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Communicating About Climate Change
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Communicating About Climate Change


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Climate change has become a hot-button issue in mainstream American politics, and people are divided over its causes, impacts, and solutions. This presentation will offer an overview of how the public …

Climate change has become a hot-button issue in mainstream American politics, and people are divided over its causes, impacts, and solutions. This presentation will offer an overview of how the public views the issue of climate change, several explanations for these differences in perception, and possible approaches for bridging the gaps through innovative communication strategies. I will also present some initial findings from a NSF funded project aimed at communicating about climate change and its long-term association with the issue of agricultural runoff in the Maumee Watershed area of Ohio.

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  • Plants and animals more so than peoplePeople other than ourselves – and who live far away
  • Better educatedHigh cognitive skills and abilityHigh interest in topic (science, environment, etc.)
  • We are “motivated” to (biased) assimilate and accept information that consistent (confirmation bias) with our values, ideology, pre-existing beliefs in order to reduce the affective (emotional) distress caused by cognitive dissonance (our goal)We also counter-argue when presented with information which is dissonantIn a sense, political ideology acts a perceptual screen
  • Frames provide meanings about thruproblem definitionscausal interpretationsmoral evaluationstreatment recommendations and solutionslikely outcomes
  • Transcript

    • 1. Erik C. NisbetSchool CommunicationDepartment of Political ScienceThe Ohio State UniversityCommunicating About ClimateChange
    • 2. Today’s Agenda• Trends and explanations for publicopinion about climate change• Emerging strategies for communicatingabout climate change
    • 3. Is Climate Change Happening?
    • 4. But are we the cause???
    • 5. Climate Change Not Priority
    • 6. Climate Change Not a Threat Now
    • 7. In Sum• Belief that CG is happening has rebounded• Presently 2/3 of Americans believe CG isoccurring but divided about▫ Whether humans are the cause▫ The amount of scientific consensus about thecause• Most Americans also…▫ Do not believe it is an immediate threat▫ Do not believe it will impact them personally▫ Rank it low compared to other environmentalconcerns
    • 8. Possible Explanations for Opinion• Economic Trends• Media Coverage of Climate Change• Knowledge• Ideology/Values
    • 9. Environment vs. EconomyBP SpillGreat Recession
    • 10. But economy slowly rebounding….
    • 11. Low media attention – driven by eventsExcerpted from American University Climate Shift Report, 2011
    • 12. False Balance DecliningExcerpted from American University Climate Shift Report, 2011
    • 13. Though Cable News and…Excerpted from Feldman, 2011
    • 14. Online continues to debate scienceClimate Gate 2009 American Geophysical Union 2010
    • 15. Political and Media “Disaster” Frames
    • 16. Hyperbole of News?
    • 17. Though that may be evolving…
    • 18. Role of Knowledge• Classic explanation for public opinionabout science issues is the “scientificdeficit” model▫ Assumes increasing citizen knowledge will leadthe public to adopt policy attitudes in line withscientific consensus▫ Works with a small percentage (10-15%) of thepublic▫ Ignores the complexity of opinion formation
    • 19. Knowledge of Climate ChangeBased on Answers to 81 Factual Questions from 2,030 AdultsExcerpted from Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 2010
    • 20. Cognitive Misers• Most people lack a) motivation and b) abilityto systematically and deliberatively processlarge amounts of information about a complexissue or topic• Instead, we employ a range ofheuristics, mental shortcuts, to make decisionsabout complex issues, ex. Ideology, Trust
    • 21. Motivated Reasoning• We “work backward” from our strongly held pre-existing beliefs and values to reduce affective andemotional distress – reason effused with emotion• Values and ideology act as “perceptual screens”through processes such as…▫ Selective Exposure, Attention, Recall▫ Counter-arguing▫ Source Degradation
    • 22. Knowledge and IdeologyBinomial Logistic Regression; controlling for education, age, income, race, gender, ideology, political interest, televisionexposure, newspaper exposure, knowledge, attention to political news, attention to science and environmental news; Model explains29.7% of Pseudo R-square (Nagelkerke)
