Last week, Bloomberg reported that the Trump administration has asked for $12 billion to help communities fight climate-change-related flooding — a request that might seem surprising, given Trump’s stance that climate change is a hoax and his administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Of course, we don’t know whether Trump has actually come to agree with the scientific consensus that humans have caused a drastic change in Earth’s climate.
But the news prompts the question: What exactly does change minds about climate science? Research suggests that a variety of messages can influence people’s agreement with the scientific consensus that the Earth is warming and humans are contributing to it. And different people may respond differently to different kinds of messages.
Here are five insights from the young but growing body of research on climate change communication.
1. The messenger matters
Some experimental studies manipulate the messenger to find out to whom respondents are most likely to listen. In general, matching messenger to audience leads to more effective messages. This is certainly true in climate messaging. For example, experimental research discovered that when free market enthusiasts who are concerned about government regulation hear from experts who emphasize how companies are developing climate responses, they are more likely to accept climate science.
Among religious audiences, religious leaders may also make a difference. Mixed evidence suggests that pointing to Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on climate change may help conservative Catholics appreciate climate science.
2. People respond to appeals based on their values
For example, experimental studies have found that when messages emphasize environmental stewardship and respect for God’s creation, conservatives are more likely to accept climate science and say they’re likely to take environmental action. More broadly, some research suggests that raising health concerns is effective among all Americans. On the other hand, for those skeptical about climate change, messages about how an eroding climate will hurt national security may backfire.
3. Educating people about the science can make a difference
Polling suggests that Democrats who are generally knowledgeable about science are more likely to believe in climate change. Educating people that there’s a broad scientific consensus about climate change may make people, particularly Republicans, more likely to believe it exists. What’s not so clear is whether metaphors or narratives can help people appreciate the nuances of the climate science.
4. Emphasizing risk may spur people to action
Some research has focused not just on whether people accept climate science, but also whether they’re motivated and willing to reduce their carbon emissions or support climate mitigation policies. A 2016 Gallup survey found that only 47 percent of the American public believes addressing climate change is “extremely” or “very” important. That’s considerably lower than the 92 percent who said the same about the economy, or the 83 percent who said that about the importance of health care.
A great deal of communications research, ranging over decades and subjects, has examined how to raise concern about social issues among the public. One conclusion is that messages emphasizing risks — whether the risks of acting or of failing to act — on social issues are especially effective, particularly in collectivistic cultures and among those more highly educated.
This is upheld by a large-scale review of correlational evidence — what researchers refer to as a “meta-analysis” — that suggests that when people experience extreme weather or have noticed changes in the local weather, they are more likely to believe that climate change is occurring. In other words, the record hurricane season this year, polling suggests, may have led to more people believing climate change is linked to severe hurricanes, as the science suggests.
5. Affirming the power of the people
Finally, correlational research suggests that when individuals and communities feel that they can help mitigate climate change, they’re more likely to act. Many people incorrectly believe their social circles are unconcerned about climate change — which leads them to feel there’s nothing they can do as individuals. People are also likely to feel more engaged and effective when they have tools to combat misinformation and misunderstanding about climate change.
But wait, there’s more
Of course, this is not an exhaustive set of findings; the field is still growing. For climate advocates, there is no magic-bullet strategy for how to talk about climate change, and effective messaging is unlikely to be sufficient by itself in changing policies on a large scale. But these five factors help us understand how people react to messages about climate change and what motivates their concern.
Alexander Maki is a postdoctoral researcher with the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment, where he studies environmental, volunteer and health behavior change. Follow him on Twitter @alexmaki.