Instead of Arguing About Whether Climate Change is Real, Change the Story

In a recent Bill Moyers interview, David Suzuki talked about how he was able to bridge the divide between environmentalists and loggers on the issue of climate change. Instead of arguing about whether climate change is real, Suzuki explained that environmental communicators need to change the story by starting from a common ground — that we all care about the long-term protection of the planet for the benefit of future generations.

We couldn’t agree more that a different kind of story is needed on this issue. The story that’s currently being told often starts like this: “In a world where human-caused climate change is a reality we all face…” The problem with this kind of opening is that it automatically excludes everyone who doesn’t accept this reality. Forty-one percent of Americans still think climate change isn’t happening, according to a recent poll conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The survey report states that Americans continue to doubt the source of global warming, with a third believing that it is a result of natural causes.

The FrameWorks Institute’s ongoing investigation looking into the ways Americans think about climate change adds to the understanding of these findings. Our research revealed a robust pattern of reasoning among Americans that climate change is part of the earth’s natural cycle, and, therefore, it is self-correcting. This way of thinking prevents Americans from understanding that climate change is caused by the rampant carbon dioxide emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, which acts as a heat-trapping blanket around the earth’s atmosphere.

“If you don’t believe me,” the typical climate change story continues, “then what about the 97 percent of climate scientists who do?” A common idea among environmental communicators is that acceptance of the scientific consensus is a “gateway belief” influencing other viewpoints seen to underlie support for action (i.e., global warming is happening, human caused, a serious problem and solvable). But, appealing to scientific consensus doesn’t seem to improve Americans’ willingness to accept that climate change is real. According to the Yale poll, only one in 10 Americans knows that over 90 percent of scientists have reached consensus that human-caused global warming is happening. Our research shows that, even when they are made aware of this fact, Americans are likely to reason from conflicting models of science when presented with information about scientific consensus. Sometimes scientists are seen as authorities, and at other times they are viewed with suspicion.

With this in mind, it may be more productive to avoid appeals to scientific authority in an attempt to persuade, and, instead, focus more on trying to explain the science behind climate change.

Researchers at FrameWorks conducted a series of experiments to test existing and new “gateways” for talking about climate change. We found that appealing to a core value for “protection” improved respondents’ attitudes towards climate change and increased support for policy to address this issue — an effect that held across political party identification. We also tested people’s responses to appeals to scientific authority, and found that these messages had a wide range of negative effects on public opinion. Our research confirmed what David Suzuki intuited — that climate communicators need to stop arguing about the science of climate change, and come together through a shared story about protection.




Just as the loggers could agree that the forest needs protection so that their children and grandchildren could enjoy a good life, the story being told about climate change needs to resonate with people’s everyday lives. The Yale poll found that 85 percent of Americans aren’t “very worried” about climate change because, the authors suggest, few Americans think they will be personally harmed by it. According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication blog, “Of those Americans who are ‘very’ worried, about eight in ten (78%) think it will cause harm to them personally. By contrast, of those who are ‘somewhat’ worried, half (51%) think it will harm them personally. Of those who are ‘not very’ worried, only 18% think global warming will harm them personally, and a mere 3% of those ‘not at all’ worried believe it will harm them personally.”

Environmental communicators often advocate personalizing the issue of climate change by presenting it in terms of a human health frame. The Yale poll showed that Americans do not yet understand the threat that climate change poses to human health, with only 18-32 percent of Americans correctly answering that “thousands” or “millions” of people would die, or be made ill or injured, either now or 50 years from now as a result of climate change. These findings can be easily interpreted as suggesting that, if only Americans had this information, they would be more willing to engage with the issue. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We tested people’s responses to providing information on human health outcomes and found that merely providing Americans information about the health impacts did not shift their attitudes towards climate change or increase policy support. However, when paired with the value of protection, health descriptions improved Americans’ attitudes to climate change and what can be done to solve it. Notably, these messages increased support for policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — the cause of climate change — regardless of “belief” that it is real! It appears that, just like the loggers, Americans would rather hedge their bets to protect themselves and future generations from potential negative outcomes, even if they don’t believe the science.

The Yale report states that, if people agree about global warming, they will talk about it more. While we are waiting for people to come to consensus about climate change, communicators should start these conversations with something Americans do agree upon: that we all care about protecting the planet for future generations, especially when it comes to safeguarding human health.

The FrameWorks Institute’s research for communicating about climate change can be seen on our website.

Click here for our research report Just the Earth Doing Its Own Thing (2013), which describes the cultural models Americans hold around the issue of climate change and oceans, and compares them to expert knowledge of the issue to identify gaps in public understanding.

Click here for our research report The Value of Explanation: Using Values and Causal Explanations to Reframe Climate and Ocean Change (2014), which details the results of an experimental survey of more than 7,000 registered U.S. voters that explores the extent to which values-based messages and explanatory statements affect attitudes about climate and ocean change, and support for relevant policies.





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