issues - to influence the visual framing of the COPs.
They say: The lack of interesting visual opportunities inside the conference hall provides groups who might otherwise be marginalised with the chance to shape the visual iconography of global climate summits.
We say: Events such as COPs are a time when climate change moves up the news agenda. It is important that the imagery used in the coverage represents best practice in visual communication of climate change. For example, one of the findings from our Climate Visuals research was that protest imagery featuring the usual suspects of environmentalists in costumes often left the public disengaged, as they did not identify with the people in the images.
Lück, J; Wessler, H; Wozniak, A (2016). ‘Networks of Co-production: How journalists and Environmental NGOs Create Common Interpretations of the UN Climate Change Conferences.’ The International Journal of Press/Politics 21 (1), 25-47.
This study examines the working relationships that develop between journalists and NGOs at the annual COPs. The study uses COPs as a focus because they are a unique situation which brings together these different groups in close contact over a two week period. In what ways, and to what ends, do these groups work together to produce a common narrative of the processes and agreements that characterise the COPs? The research was carried out at three COPs - Cancun (2010), Doha (2012) and Warsaw (2013) - and was based on the analysis of seventy-eight interviews with journalists and NGO representatives. The researchers found that the exceptional circumstances of these events foster a temporary blurring of the professional boundaries between both groups that partly results in a joint production of interpretations. Specifically, NGOs try to mobilize and engage broad audiences through protests and symbolic actions aimed at national media, while journalists actively publicise the protests in order to capture their readers’ attention.
They say: Though NGOs and journalists are not the only two groups defining the agenda at COPs, the working relationships that develop over the course of the conferences do provide a window of opportunity for NGOs to shape the news coverage.
We say: The unusual circumstances at COPs mean that the lines between journalism and activism are blurred, which is all the more reason to ensure that the images NGOs produce (and the media pro-actively reproduce) are as engaging as possible for a public audience beyond narrow green circles. Our Climate Visuals research shows how to do this - focusing on images of people that are as 'authentic' as possible and avoiding pictures that seem overly 'staged'.
Look out for our expanded Climate Visuals project, starting this April!
Using place to connect with climate change.
Climate change communicators are always on the lookout for better ways of reaching people, helping them connect with that abstract and unfamiliar thing we call climate change. People’s immediate environment is an obvious starting point, talking about how the world at our doorstep is changing, and what risks those changes pose. That is something tangible and makes climate change more relevant to everyday life.
The three papers summarised in this month’s research round-up take quite different approaches to exploring how people’s attitudes to their local area influences what they think and feel about the prospect of changes to their environment. They make clear that the role that ‘place’ (e.g. where people live or particular places they are passionate about) plays in our attitudes to - and understanding of - environmental change is a complex one. The types of risk and change are one important factor. The length of time people have lived in an area varies and can also influence how people feel towards the local environment. And a strong sense of attachment and love for a place can make it difficult for people to accept that it is at risk.
As we have found time and again in our work, there is seldom a one size fits all message in climate change communications. Instead it is important to listen to and understand your audience, and ensure communication strategies are informed by evidence.
Demski, C., Capstick, S., Pidgeon, N. et al. Climatic Change (2016) ‘Experience of extreme weather affects climate change mitigation and adaptation responses’ Climatic Change doi:10.1007/s10584-016-1837-4
The UK winter flooding of 2013/2014 was an opportunity for researchers to examine the extent to which direct experience of an extreme weather event shapes attitudes to climate change. Experience of an extreme weather event may make future climatic events more imaginable, indicating dramatic changes to familiar and local places, in turn heightening the sense of risk posed by climate change.
The research compared the testimony of 162 individuals personally affected by flooding to a nationally representative sample of 975 individuals. The results show that direct experience of flooding does in fact lead to greater awareness of climate change, pronounced emotional responses and increased perceived personal vulnerability and risk perceptions. In addition these changes not only translate into an increased propensity to take personal climate change mitigation actions, but also appear to trigger broader intentions beyond this, including support for mitigation policies and intentions to adapt to another potential climate impact (heatwaves).
They say: The relationship between experience of extreme weather and attitudes to climate change is complex. However, these results indicate that communicating about the risks of flooding and other extreme weather events may provide a powerful overarching narrative for engaging local and wider publics about rising climate risks.
We say: This research shows that communicating climate change through reference to people’s lived and direct experience of the world can help overcome some of the barriers to engagement posed by the abstract nature of climate change.
Bonaiuto, M., Alves, S., De Dominicis, S and Petruccelli, I. (2016) ‘Place attachment and natural hazard risk: Research review and agenda’. Journal of Environmental Psychology Vol. 48 pp 33–53
This paper presents the results of a literature review looking at what is currently known about how place attachment shapes both perception of environmental risk and people’s strategies for coping with that risk. Place attachment is defined as the emotional bonds people have with places, a bond which often comprises a part of their individual and collective identities. The analysis takes place in the context of existing research suggesting that people tend to rate environmental problems as more severe at the global than at the local level, a phenomenon known as psychological distancing. In addition, people who are attached to their locale are likely to underestimate its potential vulnerability to risk.
