Climate Change Communication: The role of the messenger

The Bard Center for Environmental Policy hosts a bi-monthly National Climate Seminar linking together educators, students and interested citizens with top climate scientists, leaders and analysts. On February 15, Director Eban Goodstein,  along with graduate students from Bard CEP and members of the public, held a national conversation with Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The conversation analyzed how climate change deniers have successfully dominated and driven the debate on climate change and the role trusted messengers can play in changing this trajectory.

Photo Credit: bvcphoto via flickr

Research at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has focused on the underlying psychological, social and political reasons that people choose to engage or disengage regarding climate change issues. In this research, barriers to behavioral change as well as risk perception  have emerged as critical factors affecting an individual’s beliefs on climate change. Since 2007, there has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of Americans who believe climate change is happening. Between 2008 and 2010, Yale researchers estimate there has been a 13 point drop in the percentage of Americans who believe climate change is occurring and that almost 40% of Americans think there is a significant amount of disagreement between climate scientists. In light of these results, Leiserowitz identified “perceived scientific agreement” as a gateway belief that can fundamentally change people’s perception of climate change. This statistic illustrates that the concerted campaign on the part of think tanks and other interest groups to convince the American public that the science of climate change is still unsettled has been extremely effective at sowing seeds of doubt.

In order for climate change communication to be effective, it must be personable and connect the effects of climate change in a tangible way to every American’s well-being. Since the slow economic recovery and preoccupation about jobs have dominated the conversation in the United States in recent years, climate change has become a less salient issue and media coverage has declined as a result. General confusion regarding the difference between climate and weather and previous winter events such as “Snowmaggedon” and “Snowpocalyse” have confirmed in the minds of some, that climate change is a hoax invented by scientists looking for funding. On the contrary, extreme droughts in the Southwest and the warm winter we’re currently experiencing in the Northeast have been framed by some climate change activists as proof of climate change.

Poster child for global warming

Global Warming’s Six Americas, a joint project between Yale and George Mason University, groups Americans into categories across a spectrum from “highest belief/most concerned” about global warming to “least belief/least concerned:” Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, Dismissive. As of May 2011, 52% of Americans fall into the categories of “Concerned” and “Cautious” combined, while only 12 and 10 percent are categorized as “Alarmed” and “Dismissive” respectively. More than half of Americans are reasonably concerned about climate change, however the 10% of “Dismissive” Americans are extremely vocal and well organized. Risk perception regarding climate change varies greatly between these “Six Americas” in terms of whether they think they will be affected by climate change or whether they view it as a problem for polar bears and small island nations (see previous blog post on the critical situation in the Maldives).

The role and perception of the messenger emerges as a critical component for successful climate change communication. Not only who the messenger is, but how trustful they are perceived to be. Each category from “Alarmed” to “Dismissive” requires a specific engagement strategy with a tailored message and messenger that speaks to their concerns and life. It is possible, however, for all these groups to find common ground. Research by Leiserowitz’s group shows that all categories support renewable energy research and rebates for fuel efficient cars and solar panels. Interestingly, when it comes to issues such as preparedness and resilience at the community level, everyone believes it is important to implement policies to protect the local water supplies and environment in light of a changing climate.

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When asked how those of us who are concerned about climate change issues can make the issue salient and newsworthy, Leiserowitz suggested reaching out to the executive editors of local papers and requesting information regarding climate change to show that interest in the issue exists. Since many people still tune in daily to the local weather report, television weather forecasters could serve a critical role as climate change communicators to their viewership. Weather forecasters are generally perceived as trusted  individuals by their audience, so call up your local weather forecaster and ask about climate change. Ask if this weird winter weather we’re experiencing is related to climate change. Maybe it could engage some of the cautioned, disengaged and doubtful  and move them along the spectrum towards being concerned about climate change.

Join us on March 7th for another fascinating conversation about climate communication and how to engage audiences, Wednesday at noon eastern. We have an exciting line up of presenters remaining for the spring including Auden Schendler, VP of Sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company, and Cynthia Rosenzweig from NASA’s Goddard Institute talking about climate and agriculture. Next week features Billy Parish who co-founded and grew the Energy Action Coalition into the largest youth organization in the world focused on clean energy and climate solutions. The conversation will focus on Billy’s role as founder of Solar Mosaic and on his new book: Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World. Call-in number: 1-712-432-3100; Conference Code: 253385. Send advance questions for Billy to Podcasts of the conversation with Anthony Leiserowitz and of previous NCS conversations are available here. Attention climate leaders of the future, apply now to be part of the upcoming C2C Fellows program at Oberlin College April 6th-8th. Two graduates of this year’s C2C workshops will receive $1,000 scholarships to attend follow-on, multi-day leadership trainings, one focused on how to start a green business, and the other, on how to run your own political campaign.

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