Research & Insights

How to Talk About Climate Change Science

To persuade climate change skeptics, ditch the metaphors and keep it simple.

Pie charts and simple statements about the scientific consensus are more effective than longer metaphors in communicating about climate change, according to a study published in September 2014 journal Climatic Change.

These results come from an experiment involving over 1,000 participants, conducted by Sander van der Linden and his colleagues at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the Center for Climate Change Communication.

Participants were asked to take part in a fictional public opinion poll that included questions about climate change. They were first asked a series of questions on their beliefs about climate change – whether most scientists believe it’s happening, whether they as participants believe it’s happening, whether it’s caused by humans and whether they worry about it and think we should take action to reduce it.

Participants then saw one of several informative statements about the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is caused by humans. Some participants saw a simple text statement that noted, “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.” Others saw this information accompanied by a pie chart.

A third group saw a metaphor about climate change, such as “If 97% of doctors concluded that your child is sick – would you believe that your kid is sick? 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”

Afterwards, participants were again asked their opinions about climate change using the same questions as before.

The researchers found that all of the treatments – the statement, pie chart and metaphors – were effective at raising people’s estimates of the scientific consensus on climate change. However, the simple text and pie chart interventions were more effective than the metaphors.

“Compared to the metaphor conditions, participants in the pie chart and descriptive text conditions adjusted their estimates [of the consensus] upward at a significantly higher rate this effect was particularly strong for Republicans,” the researchers note.

The findings “suggest that when communicating the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, presenting information in a way that is short, simple and easy to comprehend and remember seems to offer the highest probability of success for all audiences.”

Climate Change

Sander L. van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, and Geoffrey Feinberg, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication
Edward Maibach, Center for Climate Change Communication

Posted: April 12, 2016
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