The authors report two dominant patterns in the research. The first was a positive relationship between place attachment and environmental risk perception; that is, in general and across cultures, highly attached people are more sensitive to natural environmental risks which might threaten the area to which they are attached. The second pattern, perhaps surprisingly, is that they are less likely to engage in behaviours to cope with these risks, especially if coping involves difficult and demanding behaviours. This may be because individuals strive to maintain a positive place identity and so reject information and behaviours in conflict with that perception. If they have to work hard to cope with living there, it no longer becomes such a pleasant place to live.
They say: More work is needed to understand how attitudes to different types of risk are mediated by place attachment and - recognising that environmental risks do not exist in isolation from other types of hazard - how the interplay of different types of risk shape attitudes and decision making.
We say: This exploration of how the emotional component of place attachment mediates perception of risk and behaviour provides a welcome contribution to the field of climate communication. The findings reinforce the principles we have identified - that values and identity offer a productive route into connecting people with the risks posed by climate change.
Bailey, E., Devine-Wright, P. and Batel, S. (2016). ‘Using a narrative approach to understand place attachments and responses to power line proposals: The importance of life-place Trajectories’. Journal of Environmental Psychology 48, pp 200-211
There are different types of place attachment and these can influence how people perceive and respond to environmental change. In turn, environmental change and consequent disruption to place attachment can take many forms. This paper examines the impact of proposals for siting energy infrastructure, in this case a new 60 km 400 kV high voltage power line near a town in the south-west of the UK. The research used in-depth interviews. The interviewees had a variety of differing life histories in relation to place (e.g. some having always lived in the town, some having lived in the town, moved away and then come back again, and others with much more transient biographies).
The researchers found strong place attachment is about more than length of residence in the current place. It is founded upon the extent to which the current place of residence embodies the features and characteristics of the individual’s childhood and adolescent residence and the continued existence of social support networks comprising family and friends that combine to form a sense of continuity. These aspects relating childhood with adult place experience, alongside local social networks, are typically overlooked by quantitative surveys that presume length of residence to be a proxy for strength of place attachment.
They say: This particular case study found those who had the strongest sense of place attachment were least opposed to the proposed route for new pylons, because they were already familiar with the surrounding countryside having pylons in it. It is not clear how that same level of place attachment would mediate attitudes to less familiar change.
We say: These findings show that a sense of continuity lies at the heart of identity and relationships to place. This reaffirms the importance of stressing continuity with the past, rather than focusing on radical and rapid change when communicating messages around renewables such as onshore wind farms.
Li, N. et al. (2016). ‘Cross-pressuring conservative Catholics? Effects of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the U.S. public opinion on climate change’, Climatic Change. DOI 10.1007/s10584-016-1821-z
In 2015 the Pope released the Laudato Si’, the first-ever encyclical or papal letter devoted to the environment. In it the Pope cited scientific consensus on the existence and human causes of climate change, and declared that there was a moral imperative to address climate change.
In order to understand whether such an authoritative public figure could influence public opinion on climate change, researchers conducted 1,381 20-minute phone interviews one week before the encyclical’s release on June 18, 2015, and another 1,374 interviews two weeks later.
The findings indicate that overall those who had heard of the encyclical were no more worried about climate change than those who hadn’t. However, breaking down the results, liberals who had heard of the encyclical were more concerned about climate change than those who hadn’t. The opposite was true for conservatives. Although Pope Francis’s message was expected to be especially influential among Catholics, their attitudes and beliefs about climate change remained strongly associated with their political views.
They say: While Pope Francis’ environmental call may have increased some individuals’ concerns about climate change, it backfired with conservative Catholics and non-Catholics, who not only resisted the message but defended their pre-existing beliefs by devaluing the pope’s credibility on climate change.
We say: The results of this survey confirm what we have found repeatedly in our own work - worldviews and political identities are the primary drivers of how people respond to environmental messages. Faith-based narratives, even when they come from someone with great authority, need to reflect the types of political values they are grounded in, and try to incorporate values (such as maintaining balance, respecting the status quo, enhancing security or avoiding wastefulness) that resonate with the right as well as the left of the political spectrum.
Chapman, A., Corner, A., Webster, R. and Markowitz E. (2016). ‘Climate visuals: A mixed methods investigation of public perceptions of climate images in three countries.’ Global Environmental Change. 41, pp.172-182
Relatively little is known about the role of images in building public engagement with climate change. This paper presents the results of a Climate Outreach project, investigating public perceptions of photographic climate change imagery. The findings are based on four structured discussion groups with 32 members of the public in the UK and Germany and an international survey with 3000 respondents from the UK, Germany and the US.
The results showed that people reacted positively to authentic and credible images of ordinary people, rather than staged photo-ops. Images showing the impacts on people of climate change evoked strong emotional responses and there was a positive response to images of climate ‘solutions’. Images depicting protests and demonstrations evoked negative emotions. Familiar images such as polar bears are easily understood in the surveys but viewed with cynicism in discussion groups.
