4 New Insights That Will Change the Way You Talk About Climate

Climate change has been getting lots of media coverage lately – unfortunately, it’s not the kind of attention we’d like to see. With President-elect Trump and many of his advisors publicly expressing doubt about climate science, climate advocates have their work cut out for them.
Fortunately, help has arrived in the form of four insightful new studies filled with data supporting climate action, and strategies for connecting with skeptical audiences.
Insight #1 – Americans in both parties want climate solutions
As the outcome of the 2016 election made clear, climate change was not the top priority for American voters. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to see something done about it. A recent survey of voters conducted shortly after the election by Yale and George Mason Universities found broad bipartisan support for climate solutions.
According to the study, 69 percent of registered voters want the U.S. to participate in the Paris Climate Agreement. A majority want President-elect Trump and Congress to do more to address climate change. And 7 out of 10 voters (including 52 percent of Republicans) favor setting tight restrictions on the carbon pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants. This means that Trump’s proposed plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and roll back the Clean Power Plan go directly against the wishes of most Americans.
Voters also strongly support clean energy. 81 percent (including 76 percent of Republicans) want the U.S. to use more renewable energy – and most voters believe transitioning to clean energy will improve or have no negative effect on our economic growth. So as wind and solar energy continue to expand and become more affordable, holding onto our fossil-fuel-burning ways seems increasingly unenlightened, not to mention unwelcome.
We have the facts and the numbers on our side – and we need to make sure the incoming administration knows it.
Insight #2 – Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator
People’s response to climate change depends largely on their worldview – so a message that resonates with liberals might have the opposite effect on conservatives.
A new study from researchers at Germany’s University of Cologne found that conservatives were more responsive to climate messages that focused on a return to a greener, more idyllic past, rather than on future environmental damage. The study was based on the theory that conservatives tend to take a rosier view of the past than liberals do. In the experiment, past-focused messages such as “Looking back to our nation’s past…there was less traffic on the road” increased the willingness of conservatives to take action, while the future-focused version, “Looking forward to our nation’s future…there is increasing traffic on the road,” did not.
Liberals were responsive to both messages (though they preferred the future-focused language slightly), which suggests that talking about the environment in terms of its former, unspoiled majesty might be the more effective approach overall.
Insight #3 – Local weather plays a key role in climate beliefs
Part of the difficulty in talking about climate change is that it can seem like a distant problem, far away in both time and location. Pointing out local climate impacts can help – it’s easier for people to relate to a storm or drought that has touched them personally, rather than melting glaciers and stranded polar bears. But there is still the challenge of helping people understand the difference between “climate” and “weather.”
According to a new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people who live in areas that have experienced record high temperatures are more likely to believe that climate change is happening, while people who have experienced unusually cold weather are more likely to be skeptical that global temperatures are rising. Said George Washington University’s Michael Mann, a co-author of the study, “It is easy to assume that what you experience at home must be happening elsewhere.”
One reason for the disconnect is the term “global warming” itself, which can lead people to misunderstand that the phenomenon causes not only heat waves, but also exceptionally frigid winters. We need to help people see that their local experience is part of a larger global pattern.
Insight #4 – The right framing can encourage more climate-friendly eating
If people in developed nations cut their meat consumption in half, they could reduce greenhouse gas production by 10 percent. Unfortunately, meat consumption is predicted to double over the next 30 years, rather than decrease. In our burger-loving culture, how can we encourage people to shift to a more plant-based diet?
Getting people to change their habits is never easy – especially when they believe the change will involve sacrifice. A new project called the Better Buying Lab is working on ways to address this. Through their research, they discovered that words like “healthy” or “vegetable” made dishes seem less appealing, while labels like “superfood” increased popularity. They also found that using celebrities to promote certain food choices made those choices more socially acceptable (one example is this WildAid ad featuring basketball star Yao Ming, which urged Chinese consumers to avoid shark fin soup). As we’ve discovered through our own research, people are strongly influenced by social norms. When they are made aware of what is customary behavior in a group, they often change their own behavior to match.
For more resources on climate communication, visit our research page.

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