More Options

Moving Beyond Gore’s Message: A Look Back (and Ahead) at Climate Change Communications

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

January 9, 2008

Conventional wisdom pegs 2007 as the long awaited tipping point in waking the American public up to the urgency of global warming. As evidence, optimists point most notably to Al Gore and his Nobel prize winning efforts at communicating about the “climate crisis.” Perhaps more importantly, Gore’s publicity campaign was backed up by ever stronger and louder expert agreement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Yet as I review in this column, conventional wisdom runs up against the reality of public opinion. Despite Gore's breakthrough success with Inconvenient Truth, American opinion today is little different from when the film premiered in May 2006. Gore has done a very good job of intensifying the beliefs of audiences who were already concerned about climate change, but a deep perceptual divide between partisans remains. As editor Donald Kennedy wrote at Science, this continued climate gridlock rates as the “science breakdown” of the year.

Still, the past twelve months were not without several overlooked developments that present both opportunities and challenges. They include the emergence of a new paradigm in climate change communications; the rise of an “invisible middle” of climate perspectives; and a powerful new public health definition of the problem. In this column, I highlight these developments with many links to additional information at my blog Framing Science and other sources.

Not a Major Issue for the News Media or the Public

In terms of media attention at the trend-setting newspapers, climate change reached a historic annual high, but still rested relatively modestly on the overall news agenda. In fact, according to data tracked by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, climate change failed to crack the top twenty most covered news stories of the year. Even during its peak weeks of attention—in and around the release of the IPCC reports and the Nobel Prize announcement—the issue remained eclipsed by the juggernaut narratives of Iraq, the economy, the presidential horse race, and several celebrity scandals.

Relative to public opinion, in a recent study, I find that the public still remains uncertain about whether the majority of scientists agree that human activities are contributing to climate change. Depending on how the question is asked, belief that scientists have reached a consensus view ranges from only a third of Americans to more than 60 percent. This variability reveals a “soft” public judgment that continues to be susceptible to the misleading counter-claims of many political conservatives.

Views on expert agreement are not the only areas where public opinion remains tentative. When asked in comparison to other issues, global warming scores consistently as a low political priority. And in open ended questions asking Americans to name the most important problem facing the nation, global warming registers routinely at less than 1% of responses.

Partisan views on the objective reality of global warming also vary widely, forming what I dub a “Two Americas” of climate change perceptions. The divide starts at the top. In a National Journal survey

of members of Congress, a mere 13% of Republican members said they believed that the earth was warming because of man made problems compared to 95% of their Democratic colleagues.

The public breaks down along similar party lines. Gallup finds that between 2006 and 2007, worry about global warming grew to a record high of 85% among Democrats, while the percentage of worried Republicans remained unchanged at 46%. When you factor in education, an even deeper chasm is revealed. According to a Pew survey, only 23% of college educated Republicans said that global warming was due to human activity compared to 75% of their Democratic counterparts.

What explains the striking partisan differences across education levels? College education correlates strongly with news attention, while partisanship leads to selective acceptance of like-minded arguments and opinions. In a fragmented media system, college-educated Republicans are heavier consumers of conservative outlets such as Fox News, messengers who are likely to continually reinforce skeptical views about global warming. The same world-view confirming tendency is true for college-educated Democrats who pay close attention to mainstream news outlets while relying on the messages and opinions of party leaders such as former Vice President Al Gore.

Many science advocates are hopeful that the presidential election might elevate media and public attention to climate change, even pushing for a presidential science debate. While such hopes and efforts are admirable, both scenarios are unlikely. Moreover, an actual debate would only send the strongest signals to date that complex solutions to the problem can be conveniently understood by relying almost exclusively on the cognitive short cut of partisanship.

The news media’s overwhelming reliance on horse race coverage will also work to keep climate change off the election agenda. Given the media’s almost single-minded fascination with strategy and conflict, it’s not surprising that a League of Conservation Voters analysis of the Sunday morning news programs found that among the 2,275 questions posed to presidential candidates in 2007, the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” were used just three times.

