The best way to motivate people to support action to limit climate change is to … explain to them the dangers of not taking action, a new Nature Climate Change study finds. While that may not seem like a surprising result, it has only been recently that climate impacts and the immorality of inaction have been a key focus of top U.S. politicians.
This research is consistent with a November study on how to improve climate communications using “Five ‘Best Practice’ Insights From Psychological Science.” In that study, leading U.S. experts on public opinion on climate change explain that “policymakers should … emphasize climate change as a present, local, and personal risk [and] frame policy solutions in terms of what can be gained from immediate action.”
A third recent report, “The Francis Effect: How Pope Francis Changed the Conversation About Global Warming,” concluded that “Pope Francis changed the conversation about global warming.” In particular, public opinion research shows that “17 percent of Americans and 35 percent of Catholics say his position on global warming influenced their own views of the issue.”
Pope Francis has measurably helped more Americans:
- Realize global warming will harm people here and abroad
- Become more concerned about global warming
- See global warming as an issue of morality and social fairness.
It is no coincidence then that public concern about climate change has jumped over the last 12 months, as we reported last month:
No doubt the increasingly obvious reality of global warming played a role: 2015 was the hottest year on record by far, and this winter has been the hottest winter on record by far for both the United States and the globe. Gallup notes that “Sixty-three percent say they experienced an unusually warm winter, and the majority of this group ascribes the warm weather pattern to human-caused climate change.”
But the increasing attention brought to bear on climate change impacts — and the role of carbon pollution by the Pope and the Paris climate summit also played a role.
As important as the jump in concern about climate change is the even bigger jump in the number of Americans who understand that global warming is caused by manmade pollution.
Note the phrasing of Gallup’s question “And from what you have heard or read.” Based on what they have heard or read, a record level of Americans understand the science correctly, with both Democrats and Independents showing “double-digit increases in the percentages attributing warmer temperatures to human activities.”
So the message about climate change impacts and the immorality of inaction remains a core one that needs to be repeated over and over and over again. It goes along well with the message I discussed last week: “The overwhelming majority of climate scientists — over 97 percent — understand that humans are the primary cause of climate change.”
For those who think these messages have been repeated enough, the social science literature, including the vast literature on advertising and marketing, could not be clearer that only repeated messages have any chance of sinking in and moving the needle, as I discuss in my book “Language Intelligence.” One of the book’s most popular quotes is from wordmeister Frank Luntz, arguably the GOP’s top messaging strategist:
There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.
It should be pretty obvious that the public is not going to be concerned about an issue unless they keep hearing from trusted sources, such as opinion-leaders, why they should be concerned about an issue. That’s especially true in this case, where there is a massive fossil fuel funded effort to persuade the public not to believe the overwhelming majority of climate scientists who warn them humans are the cause and inaction is dangerous.
But the core message must include a repetition of our basic understanding of climate science and the catastrophic risks created by inaction. The new Nature Climate Change study, “Simple reframing unlikely to boost public support for climate policy,” looks in particular at what happens if you stop talking about the “benefits of reducing climate change risks (the conventional justification)” and focus instead on other benefits, such as “Technological innovation, green jobs, community building and health benefits.”
Their survey-driven research concluded, “As the added value of other justifications remains unclear at best and potentially nil, sticking to climate risk reduction as the dominant justification seems worthwhile.” Indeed, in a Washington Post op-ed, the authors note: “Reframing involves opportunity costs, in terms of time, money, political capital and public attention. As long as the benefits of simple reframing remain unclear, there is a risk that reframing actually detracts from the climate-risk-based justification.”
If you want some up-to-date ideas on effective climate messaging — beyond what you get here at Climate Progress — I’d suggest the new study “Improving Public Engagement With Climate Change: Five ‘Best Practice’ Insights From Psychological Science” along with “A Guide for Engaging and Winning on Climate” and “The Debunking Handbook.”