Research & Insights

Keeping It In The Family: Climate Change Beliefs Are Passed Down From Parents

Getting people to take seriously the issue of climate change can be challenging, but research suggests communicators seeking to encourage action on the issue should keep it in the family.

Public health scholar Erin Mead from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and her colleagues were interested in how adolescents’ attitudes about climate change were influenced by the attitudes of their parents. The researchers surveyed over 500 pairs of parents and teens (ages 13 through 17). Their results were published in a 2012 issue of the Atlantic Journal of Communication.

The surveys asked both parents and teens how much they thought climate change would impact them in the future and whether people could take personal actions to mitigate the threat. They were also asked how much they discussed climate change as a family.

Teens were also asked about their attitudes towards environmentally friendly behaviors (such as biking rather than driving) and political preferences (such as whether they supported international treaties to address climate change). They were also asked how much they engaged in internet searches or other activities to learn more about climate change and the environment.

The researchers found a connection between the environmental attitudes of teens and the attitudes of their parents, both in terms of how great a threat climate change poses and how effective they felt their own actions were in mitigating this danger. Teens whose parents “recognize both the dangers of climate change and the potential for action to reduce the threat [had] the highest motivation to seek information on the issue.” On the other hand, teens whose parents “recognize the dangers, but may or may not recognize the potential for reducing it, are less likely to seek information on the issue.”

Mead and her team offered several suggestions for leveraging these connections to promote pro-environmental behaviors among families. “By increasing perceived risk and coupling it with messages to increase efficacy,” they note, “campaigns can increase adolescents’ motivations for action.”

In particular, “[K]nowing the target audience’s risk and efficacy profile can assist interventions to tailor messages according to what is lacking,” the researchers explain. “For example, audience members lacking in efficacy can be provided with information about how to overcome barriers to action, what actions provide the greatest impact, etc. Similarly, those with low risk perceptions can be targeted with information explaining the current or projected impacts of climate change on local health and safety.”

Mead and her team emphasize that “perhaps the most significant implication of our findings is the possibility that climate change-related interventions can maximize their impact by conceptualizing the family as a significant unit of intervention.”

Atlantic Journal of Communication

Erin Mead and Rajiv N. Rimal, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Connie Roser-Renouf and Edward Maibach, George Mason University
June A. Flora, Stanford University
Anthony Leiserowitz, Yale University

Posted: July 15, 2015
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