Getting People to Listen to Your Climate Message: 3 Tips from Communications Expert Ed Maibach
As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, a growing majority of Americans (including conservatives) believe climate change is happening and that humans play a role. But what about those people who still either aren’t convinced, or think climate change is unrelated to human activity? With the right approach, it’s possible to engage that segment of the population as well. In this interview with Grist, social sciences expert Ed Maibach shares his insights.
Maibach, who is Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and a member of our MomentUs Research Council, has taken part in many highly impactful public health campaigns over the years, including the “Truth” anti-smoking campaign aimed at young smokers. Here are three of his tips for persuading conservatives to take action on climate change.
1. Explain that the consensus among climate scientists is real. Due to the doubt expressed by some politicians and the media’s tendency to give equal time to both sides of the issue, not everyone is aware that over 99 percent of climate scientists are convinced climate change is happening. But when people are made aware of the level of agreement (especially if given a specific numeric value) they are more likely to accept the reality of climate change.
2. Present solutions that are consistent with the person’s worldview. One reason the climate debate is so polarized is because, in Maibach’s words, “conservatives see the solutions that are being proposed by liberals as being worse than the problem itself.” But when they see how climate solutions actually align with their beliefs – either because the solutions help support the things they care about, such as individual freedom and the well-being of their families, or because the solution is market-based, such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax – they are much more open to discussing the issue.
3. Connect the dots between fossil fuels and public health. Some people may never accept the reality of human-caused climate change – but that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate the health benefits of clean energy. Maibach has found that most conservatives understand that fossil fuels pollute our air and water, and love the idea of wind and solar power. So helping them see that a quick transition to clean energy is not only desirable but also technologically and economically feasible can help win their support.
By Heather Smith, contributor to Grist
Ed Maibach spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to persuade people to do what’s best for them. He has been involved in many of the major public health campaigns of the last few decades. He studied how to persuade people to get tested for HIV back when getting tested for HIV carried a huge social stigma. He studied how to get people to stop smoking or – even better – to never start in the first place. When both of those campaigns began to show signs of progress, Maibach moved on. As he puts it, “I’ve always been attracted to the biggest fight that I think I can win.”
These days, that fight is climate change. In his career, Maibach has gone from being a social scientist studying human communication in academia, to being the worldwide director of social marketing for the PR firm Porter Novelli, and then back to academia, teaching the next generation of social scientists. As the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, he is studying the fine art of convincing people — particularly conservatives — that climate change is both very real and very bad.
How does one go about breaking it to conservatives that the climate is in trouble? I spoke with Maibach recently.
Q. OK. If I wanted to persuade a group of conservatives to care about global warming, how would I do that?
A. Fifteen years ago, there was very little difference between the way that Democrats and Republicans viewed climate change. About two out of three out of each group saw it as real and human-caused and serious. Now almost all Democrats are convinced that climate change is human-caused and real and serious. But now we’re down to about a third of Republicans.
One of the lines of argumentation that we have tested that is very helpful with conservatives has to do with the scientific consensus around climate change. In our research, we have found that people who believe there isn’t a consensus are the most likely not to believe that human-caused climate change is happening.
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