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Identifying Climate Messages That Work

We conduct scientific lab and social media experiments (e.g., Facebook) to identify the messages that best engage 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. The Yale Program 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.

Other research has 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.

In one 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:

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

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