They say: This is some of the first evidence regarding the impact of climate change imagery on individuals’ affective (how it makes them feel), attitudinal and behavioral responses to the issue. These finding can inform and improve climate change communication.
We say: This research, in improving our understanding of the role of images in communicating climate change, offers important insights in how to develop better strategies for public engagement. This project is the first stage of an ambitious program for the development of a new visual language for climate change.
Gifford, R.D. & Chen, A.K.S. (2016). ‘Why aren’t we taking action? Psychological barriers to climate-positive food choices’. Climatic Change doi:10.1007/s10584-016-1830-y
The authors identified seven categories of psychological reasons why people do not adopt less carbon intensive behaviours. These categories were broken down into 36 barriers and the researchers tested which of these were shaping people’s food choices through an online survey with 251 Canadian respondents. Respondents were asked about their intentions to choose locally grown, home-cooked, meatless, and organic food and their reasons for these choices.
The research found the reasons people gave for not making these food choices were linked primarily to four barriers - denial of the problem, social norms (no one else they knew was eating like this), lack of time and resources and finally tokenism (such actions wouldn’t have any meaningful impact).
They say: Given the significance of the denial barrier, messaging around changes in diet should focus on the co-benefits of improved health alongside complementary concerns such as animal cruelty.
We say: This study focuses on food but offers a framework for understanding barriers to other low-carbon behaviours. Because food is strongly linked to personal identity and values, shifting dietary choices has proven difficult thus far.
Dittrich, R. Wreford, A., Butler, A. and Moran, D. (2016). “The impact of flood action groups on the uptake of flood management measures”. Climatic Change, 138:471–489.
There are a lot of actions householders can take to significantly reduce the risk from flooding. This paper investigates the impact of flood action groups in communities in Scotland on the uptake of four measures: insurance, flood warnings, sandbags and floodgates. The researchers compared the actions taken before and after the formation of the flood action groups.
Flood action groups were set up and run by the flood affected communities themselves. Evidence from research indicates these groups embody all the right attributes for effective communication. That is to say, people will be more likely to take action if i) they feel empowered to take charge rather than being treated as helpless citizens, ii) they are given detailed, precise and personally relevant information, iii) there are actions available which can be easily implemented and which can alleviate the problem and iv) people will be more receptive to this information if it comes from people with similar views such as peers.
124 households took part in the research. All participants had experienced some flooding in the past and half of respondents were involved in flood action community groups. The survey was distributed online and in paper format to 600 residents in 34 communities across Scotland where flooding has occurred in the past and thus flood action groups were formed since 2012. The survey was also distributed at a flood exhibition in Scotland to include respondents from communities without a flood action group.
The researchers found that being part of a flood action community group or living in a community where there was a flood action group was, on its own, not a factor which led to an increase in the uptake of flood prevention measures. Instead it is when the groups provide tailored information, such as flood warnings or how to implement measures, that significant correlations were observed. Tailored information appeared to positively impact the confidence in implementing these measures as well as the belief in their effectiveness.
They say: The results of this small scale research suggest flood action groups have an important role to play in the uptake of precautionary flood protection measures. Given limited resources of local authorities, the promotion of well-designed flood action groups might provide a cost-effective way of increasing household resilience to flooding in Scotland and elsewhere.
We say: These findings reinforce the importance of peer-to-peer interactions in promoting behaviour change. As we see time and time again, the ‘trusted messenger’ is central to the effective communication of climate change.
Baumer, E.P.S., Polletta, F., Peirski, N and Gay, G.K (2016). “A Simple Intervention to Reduce Framing Effects in Perceptions of Global Climate Change”. Environmental Communication. DOI: 10.1080/17524032.2015.1084015
Frames bring certain elements of a complex issue to the fore, allowing people to make sense of it. There are a number of factors which shape the extent to which framing affects someone’s attitude to an issue. This paper explores a technique for reducing the impact of frames on how people perceive climate change. The technique is one which draws the audience’s attention to the way frames are being used in a message. By making it clear that people are reading a message that has been framed, does it change how the message is received?
Even small changes in wording can impact how a message is received: people (especially Republicans) express greater belief in 'climate change' than in 'global warming.' This study carried out the same comparison between the terms “climate change’ and global warming”, but, for some participants, the researchers described the concept of framing and highlighted the relevant terms (e.g. “global warming” or “climate change”). The findings suggest that simply drawing attention to the presence of frames in this way can reduce the framing effects documented in previous work.
303 respondents were recruited for the survey, using an online process which resulted in a sample that was more liberal and well educated than the US population. The researchers found that people who identified as conservatives expressed significantly less belief in the existence of ‘global warming’ than in the existence of ‘climate change’. However, when presented with statements which highlighted the words ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ after an introduction which explained frames and how they work, there was no significant difference in the levels of belief between the two terms.
They say: Drawing attention to the ways in which words are being used to frame an issue supports a more reflective response to messages and can overcome the effects of framing.
We say: We agree that encouraging reflection on the language in climate messages is crucial. Finding effective ways to communicate the presence and function of frames to public audiences remains a challenge for communicators.
