For some time, social science researchers have been studying an oddity about the U.S. — compared with many other nations, we’re a hotbed of global warming doubt and denial. Accordingly, and to counteract this, a variety of messages or ways of “re-framing” the issue have been proposed, often with the goal of appealing to the ideology of political conservatives, which is where most of the doubt lies.
Some of the most popular framing ideas include talking about climate change in the context of economic opportunity (solving climate change will lead to a clean energy boom), national security (not solving it will make the world a dangerous place), faith-based ethics (we need to be good stewards of the Creation) and public health (climate change will make us sicker, or lead to the spread of diseases).
Now, however, a new study suggests not only that these messages may not be particularly effective, but that messages espousing climate change doubt or denial — which are ever-present in the din of public debate and discourse — appear to have considerably more impact.
“The positive frames really don’t move the needle at all, and the presence of the denial counter-frame seems to have a suppressive or a negative effect on people’s climate change belief,” says Aaron McCright, a researcher at Michigan State University who conducted the research with three university colleagues. The study is just out in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.
The researchers used a large sample from Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk — 1,591 individuals — who read climate change messages embedded in fake newspaper articles. However, the articles that the participants received varied considerably. In effect, there were ten separate articles containing different messages, and each person read just one of them. Then afterward, their views about the science of climate change, and about what we should do about it, were measured.
The article read by study participants was always about a supposed new report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — one that, it said, “provides unequivocal evidence that climate change is happening now, is caused by humans, and is producing harmful societal impacts.” However, this news was framed four different ways through the article’s text and title — using the economic, national security, stewardship, and public health frame. For instance, the public health version of the article noted:
Medical experts argue that dealing with climate change will improve our public health by reducing the likelihood of extreme weather events, reducing air quality and allergen problems, and limiting the spread of pests that carry infectious diseases—all of which increase physical and psychological health risks.
There were four articles featuring these four different framings — but there were also four more that followed these framings with a global warming doubter counterargument, which read as follows:
However, most conservative leaders and Republican politicians believe that so-called climate change is vastly exaggerated by environmentalists, liberal scientists seeking government funding for their research and Democratic politicians who want to regulate business.
Some scientists testifying at Congressional hearings are quick to point out that the Earth hasn’t actually warmed in the last decade. Even if climate change would happen in the future, these scientists claim it would be a good thing for our agriculture, health, and overall quality of life—not something we should stop. Further, conservative Republicans argue that trying to reduce our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions via regulations would harm our economy, national security, and national sovereignty.
Finally, there was one “control” article that contained neither any of the framings nor a counterargument — and one that contained no framing but did contain the counterargument.
The study found relatively little evidence that the four frames, standing on their own, had much impact on Americans’ climate change beliefs. Granted, the “economic opportunity” message worked when it came to making people believe it’s important to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly. But none of the other messages had a big impact when it came to shifting people’s basic views about whether climate change is real and human-caused, and something we need to act on.
“The overall potential of these positive frames for influencing Americans’ [climate change] views is limited at best,” write the authors.
But while the positive messages weren’t particularly impactful, the negative message was considerably more powerful in changing people’s beliefs when it was present. In an overall comparison between those who read articles containing the negative message and those who read articles that didn’t, the negative message led to less belief that global warming is real or that climate science is reliable, and also lessened participants’ support for climate change solutions.
“It’s not that the denial counter-frame is more powerful when matched with one type of positive frame versus another, it just has a consistent effect over all the subjects,” McCright says.
Moreover, the message of doubt had an effect on all subjects regardless of ideology, although it was also strongest in Republicans.
“This research makes clear that ‘don’t worry’ is an inherently more compelling message than ‘you should worry about climate change for this reason’ regardless of what that reason is,” said Ed Maibach, a researcher at George Mason University who focuses on the public communication of climate change, in a comment on the study. “Unfortunately, we should all be worried about climate change, for a variety of reasons.”
The key question that the study raises is why messages that seemed, in the abstract, to make a lot of sense as communication strategies weren’t actually very effective — and why the counterargument was so much stronger across the board.
“It’s simpler, for one thing,” suggests McCright. “You don’t have to grasp any science to say, ‘scientists disagree.’ It’s always harder to change people’s opinions than it is to keep the status quo. And then for the last two decades, the message has been strong, consistent, daily” coming from the political right, he continues.
On Tuesday, the second day of a historic international climate change conference in Paris, U.S. Republicans in the House of Representatives led the passage of legislation that would, if it became law, dismantle President Obama’s top climate change policy, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
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