Tailoring climate change messaging for conservatives could shift understanding of crisis: Study

Researchers studied how to make climate change communication more persuasive.

June 14, 2021, 11:00 AM

The key to easing partisanship on the topic of global warming may be in the way the messages are conveyed, according to new research.

Tailoring online messaging and advertising toward Republican voters could shift their views on climate change, a new study published Monday in Nature Climate Change suggests.

As of 2020, 73% of Americans believed that global warming was happening, and 62% think that it was caused by human activities. In 2010, only 57% of Americans thought that global warming was happening, researchers said.

But, the shift in public opinion on climate change has largely been driven by Democrats. In previous research, when asked how high of a priority global warming should be, just 22% of Republicans said it should be a "high" or "very high" priority, compared to 83% of Democrats, according to the study.

A worker from Kimball & Sons Logging and Trucking swings a crane in a small woodlot in Mechanic Falls, Maine, July 16, 2020.
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However, altering the messages to appeal to conservative ideals can increase Republicans' opinions of climate change, new research found.

The study was conducted through a one-month advertising campaign field experiment that tailored climate change-themed online messaging for conservative voters in two competitive districts -- Missouri-02 and Georgia-07. Those areas were chosen for their "purple" status, a "solid" mix of both Democrats and Republicans, Matthew Goldberg, associate research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and author of the study, told ABC News.

The campaign presented a series of videos called "New Climate Voices," which used social identity theory, elite cues and theories of persuasion presented by spokespersons who were likely to resonate with conservatives, Goldberg said.

For example, one video features a retired Air Force General who explains that climate change poses a national security threat and creates challenges for the U.S. military. In another video, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian, speaks about the consistency between her faith and caring about climate change. In another, former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., describes how his conservative values motivate his drive for political action on climate change.

Close-up of cellphone displaying alert from utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE) warning of an unprecedented Public Safety Power Shutoff, or planned power outage to reduce wildfire risk, San Ramon, California, October 8, 2019.
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The researchers targeted people on Facebook, YouTube and other online advertisements and made sure the people were exposed to the videos often, Goldberg said.

After the campaign, the researchers compared 1,600 surveys administered before and after the campaign, which revealed that the videos increased understanding among Republicans in the two districts on two topics: that global warming is happening and that it's being "caused mostly by human activities." The understanding increased by several percentage points, according to the study.

The belief that climate change is "somewhat," "very" or "extremely" personally important and that it would cause "moderated" to a "great deal" of harm to future generations also increased among those surveyed, researchers said.

The results of the study show that it's possible to design messaging interventions that are both persuasive and scalable, and that climate change communication is more likely to persuade people when the message and messenger resonate with the audience’s values and identities, Goldberg said.

A U.S. flag flies outside the Marathon Petroleum Corp. Los Angeles Refinery in Wilmington, California, April 21, 2021.
Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The tricky part is getting the messaging through in a competitive environment where people are fielding messages across multiple platforms, Goldberg said.

"You can imagine seeing an advertisement in your Facebook newsfeed or in a video that we're passing by on YouTube, it's often hard to persuade people, especially to do so durably, because you have you have you have more of that shallow engagement," Goldberg said. "So we usually have that worry that it's hard to, to compellingly move people's beliefs through these kinds of ads."

In addition, since the study was conducted in only two congressional districts, it is unclear how much results might vary depending on geographic location or cultural context, the researchers said.

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