Hart, P.S. and Feldman, L. (2016). “The Influence of Climate Change Efficacy Messages and Efficacy Beliefs on Intended Political Participation”. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0157658. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157658
People’s willingness to contact their government representative asking them to take action on climate change depends in part on the perceived ‘efficacy’ of the action. Efficacy means whether the person feels a) the problem can be solved and b) that doing something like contacting politicians will make a difference to the outcome.
This paper studied how manipulating the efficacy information in news stories on climate change influenced the reader’s intended willingness to contact government representatives. Three types of efficacy were studied. The first - internal efficacy - refers to one’s personal sense that they understand politics and can act effectively in the political realm (ie, how easy is it for the person to take action?). The second - external efficacy - reflects individuals’ beliefs about the government’s responsiveness to citizen demands (ie, will the politician even listen to their complaint?). The third - response efficacy - is about the extent to which the person feels the government will do anything even if their representative acts on their behalf.
The research was carried out using an online survey of 1426 people in the US. The participants were split into seven groups. Each group was given a different, made-up news story. Each story discussed the likely impacts of climate change, but the message varied from group to group in terms of which type of efficacy message it included and whether that efficacy message was treated positively or negatively.
The results showed that positive internal efficacy information - messages reinforcing the reader’s sense of confidence in their knowledge of climate change and the political system - increased perceptions of internal efficacy. Negative external efficacy information - messages stressing the readers political impotence - lowered perceptions of external efficacy. Other messages had only a limited impact on perceived efficacy.
They say: These results show that news stories that include positive internal efficacy information in particular have the potential to increase public engagement around climate change. However, overall the results demonstrate the difficulty that may exist in shifting perceived efficacy on the issue of climate change.
We say: The results from this study confirm the need to base messaging strategies on academic research, and to ensure communicators use frames which bolster people’s confidence that they can make a difference by focusing on the political rather than less effective personal actions.
Ekholm, S; Olofsson, A (2016). “Parenthood and Worrying About Climate Change: The Limitations of Previous Approaches.” Risk Analysis DOI: 10.1111/risa.12626
The starting point for this paper is the counterintuitive message that has emerged from previous research looking for a link between parenthood and perceptions of climate risks: in short, that becoming a parent doesn’t seem to increase people’s level of engagement with climate change. The reason this is counterintuitive is that having children provides a strong connection with ‘the future’ beyond an individual’s own life, and for most people a sense of investment in what that future will be like.
However, the authors of this study claim that previous research has not asked the right questions - in particular, most studies have focused on ‘rational’ risk-perceptions rather than ‘emotional’ variables such as level of individual worry, or feeling bad or anxious about the future.
Nearly 1400 Swedish individuals took part in this study, completing an online questionnaire that assessed parenthood by asking whether there were any people under 18 living in the household (perhaps not the best measure - but one that does allow for non-traditional care-giving relationships to be incorporated). The survey asked a series of questions, some of which were about ‘rational’ risk perceptions (e.g. ‘do you think that climate change will affect you personally?’), and some which were more emotion-focused (e.g., ‘are you worried that climate change will affect the next generation?’).
Parenthood didn’t influence the risk-perception responses, but was associated with higher scores on the emotional questions. In addition, women worry more than men, people with a high school education worry more than those who have only completed compulsory school, and the more climate awareness, the greater the worry. Those with left-wing political views are more worried than those on political right.
They say: In this study, we have shown that questions designed with an emotional response in mind are those that demonstrate the correlation between parenthood and views on climate change, something that no previous study has managed to do, even where there are signs of it in the qualitative results.
We say: Some questions remain about how they defined parenthood in this study, and whether the divide between ‘rational’ and ‘emotional’ judgments is really quite as clear-cut as they claim. The study shows that the type of question asked in research of this kind really matters, but is still limited to some quite ‘stilted’ questions: sometimes more participatory research is needed to get at complex phenomena such as how people’s emotions about the future are mediated by their relationship with their children.
Corner, A; Demski, C; Pidgeon, N; Poortinga, W; Spence, A; Venables, D (2011). “Nuclear power,climate change and energy security: Exploring British public attitudes.” Energy Policy 39, 4823–4833.
While this paper is from 2011, and based on a survey of public opinion conducted in 2009, the key messages from it are worth reflecting on now that nuclear power is back in the media spotlight, following the unexpected delay to the decision on whether or not to build a new nuclear power station (Hinkley Point C) in North Somerset.
British public attitudes to nuclear power have waxed and waned over time - reflecting changing global dynamics, high-profile accidents, and the availability of other energy technologies. But since the early 2000s, they have been relatively stable. A minority of the public are in favour of nuclear power (approximately 35%), a similar proportion are opposed to it, and there is a sizeable chunk who sit somewhere in the middle.
But over the last 15 years or so, as the reality of climate change - and the need to rapidly transition to a low-carbon energy system - have become ever clearer, nuclear power has been reframed by its proponents as a source of energy that can contribute to decarbonisation, and provide energy-security in the move away from fossil fuels.
This paper asks: are efforts to reframe nuclear power in this way likely to be effective?