Finally, for candidates and media organizations there is little to be gained from elevating climate change as an electoral issue. The audience demand simply is not there. Not only does the issue fail to poll as either a relative political priority or most important problem, according to one survey, only 16% of Americans say when prompted that climate change is “very important” to their presidential vote.

These combined trends and factors suggest what my colleague Chris Mooney and I have often discussed, when it comes to the timeline for major political attention and action, the best bet is to look to 2009.

Why Public Opinion and News Coverage Matters

Some experts continue to doubt whether effective public communication really matters to policy. For example, consider the perspective of Roger Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado and creator of Prometheus, a leading science policy web site. Earlier this year, after I noted at my blog the connection between public opinion and the policy agenda, Pielke replied in the comment section with the following provocative view:

The real lesson to take from this is that the public has always valued the economy, crime, education, and the war higher than global warming. And they likely always will. Do you really think than people in places that have, say, signed on to and are meeting their Kyoto commitments, rank climate higher than economy, crime, war, etc.? Here in the UK the answer is “No"! How do you explain that action in the US requires that climate be a top public priority, but action in the UK does not? The challenge is not to agitate people about global warming such that they view it as a crisis, but instead to design policies that are compatible with public values. Trying to take a century-scale issue and turn it into the most important issue in everyone's eyes is asking too much, and a recipe for asking science to do more that it is capable of…You see the challenge of climate change as a communication problem. I don't. I see it as a challenge of designing policies to go with the grain of people's values, rather than against that grain.

While I often agree with Pielke’s insights, in this case I think he is too quick to discount the important connection between public opinion and climate action. The research in political science on the linkages between public sentiment and policy is mixed. Some scholars argue that it has a powerful influence; others conclude that the influence of public opinion is really only as a constraint on policy; while others see it as having little or no influence. My answer is that it depends. Recent history identifies two examples on how this relationship works.

Take for example the communication battle in the mid-1990s over social welfare reform, an issue that I recently authored a report on. Welfare reform is in part analogous to climate change since it was a problem that was viewed as requiring dramatic changes and that also fits easily into the mental box of ideology. In this debate, with different goals and motivations in mind, both conservatives and centrist Democrats realized that in order to systematically change welfare policy, and to fend of their entrenched opponents, they needed to invest heavily in a public communication campaign to build support and intensify opinions.

The resulting message campaign successfully redefined welfare for the public as a social crisis. In 1992, only 7% of the public named welfare as the most important problem facing the country, but by 1996, this number had crested to 27%. In fact, by 1996, given magnified media attention and selective interpretations that played on public values and racial attitudes, more than 60% of Americans supported handing responsibility for welfare over to the states, and a similar number supported capping welfare benefits at five years. In August 1996, following successful Congressional passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more than 80% of the public said that they supported Clinton signing the bill into law.

While the merits of welfare reform are debatable, the important lesson is that through a public communication campaign, political leaders created the conditions and the impetus for major policy change. Without such strong public support and opinion intensity, policy action would have likely continued to be incremental.

A more recent policy debate that was driven in part by public opinion was immigration reform. In this case, leaders in Congress and the President had reached a consensus on a path forward and polls showed a favorable public. Yet soft majority support in the polls could not trump the strong opinion intensity of minority opposition, especially when it was mobilized by conservative media outlets and leaders. For fence sitters in Congress, —via phone calls, emails, and letters—the voice of the public that was loudest was by far that of opponents to immigration reform.

The unfortunate reality is that climate change requires even more systematic policy action than either welfare or immigration. Yet while the aggregate polls show that Americans are concerned about the topic, as I reviewed in the previous section, the public still lacks opinion intensity on the issue and still ranks it as a low political priority.

