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How to Break Through Climate Change Apathy

New research finds framing the issue in specific ways makes a major difference in people's subsequent attitudes.
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(Photo: PhilipYb Studio/Shutterstock)

(Photo: PhilipYb Studio/Shutterstock)

This week has brought us two new pieces of disturbing news regarding the changing climate. Scientists report 2015 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. And in a just-released paper, James Hansen of Columbia University suggests sea levels may rise far more rapidly than is currently predicted, potentially causing havoc in coastal regions.

Neither item has produced much of a reaction, which is, of course, part of the problem. Convincing people, and the government officials they elect, to take notice of this looming threat—let alone take action—remains an enormous challenge.

Fortunately, a recently published study provides some hope that people can be nudged into supporting efforts to mitigate climate change. It suggests certain ways of framing the issue—and not the ones you might expect—have the potential to shake us out of our inertia. Indeed, some even speak to skeptical conservatives.

"The economic equity and positive science frames caused policy opinions among liberals and conservatives to converge to higher levels of support (for combating climate change)."

"The ideological divide may be neither as wide nor as deep as suspected if it can be weakened by the manipulation of a few words," political scientists Alexander Severson and Eric Coleman of Florida State University write in the journal Social Science Quarterly. "If this is true, then the necessary large-scale collective action required to temper the effects of climate change might not be so huge an improbability as once imagined."

Their study featured 360 adult Americans recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Each was assigned to read one of seven carefully tailored arguments regarding the dire consequences of climate change. One simply stated the facts, while the others argued for action on either scientific, moral, or economic grounds.

The scientific frame was presented either negatively ("If humans continue to emit greenhouse gases at current rates ... higher temperatures will increase the danger to coastal ecosystems") or positively ("If humans reduce emissions of greenhouse gases ... lower temperatures will reduce the damage to coastal ecosystems").

The moral frame was written either using explicitly religious language ("We have a Biblical duty to ensure that the environment is protected, because the world is God's creation and we are His stewards"), or a secular one ("We have a moral duty to ensure the environment is protected, because we share the world with all human and non-human life").

The economic frame was crafted to emphasize either fairness, much like the message of Pope Francis in his recent encyclical ("Unless we do something about climate change, there will be dire consequences for the poor"), or the direct harm that will be done to our own nation ("The United States will incur large costs").

After they were randomly assigned to read one of those arguments, participants indicated their level of support for four policies intended to reduce climate change: Regulation of carbon, gas taxes, carbon taxes, and climate treaties.

So what moved the needle? Disappointingly, the religious frame—which some advocates believe could be an effective way of speaking to conservative Christians—did not. Nor, surprisingly, did the "our country will be better off" argument.

However, the economic fairness argument, the secular moral argument, and both science-based arguments—particularly the scarier, negative version—increased support for climate-change mitigation policies. What's more, the researchers report, "the positive science frame and economic equity frame reduce the ideological divide in climate policy support."

This suggests arguments that emphasize the notion that we have the power to take action and make a difference have an appeal that crosses ideological boundaries.

Severson and Coleman caution that climate change has become so politicized, at least in the U.S., that many people instinctively view the issue through their own ideological lens. This would explain why most of the framing devices had no significant effect.

Nevertheless, the fact they did find exceptions is encouraging.

"The economic equity and positive science frames caused policy opinions among liberals and conservatives to converge to higher levels of support (for combating climate change)," they note. "This suggest that policy attitude dissensus, even on an issue as politically charged as climate change, is not some inevitable end state of the political process."

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.