By asking different types of questions about nuclear power, the survey was able to show that although most people do not unconditionally favour nuclear power in and of itself (it is as unpopular as fossils fuels, and nowhere near as popular as renewables), the percentage of people who say they support it rises when it is presented as a way of tackling climate change (from 35% to 45%), and rises again to 57% in response to the following statement: “I don’t really like the idea of nuclear power, but I reluctantly accept that we will need it to help combat climate change and energy security in the UK”.
Plus, while there was a negative relationship between concern for climate change and unconditional support for nuclear power (i.e. people who were concerned about climate change were less likely to unconditionally support it), this relationship was reversed for the ‘reluctant acceptance’ question: the more people cared about climate change, the more they agreed that they reluctantly accepted it to combat climate change.
They say: “When people were allowed to express their unease about nuclear power - that is, their reluctant acceptance - concern about climate change and energy security increased support for nuclear power.”
We say: This paper is a strong demonstration of the power of framing. The way that nuclear power was presented, in three different statements, reverse the relationship between concern about climate change and support for the technology. Climate Outreach does not promote nuclear power, but thinking carefully about how all aspects of the energy transition are framed is crucial.
Dunlap, R.E; Marquart-Pyatt, S.T; McCright, A.M (2016). “Political ideology and views about climate change in the European Union.” Environmental Politics, 25, 338–358.
The left/right polarisation in views about climate change is well-documented in North America, Australia and to a slightly lesser extent the UK. This paper used existing data (that is, they didn’t go out and collect more evidence themselves) to consider the extent of left/right political polarisation in the European Union. In fact, the data they used (from 25 countries in 2008) is now quite old, having been collected in the words of the authors “before the 2008 global financial crisis, the 2009 ‘climategate’ controversy and COP-15 in Copenhagen”.
Data from 14 Western European countries and 11 former Communist countries were analysed. There was a significant ideological divide in Western European countries. Specifically, citizens on the right were less likely than those on the left to believe that climate change was occurring, perceived climate change to be a less serious problem, were less likely to agree that society should ‘deal with’ climate change, were less likely to express a personal willingness to pay to deal with climate change, and were less likely to support policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The divide was not as stark as in the US and Australia but it was still statistically significant.
In the former Communist countries, there was no such divide, which the authors suggest is due to “the low political salience of climate change and the differing meaning of left–right identification in these countries.”
They say: The weaker belief in the reality and seriousness of climate change and weaker support for dealing with this global problem among citizens on the right in Western European nations is likely due to these individuals perceiving that dealing with climate change will limit private property rights, increase governmental intervention into markets, and further erode national sovereignty... since the 2008 global financial crisis, and the ‘Climategate’ controversy and conflictual Copenhagen COP-15 of late 2009, climate change likely has become more politicized in the EU.”
We say: Our work looking at political polarisation and engaging centre-right audiences in the EU is motivated by the idea that the left-right divide is not restricted to the US, Australia and the UK - but this systematic comparison provides the evidence that this is the case. So understanding how to have a more productive conversation about climate change with people who lean to the right politically is by no means something that is only of interest in Anglophone nations. It is difficult to know whether (and how much) the situation has changed since 2008 - but there is ample evidence of political polarisation on a range of issues across EU countries, from immigration to the economy.
Low, R; Opt, S (2016). “Dividing and uniting through naming: the case of North Carolina's sea-level-rise policy.” Environmental Communication.
This is a case study of how a pressure group went about discrediting the science used in projections of sea level rise along the North Carolina coastline in the US. The pressure group was set up by real estate and commercial organisations to challenge the scientific projection of a 1 metre sea level rise by 2100, which had negative implications for their businesses. The audiences for their messages were the public, businesses and planning authorities, and the goal was to ensure planning decisions were not influenced by these sea level rise projections.
The researchers analysed the language used by the pressure group in their communications. They found that the pressure group used language which suggested the scientists had failed to meet the criteria of “good” science, were instead driven by ideology and, by implication, that the scientists were ‘villains’. Conversely, the pressure group produced their own scientific research to challenge the sea level rise projections, using language that drew on themes and symbolism which presented their scientists as ‘heroes’.
The researchers based their analysis on a range of criteria they identified as being synonymous with cultural representations of ‘villainous’ and ‘heroic’ scientists. ‘Good’ scientists are engineers, patriotic and ‘average people’, who discover new facts and produce practical inventions. Conversely, qualities that are associated with ‘villainous’ scientists include “intelligentsia, elite, isolates, cosmopolitan, atheist” and are motivated by “benefiting some small clique, profit, hubris.”
The paper makes clear that terms such as ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ were not used explicitly in the pressure group’s materials but are the symbolic representations emerging from the language used. The authors go on to stress that the hero/villain symbolism is very powerful because it has universal relevance, and can be effective in shaping perceptions of climate change if the audience identifies strongly with the hero. Therefore scientists communicating climate change should be mindful of the cues which can lead to them being identified as a good scientist or, in the terminology of this paper, a ‘hero’.