In regards to Pielke’s reference to the United Kingdom: In that country there are different political conditions, and therefore a different role for public opinion. The political parties in the UK have never been deeply divided over the reality of global warming and its' importance. In the absence of elite-level partisan rancor, policy makers can work together to prioritize and pass policy measures without the impetus of public opinion. Indeed, this is typically what happens on a routine basis in the US on specific issues like plant biotechnology or nanotechnology, where there is strong bi-partisan support at the elite level yet a majority of Americans remain unaware of the issue.

Finally, as I have written in various recent articles, I strongly agree with Pielke that the goal should not be to “agitate people about global warming such that they view it as a crisis, but instead to design policies that are compatible with public values.” Pielke’s assertion, however, is missing one important clause: the need to effectively communicate how these policies connect to public values. In fact, in most cases, the public is not able to discern whether or not policies fit with their values until they are first communicated as such by experts, policymakers and the media.

New Developments to Watch

Although 2007 failed to be the much hoped for tipping point in climate change perceptions, the year did feature several promising developments that might eventually help catalyze a sense of public urgency.

Taking a scientific approach to communication. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this past year marked a paradigm shift in how climate change advocates view communication strategy. The old school of thought defined the goals of an effective communication campaign as bringing the public up to speed on the facts of climate science. Once the public understood the science, it was assumed that citizens would view the reality and urgency of climate change as the majority of scientists do.

Yet dozens of studies show that public communication campaigns face many barriers in actually educating the public, with the great majority of citizens lacking either the motivation or the ability to learn from the quality nuggets of information scattered across our fragmented media system. It’s also not clear which dimensions of knowledge about climate change would serve as the catalysts for support for meaningful policy action. Moreover, as the differences in views between college-educated Republicans and Democrats suggest, knowledge is often filtered through the prism of partisanship and ideology. As a recent UK government report on climate change communication emphasizes: “Providing information is not wrong; relying on information alone to change attitudes is wrong.”

Replacing the traditional view of science communication is the alternative emphasis on the negotiation of meaning between experts, journalists, stakeholders, and diverse publics. As part of this new paradigm, advocates are starting to recognize that messages must be tailored to fit the social identity, values, emotions, and frames of reference held by a particular audience.

My own work has played a modest role in this paradigm shift as recent articles and dozens of talks across the country have helped popularize for scientists a relevant literature on framing and media influence. These articles identify a generalizable set of interpretative meanings that appear over and over again across science policy debates and suggest how framing research might be turned into a powerful public engagement tool. The new paradigm is gaining even more traction via the research of fellow scholars such as Ed Maibach, Jon Krosnick, and Anthony Leiserowitz. These social scientists are drawing on perspectives from health communication, psychology, and social marketing to propose important new innovations in climate change communication. In short, 2007 witnessed the emergence of a growing network of researchers who are working with scientists, policymakers, and advocates to adopt a more scientific approach to public engagement.

A focus on the middle way. This past year also marked the rise to prominence of what New York Times journalist Andrew Revkin calls the “invisible middle” in expert perspectives. As Revkin describes, these scientists , policy specialists, and advocates agree on the urgent societal challenge of climate change “but say the appropriate response is more akin to buying fire insurance and installing sprinklers and new wiring in an old, irreplaceable house (the home planet) than to fighting a fire already raging.”

Policy experts such as Roger Pielke have long argued for this middle-way frame on climate change, while lamenting its absence from public discourse. Yet as Pielke and colleagues write in a recent commentary at Nature, thanks in large part to the focus of the IPCC reports, this past year marked a lifting of the two decade taboo on serious discussion of adaptation strategy.

A complementary middle way perspective is promoted by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger who once-again stirred debate among fellow environmentalists with a book advocating a shift away from what they call the “pollution paradigm.” As they write at the New Republic, only by refocusing messages and building diverse coalitions in support of innovative energy technology and sustainable economic prosperity can meaningful action on climate change be achieved:

Environmentalists can rail against consumption and counsel sacrifice all they want, but neither poor countries like China nor rich countries like the United States are going to dramatically reduce their emissions if doing so slows economic growth…for that to happen, we'll need a new paradigm centered on technological innovation and economic opportunity, not on nature preservation and ecological limits.

