Making it Relevant

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere have increased more than a whopping 36% since pre-industrial times. Present CO2 concentrations are higher than any time in at least the last 650,000 years (IPCC, 2007). As of 2009, humans are adding more than 31 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere… every year. Global mean surface temperatures have increased by about 0.9°F since 1880, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The eight warmest years on record (since 1880) have all occurred since 2001, with the warmest year being 2005, according to the NOAA and NASA.

_mg_3712_climate_change_cos.jpg Do these stats scare you? Inspire you? Just a bunch of meaningless scientific mumbo-jumbo? How about this:

“A warming planet is liable to produce a cascade of repercussions for millions of people who have never started up a car or taken a cross-country flight. Many animal and plant species will also pay a price for our prolific burning of fossil fuels.” – Robert Henson, National Center for Atmospheric Research

“All over the world people have woken up to the threat [of climate change], and are working to reduce the use of fossil fuels, stop rainforest destruction and get power from clean energy. Still much more needs to be done.” – Greenpeace

Which set of statements hits ‘home’ more with you? The scientific ‘facts’ are saying the same thing as the value statements, but to an individual, they may have widely different impacts on attitude and opinion toward climate change.

Which brings me to my next question. Are you a scientist? A business major? An artist? Would you call yourself ‘science-minded’, or do you have a hard time trusting science? Would you call yourself an individualist, or do you place more importance on community structures?

Recent research on the communication of science issues such as climate change suggests that efforts to increase public knowledge of the facts, in keeping with the scientific literacy model of opinion formation (i.e. more knowledge means more support for science), may not be as effective as we scientists would like to think. As for myself, I’m of the ‘Show me the facts (from a credible source), and I’m convinced’ type. But then again, I was trained in the scientific method. I have the motivation and ability to form my opinions based on scientific information. But, many would argue, the general public do not. We absolutely need the support of that general public to make a difference on the climate change front, and yet we keep trying to fire them up with hard scientific facts about atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and global mean temperature changes.

Green car.jpg

Perhaps the ‘facts’ don’t mean as much to others as they do to me (the scientist in me hurts a bit to say that, I’ll admit).

“You are doing a disservice to the science if you don’t figure out how to make the message relevant.” – Dr. Rosanne Scholl, my professor of Public Opinion, MC 7005, this semester.

How can we frame climate change such that the issue resonates with the masses, who indeed are the ones who are going to have to make the changes if we want to divert our planet’s sweltering fate, and not just with our fellow environmental scientists? Indeed, a vast majority of scientists already agree that climate change is human-caused and a problem worth fixing – we aren’t converting anyone there with our temperature and ocean level statistics-filled messages.

Framing – emphasizing a subset of potentially relevant considerations in an issue argument – can be a powerful tool in forming public opinion (Slothuus and de Vreese, Journal of Politics, 72(3) 2010, 630-645). For example, climate change can be presented as scientific facts pertaining to warming trends and shocking climate projections sans intervention, or framed as a public health issue, or framed as a matter of moral obligation to preserve the planet for future generations. However, a frame has to fit an individual’s of group of people’s way of thinking, or you might as well be reinforcing the reasons they don’t think climate change is an issue.

What do we know about frames that work, and those that don’t? For one, frames should be promoted by a credible source. The framing of an important issue should not fly in the face of an individual’s pre-existent values, identities, and attitudes (Slothuus and de Vreese). For example, some recent messages on climate change activism are changing from a focus on ‘doing less’ – reducing carbon footprints, traveling less, etc. – to a focus on ‘doing more’, perhaps in keeping with our very American attitude that ‘more’ is always a good thing – being a good consumer and improving or economy (the later high on our list of priorities). ‘Do less’ messages just aren’t cutting it.

“If you try to be less and less, that is not progression,” extreme athlete and environmentalist JP Auclair says in a new documentary on extreme skiing and climate change called All.I.Can. “You are not really moving forward, you are just basically slowing down. I don’t think it’s about doing less, I think it’s about being more creative, more active.” When it comes to framing climate change, comprehension is important, but personal relevance is paramount, in order for the frame to motivate positive attitude change and pro-environmental behavior.

How do we know whether our solid scientific facts on global warming will convince individuals and key communities that climate change is a serious problem and one that requires both individual and collective action, or whether our facts will fall cold in the lap of the general public? I think that more research is needed on the effective communication and framing of climate change, in order to tell us which frames work, and for which audiences. Scientific facts hit home for scientists… of course, that makes sense! But does my obscure list of ‘25 Scientific Facts You Didn’t Know about Global Warming’ really inspire my non-science-minded readers to become environmentalists and active proponents of clean energy? Probably not…

Scientists and Science Journalists, time to start getting more creative and culturally savvy with our ‘Stop Global Warming’ messages.

Image Credit: Greenpeace

Political Parties, Motivated Reasoning, and Issue Framing Effects
Rune Slothuus and Claes H. de Vreese (2010).
The Journal of Politics, Volume 72,
Issue 03, July 2010 pp 630-645