They say: In messages to the public, scientists need to overtly state the criterial attributes of ‘good’ science and show how their work fits that name. They should also show how their work, and not their opponents’ work, embodies the attributes of ‘good’ science. It is not enough just to report the facts or findings of their research.
We say: The insights from this paper have implications not only for how scientists communicate their own work but how others communicate science. The narrative which is used to carry the factual message is vitally important in ensuring the research results are trusted by the intended audience. The question of how to put a human face on climate change and tell stories that engage with diverse values is central to our work at Climate Outreach. While we do not endorse the particular characteristics identified in the paper of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, we recognise the value of asking how people respond to the 'messengers' in climate change communication and not just their ‘messages.'
Adams, D.C; Bowers, A.W; Monroe, M.C (2016) “Climate change communication insights from cooperative Extension professionals in the US Southern states: finding common ground.” Environmental Communication.
The ‘Six Americas’ audience segmentation divides people based on global warming attitudes: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. However the Six Americas spectrum does not explain why people feel the way they do about global warming. The authors set out to identify any areas of agreement between the different segments, arguing that launching a discussion with an unfamiliar (but likely diverse) audience could be more successful if presenters frame the conversation with generic yet meaningful and shared perceptions. This article explores: (1) what beliefs and attitudes are held in common by survey respondents, and (2) how this common ground might be used to enhance climate change education programming.
A web-based survey invited answers from members of The Cooperative Extension service, which was set up by the US Department of Agriculture to convey climate information about climate change impacts on agriculture. This initial survey showed that the respondents held views on climate change broadly in line with the general US public. Written comments were also included in the survey responses. 506 of these comments were analysed.
The researchers identified five themes in the comments which were common and consistent across five or six segments: (1) confusion and mistrust abound, (2) educators face barriers to climate change education, (3) the economic aspects of climate change are important, (4) we should all be good stewards of the Earth, and (5) adaptation to climate change is an agreeable strategy.
The dominant theme was confusion and mistrust - comments revealed an overall air of uncertainty surrounding the issue of climate change. This uncertainty was reflected in different way. Comments raised concerns about conflicting scientific data, trust in information sources, and availability and accessibility of information, including a lack of information. The next most common theme was anxiety about raising the subject, and the desire for the support of professional facilitators.
They say: Despite confusion amongst the research participants, the answer may not be simply to provide them with more information. Instead it may be better to emphasise stewardship activities and economically feasible adaptations to reduce risk in order to provide a platform that interests and engages a large variety of the public.
We say: This research offers a timely and useful insight into how best to develop and use narratives with broad public appeal. The theme of stewardship is one we have identified as important for a wide range of audiences in our own work at Climate Outreach.
Arvai, J; Shi, J; Siegrist, M; Visschers, V (2016). ‘Knowledge as a driver of public perceptions about climate change reassessed.’ Nature Climate Change DOI.10.1038
Previous research has consistently shown that knowledge about climate change has only a limited effect on people’s levels of concern. This paper investigated whether the way previous studies had gone about measuring concern and levels of knowledge was biasing the findings obtained. In particular, the researchers thought that participants may not know as much about climate change as they tell researchers when asked simple questions such as ‘How much do you know about climate change?’. Also, there are different elements of climate change knowledge, and it is important to know which aspects of climate change (for example, causes, impacts or physical characteristics) shape perception and attitudes. The researchers recognise that values also shape levels of concern. However, they challenge the assumption that values are a more important determination of attitudes to climate risk than knowledge.
An online survey was used to investigate 2495 people’s values across six countries: Canada, China, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the US. The research also measured knowledge of three aspects of climate change: the causes of climate change, the ‘physical characteristics’ of climate change (e.g. that greenhouse gases have been increasing) and the consequences of climate change. They found overall that there were generally high levels of knowledge of climate change, e.g. 49% of all participants could correctly identify the physical characteristics of climate change, 60% correctly answered all questions about the causes of climate change and 70% of respondents could correctly identify the consequences of climate change.
Women were found to have more concern than men in Germany and in the UK. In the UK, older adults tended to be less concerned about climate change compared with younger people. Respondents who identified with pro-environmental values were found to be more concerned about climate change across the six countries. Whether people identified more with egoistic values (referring to one’s degree of self-interest) or altruistic values (associated with considering and being concerned about the welfare of others) did not seem to affect how concerned people were about climate change.
Certain types of knowledge did seem to be linked to concern about climate change. People who understood the causes (for example that the global CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased during the past 250 years) and consequences of climate change (for example, that for the next decades, the majority of climate scientists expect an increase in extreme events such as droughts, floods and storms) were more concerned in all countries. But knowing more about the physical characteristics of climate change (for example that burning oil produces CO2) didn't make people any more concerned.
They say: “Different types of knowledge have different influences on public concern. Risk communication efforts regarding climate change may not be the lost cause that some researchers (and some policymakers) assume they are. The emphasis on the causes (versus the physical and consequential dimensions) of climate change should be encouraged. Moreover, risk communication of this type should not disregard the importance of individual values.”