Another middle way perspective is offered by scientist and atheist EO Wilson. In his book The Creation, by framing environmental stewardship as not only a scientific matter, but also one of personal and moral duty, Wilson has engaged an Evangelical audience that might not otherwise pay attention to popular science books, or for that matter, appeals on climate change. Wilson passionately argues that if atheists and religious folk “sat down and talked about our deepest beliefs together, we'd come up with more agreements. Agreements on more things than disagreements. And then isn't it the American way? We could say, 'Let's put that aside for awhile and work together when we really have something we need to work together on.' “

Shifting his focus to the partisan divide, Wilson employs a similar strategy by penning the forward to a new book by former Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich. In A Contract with the Earth, Gingrich and his co-author Terry L. Maple argue that environmental stewardship is “a mainstream value that transcends partisan politics,” a perspective that cuts against the views of many of Gingrich’s conservative colleagues.

In an end of the year review, Revkin of the New York Times notes the important influence of these new middle-way perspectives:

Instead of bashing old foes, the authors, all influential voices in the climate debate with roots on the left or the right, tend to chide their own political brethren and urge a move to the pragmatic center on climate and energy. All have received mixed reviews and generated heated Internet debate — perhaps because they do not bolster any one agenda in a world where energy and environmental policies are still forged mainly in the same way Doctor Dolittle’s two-headed pushmi-pullyu walked. (It didn’t move much.)

The emergence of the “public health” frame. In October of last year, Centers for Disease Control director Julie Gerberding was close to setting in motion a major new train of thought. Gerberding, a physician and infectious disease expert, was scheduled to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the public health implications of climate change. Yet what was set up to be a news story about the implications of climate change for problems such as childhood asthma, allergies, infectious diseases, or food borne illness, turned very quickly into an all too familiar political narrative.

In the days before her testimony, the Associated Press reported that White House officials eliminated several successive pages of Gerberding's testimony, including statements that “the public health effects of climate change remain largely unaddressed,” and that the “CDC considers climate change a serious public concern.” Public health advocates, environmentalists, and many scientists were outraged by this latest episode in Bush administration “muzzling,” but for the wider public the event went by unnoticed, ignored as just the latest partisan skirmish on climate change.

Despite the missed opportunity with Gerberding’s testimony, the public health frame remains a powerful new innovation in climate change communication. Not only does a focus on linkages to already salient health problems such as asthma or allergies activate concern among new audiences, a public health frame also potentially puts climate change higher on various institutional agendas, including many policy contexts where the issue previously had not been given serious consideration. Other than the CDC, examples include the National Institutes of Health, the Surgeon General, new committees in Congress, and/or state health agencies. Finally, from a social movement perspective, reframing climate change around public health is likely to bring new organizations and interest groups to the table. These groups might include medical associations and patient advocacy groups.

Outlook

There is much to celebrate in Al Gore’s stunning film achievement and his tireless and innovative work at elevating the profile of climate change. Yet the Goracle is not superman. He remains handcuffed by his own political profile. Because of the many strong pre-existing opinions about him, roughly half the public will always discount his message. As Flock of Dodos filmmaker Randy Olson wrote in a comment at my blog:

There is an audience out there that is receptive to his voice, and they have been reached. At this point it's no longer about the substance of what is being said but about the style through which it is communicated. If he's really intent on changing society, he needs to realize this and begin quietly finding ways of supporting other, different voices who share the same substance of his message, but can deliver it with a different style that will reach the more stubborn demographics. It will be interesting to see if he does this, or if we just continue to hear more and louder versions of Al's voice…

Unfortunately, while 2007 did not prove to be the much hoped for tipping point in public opinion, a number of less visible developments hold promise. For scientists and climate change advocates, checking false assumptions at the door while forging alliances with former opponents will be necessary to build political will around meaningful policy action.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.