Research & Insights

For Action on the Climate, Keep Your Messages Local

New research suggests that people are more likely to respond to calls for action on climate change if they’re made aware of how global warming will affect their local communities.

The experiment, conducted by political scientists Sara L. Wiest, Leigh Raymond, and Rosalee A. Clawson of Purdue University was published in the March 2015 issue of the journal Global Environmental Change, and involved 198 participants at a university in Indiana.

Participants – all living in Indiana – were randomly assigned to watch one of four informative videos about the future impacts of climate change, two detailing local impacts (such as the appearance of new pests in Indiana agricultural lands) and two detailing global impacts (such as the appearance of new pests in agricultural lands in Europe and Asia). Some of the videos also mentioned potentially positive effects (such as extended growing seasons) from climate change.

The participants were then asked to fill out a survey including information about their political leanings, and questions designed to measure their “perceptions of the severity of climate change, behavioral intentions toward climate change [whether participants agreed with statements such as “It is my responsibility to help do something about climate change”], and attitudes toward climate change policies.”

The researchers found that the participants who saw the videos detailing the local effects of climate change were more than twice as likely to say that climate change is a “very serious” problem for Indiana. The experiment also showed that Republicans and Independents who heard about the local impacts of climate change were more likely to agree with behavioral changes to deal with the climate problem, and were more supportive of making climate change a priority for state government.

“When people are confronted with information on how climate change will affect the state in which they live, they appear to be less able to engage in ‘psychological distancing’ to minimize the issue,” the researchers explain, “instead perceiving it as a more serious problem for their state.”

Unfortunately, when participants were presented with information detailing the potential benefits of climate change – the kind of information opponents of action on climate change often distribute – they were less likely to support policy changes. “Our findings…indicate that benefit framing [discussing benefits of climate change to a region] by climate skeptics could reduce public perceptions of the severity of the problem, and potentially levels of support for policy action,” the researchers explain.

“[This type of framing] reduced perceptions of problem severity at the local and national levels for subjects across all categories of party identification,” Weist, Raymond, and Clawson note. “It is important to remember that we presented only moderate benefits compared to those often described by climate skeptics…Thus, it is quite possible that benefits frames offered by climate skeptics, which are stronger and more one-sided than the treatments offered here, may reduce public concern about the severity of the problem to a greater degree.”

Global Environmental Change

Sara L. Wiest, Leigh Raymond, and Rosalee A. Clawson, Purdue University

Posted: September 28, 2015
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