How the Message Gets Lost

Duke Studies Show Why We Might Not Listen to Messages About Climate Change
 May 10, 2016 

Frequently on this site and on TV via North Carolina Science NOW and SciTech Now North Carolina, we do stories on climate, how it is changing and what those changes could mean for the planet we live on, the life we share it with and our own civilization.

We’re certainly not alone. Other media companies do stories as well. Non-profits pay big money to get the climate change message out there. Scientists will often do interviews and hold conferences to do the same. Politicians at every level of government all the way up to the President are making stopping climate change part of their political platform. Even the Pope is getting in on it.

All of that work goes toward two goals: first, to get everyone to believe that climate change is happening and that it has real consequences. Second, to get the believers to do something about it.

However, according to two new studies from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, that message may be getting lost or even backfiring. They found that human nature causes people to put off dealing with something if nothing bad is happening, and to defend their personal identity.

The first study sought to answer the question of how to best target the climate message to Republicans—the party in which studies have shown fewer people believe in and are concerned about climate change.

Jack Zhou, a PhD candidate in the Nicholas School, asked more than 470 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to read climate messages from different sources and molded to appeal to different issues — a practice called “framing” in the communications world — to see what messages stuck.

John KerryZhou’s four messages framed climate change as an economic, national security, moral, or natural disaster issue and were assigned to either a fictional Republican or Democratic congressman. The hypothesis, Zhou says, was that Republicans would respond better to climate messages framed around national security and the economy—issues that a higher percentage of Republicans than of Democrats find important—and coming from a fellow Republican.

Zhou found, however, that regardless of how the message was framed or where it supposedly came from, most Republicans were not swayed to support government action or act themselves to curb climate change. In fact, in every combination of framing and source, the survey respondents were more likely to dig in and oppose acting on climate change than a control group who was just asked to think about climate change as a political issue. These findings are published in the journal, Environmental Politics.

Zhou says this is most likely due to respondents resisting a challenge to their political identity, as after reading the framed messages, respondents not only opposed climate action more, but they also were more sure in their belief that either climate change was not real or not worth worrying about. In support of this idea, Zhou found that this effect more than doubled in people who said they had a high interest in politics.

“I want to be clear: this reaction is not a matter of intelligence or education. It’s not totally irrational. It’s just a natural reaction—people want to justify and defend their identities,” Zhou said in a press release. “I would expect if I asked Democrats to read framed messages about how climate change is a hoax, I would also see strong backfire effects.”

The real take home of this study, Zhou says, is that if someone wants to get a climate message to this population, grandstanding is not the answer. More research, time and finesse will be needed to craft a message that appeals to the identities of those who don’t support acting on climate change. 

The second study transitions away from defending one’s identity toward perhaps the most human part of human nature: procrastination. Specifically, it gets at the idea that if something is working well or not causing us any harm, we are not as likely to do anything about it: the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality.

To get an idea of where this is headed, imagine it has been a cold, wintery week, but one morning you walk out your door to crisp, invigorating 40-degree air and sunshine beaming off the snow and glittering in nearby icicles.

What a great feeling that is! It's the kind of winter day you always wished for. Environmental politics professor Megan Mullin from Duke and associate professor Patrick Egan from New York University studied weather data from every Iciclecounty in the United States over the past 40 years and have found that these warm January days are getting more and more common.

Their study, published in the journal "Nature," found that January high temperatures have increased by an average of 1.04 degrees Fahrenheit per decade for the past 40 years.

That, perhaps, is not entirely surprising given that the planet is warming but they also found that July high temperatures have only risen by 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, and that summertime humidity has actually decreased since the mid-1990’s.

Many Americans, then, are experiencing nicer days in winter while summers are only marginally worse. Earlier studies have shown that Americans’ beliefs about climate change can be influenced by their current weather. This finding shows that current weather trends don’t provide much in the way of motivation to do anything about climate change.

In fact, Egan and Mullin used previously published economics research detailing where people move based on their weather preferences (warmer winters, cooler summers and an appropriate level of humidity and rainfall) to create a measure of how likely people are to enjoy the weather in a given location, called the Weather Preference Index (WPI).

They went county-by-county and found that since 1974, 80-percent of the American population has seen an increase in WPI, meaning that people were more likely to enjoy their weather. This becomes a problem in that many Americans do not place climate change as a high-priority political issue.

In this case, procrastination is not likely to pay off. Climate projections over the next 100 years indicate that almost 90-percent of Americans will see marked decreases in WPI by the end of the century when summer temperature increases catch up to the winter ones.

So the challenge for climate messengers, based on this study is to keep folks focused on the future, instead of the present. Add that to the challenges of tailoring messages to respect the identities of climate skeptics, and communicators have plenty to do to make their messages salient. If they do not, that message could get lost.

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.