We say: This research indicates that discussion of risk can play a productive role in climate change communications. We would argue that more research is needed into what forms of knowledge about climate risk are most appropriate for climate change communication. Regardless of the role of information, we should still not expect information on its own to do all the work - using language that connects with people's values creates the space in which knowledge can be absorbed.
Zhou, J. (2016). “Boomerangs versus Javelins: How Polarization Constrains Communication on Climate Change.” Environmental Politics. DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2016.1166602
The main message from this study is that US Republicans are resistant to messages that encourage support of governmental action or personal engagement on climate change. This is because of the phenomenon of ‘motivated reasoning’ - the process whereby individuals with strong personal convictions on an issue seek out information that confirms their bias. When exposed to information contrary to their beliefs, motivated reasoners respond by becoming more entrenched in their position. The more politically sophisticated the person, the more profound this ‘boomerang effect’ can be.
This study recruited a sample of 470 US Republicans. Participants were presented with a number of different paragraphs of text which talked about climate change from different political (e.g. Democrat or Republican) and ethical perspectives. After reading these paragraphs, participants were asked a range of questions about their willingness to support various forms of government intervention on climate change and then a separate set of questions about their likelihood to change their behaviours.
He says: ‘‘Being told that climate change is a problem worth caring about – regardless of reason or source – increased Republican skepticism and decreased their support for action on the issue.’’
We say: These results are perhaps not surprising, as while the messages participants received varied, they all strongly advocated (in persuasive terms) for ‘action’ on climate change, to an audience of strongly-sceptical Republican participants. No individual ‘message’ is likely to lead to someone abandoning their belief system - so framing studies like these should be viewed as ways of trialling and testing language that could be used in more conversational, dialogue-based contexts.
Geiger, N and Swim, J. (2016). “Climate of silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change discussion”. Journal of Environmental Psychology (47) 79-90. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2016.05.002
This paper begins by arguing that an effective response to climate change will only be achieved in the context of a social consensus which recognises the necessity of mitigation and adaptation. Interpersonal communication is essential to building this consensus but no one is talking about climate change, and the authors suggest two reasons for this: firstly, the belief that climate change is of no interest to other people and secondly, that people are worried that they lack the knowledge to competently debate the issue with people who disagree with them, and that this will lead to a negative social evaluation by their peers. Both of these reasons are functions of ‘pluralistic ignorance’.
Pluralistic ignorance describes the situation where people misperceive other people’s feelings about a subject. If they feel their views are minority views, especially where the issue is politically or morally charged, they will be less likely to share their opinions. The authors hypothesised that participants will be less willing to talk about climate change when they perceive that their opinions are in the minority.
The research was conducted with 305 undergraduate psychology students at Pennsylvania State University. Initial pilot studies were carried out with psychology students to confirm the existence of pluralistic ignorance on climate change. One set of pilot studies showed that a majority reported they themselves were concerned. Another set of pilot studies revealed that only a minority correctly perceived that a majority of other students were concerned about climate change. After screening to remove those most sceptical about climate change - to explore self-silencing amongst those who hold the majority opinion - 305 undergraduates were invited to take part in an online survey. In the survey they were asked how they thought they would be perceived by their peers if they brought up the subject of climate change during a discussion about the weather. The respondents also self-categorized themselves according to their level of concern about climate change.
The study found that being seen to be lacking in competence was a bigger disincentive to starting a climate change conversation than fear of being disliked. The researchers argue that this self-silencing can be overcome by providing people with accurate information about other people’s opinions (e.g. that the other people agree with them). It is also argued that the self-silencing can be overcome if people feel more confident about their knowledge of the climate science.
They say: “The present research demonstrates that pluralistic ignorance can be a barrier to discussions about climate change among those most concerned about climate change and this barrier can be removed by correcting this pluralistic ignorance.”
We say: This approach provides further evidence for the importance of building a self-sustaining national series of climate change conversations, and underpins our work. For an overview of our recent reports, click here.
Rickard, L.N., Yang, J.Z. and Schuldt, J.P. (2016). “Here and now, there and then: How "departure dates" influence climate change engagement”. Global Environmental Change 38, 97–107 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.03.003
The term ‘departure date’ refers to the year after which the annual climate in a specific location, for example New York City, will be warmer than anything experienced in the meteorological record i.e., the last 150 years.
Even though climate change impacts are already being felt, for many people in the West climate change remains an abstract risk superseded by what are perceived to be more immediate concerns. This make the communication of climate change difficult. This research explores the extent to which distance-related cues (e.g., regarding temporal and spatial distance) in contemporary messaging about climate impacts influences risk perception, affective responses to the message, and support for climate change policy. Further, the research assesses the extent to which political ideology influences how people react to changes in the ‘departure date’, e.g. how moving the ‘departure date’ closer shapes support for climate policy and risk perception.
This was a comparative analysis, carried out with participants from New York and Singapore. The participants were undergraduates from universities in those two places. Information about political beliefs and demographic characteristics were collected along with data about environmental attitudes. From this population, people were randomly assigned to one of seven groups, one of which was a control group. In the six experimental groups, participants were assigned to one of three duplicate groups and provided with messages about climate impacts with different ‘departure dates,’ and then asked questions about support for climate policies and perception of climate risk. The control group were asked the same questions without being asked to read a news story first.