    • 23. Ideologically Driven Misperceptions• Liberal Misperceptions▫ Hole in ozone layer is primary cause of global warming.▫ Reducing fossil fuel reliance now would immediatelydecrease CO2 in atmosphere▫ Earths climate is warmest it has ever been• Conservative Misperceptions▫ Record cold and snowstorms prove that global warmingis not happening▫ Climate often changes from year to year.▫ Great deal of disagreement among scientists about globalwarming happening or not.Misperceptions increase as news attention increases
    • 24. The Challenge of Ideology• Hart and Nisbet, 2012▫ Participant read a brief news article about thepotential health impacts of climate change onfarmers▫ Manipulated the perceived social distance ofpotential victims from participant (in-group vs.out-group)▫ Tested whether political partisanship moderatedperceived social distance
    • 25. Boomerang Effect• Democrats supported climate mitigation effortsregardless of which group featured• Republicans in the out-group message becameMORE opposed to climate mitigation thanRepublicans who received no message.• Messaging activated ideology = increasedopposition
    • 26. Emerging Communication Approaches• Framing▫ Aligning CG policies with ideology/values▫ Reduce motivated reasoning with consensusissues like health• Reducing Psychological Distance• Focus on Climate Change Adaptation
    • 27. Communicating Context and Values• Framing as means of making sense of complexissues: “Perception is reference dependent”• Framing is about creating and communicatinginterpretive packages that select or present a subsetof considerations or attributes about a topic• Frames influence opinions by suggesting orreinforcing specific problem definitions causal interpretations moral evaluations recommendations and solutions likely outcomes
    • 28. Communication Strategy• Recognize own ideological/value biases• Identify Audience Segments• Connect Communication to Values• Reduce Motivated Reasoning
    • 29. Recognize own biases…Excerpted fromAmericanUniversity ClimateShift Report, 2011
    • 30. Audience SegmentationMatch Messages with Audiences
    • 31. Matching Values & Message• Yale/George Mason Experiment:▫ Over 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaningindependents supported action on climate changewhen presented value-consistent frames
    • 32. Value Frames• “Free Market /Accountability”▫ Our free-enterprise economy only works properly whenindividuals and companies are held accountable forharm that their actions cause to un-consenting people orthe country as a whole. Companies that release heat-trapping pollution into the air should be accountable forthose costs.“• “Moral Purity”▫ Carbon pollution is fouling our air and our water, andharming our health. We should take steps to maintainthe purity of our air and water. As Benjamin Franklinsaid, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
    • 33. Framing CG ImpactsGlobal warming’s impacton our national securityGlobal warming’simpact on our healthGlobal warming’s impacton our environment
    • 34. Health = Personal & Emotional“We need to… convince the world that humanityreally is the most important species endangered byclimate change.”—Margaret Chan, MD, Director-General, WorldHealth Organization“Climate change is one of the most serious publichealth threats facing our nation. Yet fewAmericans are aware of the very realconsequences of climate change on the health ofour communities, our families and our children.”—Georges Benjamin, MD,Executive DirectorAmerican Public Health Association
    • 35. Health Elicits Positive Response AmongDisengaged & SkepticsMyers et. al., 2012 Climatic Change Letters
    • 36. Communicate Local, NOT Global• Construal Level Theory▫ People who think about a problem in abstractterms, compared to concrete terms, perceive less risk• Perceived psychological distance influencesconstrual level – the challenges:• Among people who believe CG is happening theybelieve impacts will happen far away to otherpeopleCG is Happening CG is not happeningSpatial TemporalSocial Hypothetical
    • 37. Talking about climate adaptation• Turn conversation to climate adaptationrather than mitigation:▫ How can individuals and communities adaptto changing climate conditions at local level?• Do not use the term “adaptation” – reducesurgency and is abstract/technical• Sensitize people to possible localrisks/impacts with focus on prevention,capacity-building, community resilience
    • 38. Example Project• NSF Funded Project: How to address long-termimpacts of climate change on agricultural runoff inMaumee Watershed and health of Lake Erie▫ Large focus on general public and stakeholder attitudesand behaviors▫ Climate change will increase runoff due to Longer growing seasons Variable & Extreme weather events Overall greater precipitation▫ Increased runoff = algal blooms in Lake Erie▫ How can agricultural practices adapt to changing climateconditions in ways that reduce farm runoff and waterpollution?
    • 39. Some Online Resources•••••