Studies Show: “Getting” Climate Change

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Apparently giving people information can make them act dumber. So can partisanship.

A study on climate change messaging published in the journal Communication Research asks why it’s so hard to get a consensus public opinion (god forbid a political one) that mirrors the consensus scientific opinion that climate change is real and happening now and insanely, mind-bogglingly terrifying. It turns out this has to do with something called the “boomerang effect.”

The “boomerang effect” is a phenomenon social scientists have recorded in public dissemination of all kinds of information, and it basically means that when you run a news story or a public service message designed to encourage a desired behaviour—you want people to stop littering, or stop smoking, or start giving to charity—the people exposed to the message turn around and do exactly the opposite of what you want. Hart and Nisbet cite previous studies in the field, saying: “antismoking messages can increase predispositions to smoke (Wolburg, 2006), antilitter messages can increase predispositions to litter (Reich & Robertson, 1979), and appeals for donations to impoverished children can lower donation rates (Small, Loewenstein, & Slovic, 2007).”

To figure out how the boomerang effect plays into public opinion about climate change, communications professors P. Sol Hart of the American University in Washington and Erik C. Nisbet of Ohio State University did a study of 240 people at a mall in rural New York (and gave them all a sweet five-dollar gift card for their time). The respondents were asked a number of questions about themselves, including whether they considered themselves Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. Then half of the respondents (the control group) were asked for their opinions about whether climate change was real and whether government needed to do something about it.

The other half were given a news story to read first. The story was made up, but based on scientifically accurate information that had been previously reported by the American Press: that temperature increase due to climate change could bring on an epidemic of West Nile virus for people who work outdoors, specifically farmers. The article included eight pictures of people it identified as farmers who might be affected.

Hart and Nisbet hypothesized that the respondent’s ability to identify with the victims of climate change would correlate with their acceptance of climate change science and desire to see political action to address the problem. So they presented three versions of the story: one in which the farmers who would be affected were in upstate New York; one in which they were in the state of Georgia; and one in which they were in France. The pictures stayed constant, to control for varying response to different kinds of faces. It’s worth noting that seven of the eight “farmers” looked Caucasian. Not particularly pertinent, but one guy is also carrying a super cute white goat.

Here’s what they found:

Self-identified Democrats who read the news story were more likely than the control group to say that climate change was real and that the government should do something about it. This was constant whether the victims were in the respondents’ backyards or across the ocean. When asked to agree or disagree with statements like: “(a) ‘The people in the story have problems like my own’; (b) ‘I identify with the people featured in the story’; (c) ‘The people featured in the story are like me’; and (d) ‘I feel connected to the people featured in the story,’” they tended to agree.

For Republicans, the opposite was true. Respondents who read the news story were less likely than the control group—the people who got no information at all—to agree that climate change is real and that something needs to be done. Getting information actually made them more resistant to joining the scientific consensus. But their resistance was somewhat lessened when the people affected by climate change were in their backyards.

The upshot, Hart and Nisbet say, is that the way climate change information is being disseminated right now is causing a polarization of opinion—reading about it just makes Republicans more entrenched in their (incredibly wrong and dangerous) opinions. They recommend that news media focus on the effects of climate change close to home, and they acknowledge the challenge of covering climate change—which is currently affecting Africa far, far more than upstate New York—as if it is primarily a local issue. However, they say, “[f]ailure to adopt this recommendation… is likely to deepen the gap between Republicans and Democrats on climate change.”

They also suggest that using the phrase “climate change” instead of “global warming” makes it harder for people to say, “See, silly? The world’s not getting warmer!” every time it actually snows in December. It’s a little sad, in my book, that an audience segment’s inability to empathize with or value the lives of people who aren’t North American should dictate the way journalists cover the most important story of our time. But if science communicators can tailor their messages more precisely to this difficult audience, they may have a better chance of getting through.

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