Identifying Climate Messages That Work

We conduct scientific lab and social media experiments (e.g., Facebook) to identify the messages that best engage the public and key target audiences. Different audiences tend to trust different messengers. The way climate change is framed (e.g., as a scientific, health, business, political, environmental, national security, moral, or religious issue) can also be more or less convincing to different audiences. Different audiences respond to different formats, e.g., text, video, audio, online, face to face, etc. YPCCC conducts research to identify the combination of messengers, message frames, and formats that best engage key audiences, such as each of Global Warming’s Six Americas, Republicans, evangelicals, Latinos, youth, etc. in specific states and localities. Outcome measures include shifts in climate change and clean energy beliefs, attitudes, policy support, and/or behavior. We also construct, test, and implement new tools for rapid, inexpensive, and large-scale message testing to greatly accelerate the development and deployment of effective communication campaigns.

While facts alone are often insufficient to convince people about the risks and importance of addressing climate change, it is nonetheless vital to continue providing accurate scientific information to the public about climate change’s causes, impacts, and solutions. In one study, we tested how providing information about the human causes of global warming influences causal attribution, concern, and policy support related to global warming. Using four experimental conditions and one control condition, we tested whether information about the human causes of global warming increases Americans’ beliefs and concerns about global warming and support for climate policies. We found that in four different treatment conditions, people’s understanding of the human causes of climate change, among both Democrats and Republicans, increased. All four conditions began with the heat-trapping blanket metaphor for carbon dioxide emissions, suggesting that this idea may serve as a useful communication aid.

Our research has also looked at how climate change messages vary across different U.S. states. In this experiment, we found that exposing people to the “consensus message” that “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening” is particularly effective in traditionally dismissive parts of the country. Several fossil fuel-producing parts of the country exhibited the strongest positive response, especially West Virginia, North Dakota, and Wyoming. These findings were published in Nature Climate Change in 2018.

More recently, we examined how the effectiveness of the scientific consensus message varies across the Six Americas, how long its effects last over time, and what predicts whether those effects last. We found that the effect of the initial message faded completely among people who reported they had no exposure to information about global warming (and hence, no consensus information) or people who reported hearing only anti-consensus information. However, there were lasting effects among people who reported exposure to a mix of pro- and anti-consensus information or exposure only to pro-consensus information.

In another study, we sought to answer the important question of whether communicating climate change facts can cause issue polarization. As part of a randomized experiment, we exposed half of the sample (6,301 Americans) to a simple scientific fact — “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening”. People who read this “consensus message” adjusted their estimates of the consensus upward in the direction of the actual scientific norm (97%). The message also reduced polarization between higher educated liberals and conservatives by nearly 50%. These findings were published in Nature Human Behavior in 2017.

With our colleagues at George Mason University, we conducted several experiments on behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to identify the best way to convey the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is happening. We found that we were able to shift public perceptions of the degree of consensus up to 19 percentage points, which had positive cascading effects on respondents’ own beliefs that human-caused global warming is happening and is a serious threat. Particularly interesting is that this positive effect was strongest among conservative Republicans. AAAS used these results to design a national campaign to help persuade Americans and opinion leaders that the scientific debate about the reality of human-caused climate change is over. Articles detailing this research were published in Climate Change in 2014 and PLoS ONE in 2015.

Other Selected Publications:

What do Americans want to know about climate change? – April 2024

Messages about harms of fossil fuels increase support for renewables, with or without a moral emphasis – July 2023

Effective Behavioral Interventions to Mitigate Climate Change – March, 2023

Communicating the scientific consensus on climate change: Diverse audiences and effects over time – November 2022

Communicating the human causes of global warming increases public engagement – July 2022

Using video to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change – September 2019

How to inoculate the public against misinformation about climate change – January 2017