The results showed little evidence that exposure to these different ‘departure date’ scenarios changed how people perceived climate change risks. However, exposure to this information may interact with individuals’ political orientation in important ways. Conservative attitudes appeared more susceptible to manipulation of departure dates than liberals, the latter, the authors surmise, already having fixed and informed opinions about climate risks.
They say: “The present findings leads us to tentatively suggest that, when it comes to presenting climate change information to more conservative U.S. audiences, there may be persuasive value in messaging that combines perceived closeness in geographic (i.e., spatial) location and perceived distance in timing of impacts.”
We say: The veracity of using the ‘departure date’ concept is unknown and we would suggest that an experiment based on responses to this concept tells us little new about framing and climate change communication. The conditions under which the testing was done seem far removed from the real world and the findings too inconclusive to inform a communications strategy. The findings do reconfirm the importance of values in any climate change communications strategy.
Fielding, K.S; Hornsey, M.J. (2016). A cautionary note about messages of hope: Focusing on progress in reducing carbon emissions weakens mitigation motivation. Global Environmental Change 39 , 26-34.
There’s been a long-running debate about the right balance to strike in talking about climate change between ‘doom & gloom’ and ‘brightsiding’ at the other end of the scale (messages and campaigns that suggest everything will be better in a low-carbon world). The starting point for this paper is that “gloomy messages about climate change risk fatiguing the population, and that alternative approaches are necessary. It is also informed by work suggesting that hope is a motivating force in terms of engaging in collective action and social change”
The question posed by the authors was how people would respond to the ‘good news’ that global emissions have recently slowed for the first time. It was an online study with participants drawn from the US/UK/AU.
They found that relative to a more ‘pessimistic’ message, the ‘optimistic’ message reduced participants’ sense that climate change represented a risk to them, and therefore didn’t increase ‘efficacy’ but did seem to increase complacency.
They say: “Recent progress in curbing global carbon emissions is welcome, but we found no evidence that messages focusing on this progress constitute an effective communication strategy”
We say: ‘Positive’ messages are about being constructive, not making people feel happy or complacent. There is no merit in downplaying the risks of climate change, but if you get people’s attention with a threat you need to couple that with a plausible response they can take.
Guenther, S; Obradovich, N (2016). Collective responsibility amplifies mitigation behaviors. Climatic Change , 1-13.
This paper picks up another classic climate communication debate: is it better to focus on individual behaviour and responsibility, or collective societal responsibility? Their starting point is “It is widely assumed that emphasizing personal responsibility for climate change is effective at increasing pro-climate behavior whereas collectively framing the causes of climate change diffuses responsibility and dampens the incentive for individual action.”
They asked people to write about one of three topics - either ways in which their own behaviour contributed to climate change, ways in which collective, societal actions contribute to climate change, or a ‘control’ condition where they wrote about something random. They then measured how much of a ‘prize’ on offer ($100) they would donate to an environmental charity if they won the prize.
For the general public sample (there were multiple studies), they found that the amount people were willing to donate was 50% higher when they wrote about collective societal contribution to climate change. They also capture other data about individual behavioural intentions.
They say: “The evidence we present suggests that emphasizing collective responsibility for climate change may be more effective at altering climate-related behaviors and attitudes...The observed effects hold in both environmentalists and the general public and persist over time.”
We say: This fits with our general approach at Climate Outreach - don’t over-individualise the problem, and if you can paint a good mental picture in people’s minds by getting them to reflect on climate change at a societal level, this is a good basis for further engagement.
Ebeling, F; Lotz, S (2015). Domestic uptake of green energy promoted by opt-out tariffs. Nature Climate Change 5, 868–871.
This is a paper about ‘nudging’ - i.e. making small changes to the world around people, and hoping that they will make a different choice in response. Specifically this is about defaults - which has been shown to be a very effective way of getting people to (for example) donate their organs after they die. But does it work for energy & climate change?
41,952 households in Germany took part in this study. On an online energy-supplier’s website, households were either given the option of ‘opting in’ or ‘opting out’ of a green energy tariff (which was slightly more expensive, but 100% renewable. They found a significant jump in the percentage of people choosing the green energy tariff when the default was set to opt in: 6%, compared to less than 1% when they had to opt in themselves.
They say: “Why are choices of `green' energy particularly suitable for behavioural interventions using defaults? It is plausible that decisions that are highly relevant for one's moral identity are particularly influenced by default setting. As previous research has shown, individual morality is an important driver of pro-environmental behaviour. Actively negating one's moral convictions regarding the environment by opting out of a pre-selected pro-environmental option might be much more aversive compare with not opting in. Therefore, defaults could be particularly effective in the domain of environmental decision making, including energy choices.”
We say: Nudges like this clearly have the capacity to influence behaviours, but what’s doing the work, the nudge or the moral conviction the authors refer to? And where did that moral conviction come from? Not from nudging...more likely from reflection and thinking, engaging people until they are at a point where a nudge like this is ‘accepted’.