Research & Insights

The 5 Climate Change Communication Studies You Need to Know

Despite the mountain of scientific evidence that confirms that climate change is real and a result of human activity, it continues to be a polarizing issue in American politics. Advocates for climate change are continually seeking strategies to reach the people who maintain their denial and skepticism before it’s too late.

Even with targeted efforts to shift environmental attitudes, only one in 10 republicans believe climate change is occurring, while nine out of 10 Democrats do. Even more startling, 40 percent of adults worldwide have never heard of climate change.

There are a number of groups, including foundations, nonprofits, activists, institutes, scientists and politicians that work to increase support for climate change policies. However, their efforts often fail to move the right people.

It is commonly assumed that if you make people more science literate, by giving them understandable information on climate change science and policy, then denial will diminish. However, research says otherwise, suggesting deniers and skeptics often actively avoid or disbelieve the presented evidence.

To reach people on the issue of climate change, it is key that you speak to their head (their sense of rationality) and the heart (their emotions). But, importantly, what will speak to people is very much shaped by their various identities, that is who they are, what they value and how they see themselves.

Researchers suggest that messages that strategically tap into deniers and skeptics various identities- such as political and religious affiliations- can transform deniers into believers.

Here are the 5 climate change studies you need to know to move nonbelievers to believers.


1.Liberals and conservatives have different moral values that shape their environmental support.

There is consensus among researchers that liberals support issues framed as avoiding harm and promoting equality, where conservatives support issues framed as respect for authority and preserving the sacred.

Climate change is often talked about using language that resonates with liberal moral values of protecting the environment from the harm caused by humans. As a result, liberals tend to view climate change as a moral issue, where conservatives do not. Researchers believe that the widespread use of this language is what leads to stronger support from the left.

Social psychologist Matthew Feinberg and sociologist Robb Willer tested whether using moral language that resonates with conservative moral values could increase skeptical republicans’ belief and support for climate change policies.

In their study, they showed conservative participants images of the consequences of climate change. Some participants saw images that tapped into conservative moral values of preserving the sacred. Images, for example, showed once pure water contaminated and a once pure forest covered in trash. Other participants saw images that tapped into liberal moral values of protection from harm. Images included a coral reef system being harmed by increased global warming and cracked ground from drought.

Conservative participants who saw images embedded in conservative values reported greater support of climate change policies, as compared to conservatives who saw images embedded in liberal values.

So, using language and images that tap into deniers and skeptics moral values can increase support for climate change, and eliminate differences in liberal and conservative environmental attitudes.


2. Political ideology prevents people from accepting facts that threaten their worldview.

For conservatives, the conflicting nature of climate science to their worldview stops them from acknowledging the evidence. Correcting misinformation about climate change science and policies by providing graphs and charts can be effective, but only if the information does not threaten how they see themselves.

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that one way to diminish the threat of climate change information for people who strongly identify as Republican is by affirming their self-worth (or stroke their ego, as they say). They argue that doing so makes it easier for conservatives to cope with challenging information, as “it relaxes their need to reject facts that could otherwise be threatening.”


3. People deny climate science if it is in their best interest to do so.

To diminish polarization around climate change, many believe providing more information on the science and policy can be effective. However, professor of psychology and law Dan Kahan and his colleagues found that polarization has less to do with lack of knowledge on climate science and more to do with people’s various identities.

In fact, people with the highest levels of science literacy and technical reasoning are more likely to express apathy toward climate change. Polarization stems not from the lack of understanding of the issue, but rather from a conflict of interest.

People are more likely to deny climate change information and policy if it is in their best interest to do so. For some people, the denial of scientific evidence is a rational choice.

For example, if one’s colleagues and friends are deniers and skeptics, supporting climate change policy can create a conflict in their relationship that may not outweigh the benefits of their support. Similarly, people do not like to do things they do not want to do. So, if one would be required to change their behavior- such as taking public transportation or not working for a particular corporation- denial of the consequences of their actions becomes a rational choice.

Climate change messages should not threaten people’s identities, the researchers suggest. Effective strategies should include using relevant and diverse messengers who have credibility within skeptics and deniers’ worlds, as well as creating messages that resonate with how they see themselves.


4.The climate change message is the messenger.

Messengers who have credibility, authority and status within deniers and skeptics’ worlds can be effective at delivering information on climate change. However, who people trust for information on climate change varies.

In a study, social psychologist David Sleeth-Keppler and his colleagues wanted to know who people trusted for information about climate change.They gathered data on more than 1,700 Americans to see how much trust people have in formal communicators like scientists, government workers and politicians, as well as informal communicators like neighbors, church leaders and co-workers. They found that people who trusted formal communicators were just as likely to trust informal communicators. However, for people who had little trust in formal communicators, informal communicators were very important. For example, the researchers found that participants who were more conservative and more religious turned to religious leaders, neighbors and co-workers for information and solutions to climate change.

The person who delivers climate change information is just as important as how the information is presented.


 5. People support climate change action if they see how the consequences will affect their local communities.

Highlighting the local impact of climate change on communities can boost Independent and Republican support for local policy action, as well as intentions to change their behavior to be more environmentally friendly.

For example, a team of political scientists found that skeptical conservative participants in Indiana were more likely to take climate change seriously after watching a video that attributed the appearance of new pests in Indiana agricultural to global warming, as compared to those who saw a video on pests in agriculture in Europe and Asia.

In short, if we want to move deniers to believers, we have to strategically tap into their identities and use communicators and messages that align with their worldviews.



Posted: March 30, 2016
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