Increasing Public Understanding of Climate Risks & Choices

A report from a workshop on climate communications that gathered leaders to explore why people reject the science of climate change and how to shift the dialogue in way that can build social consensus.

In January 2012, social scientists, climate scientists, business leaders, political leaders, religious leaders, climate communication professionals, and students gathered at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus to consider:

  1. How can social scientists most effectively support climate communicators?
  2. What insights from practice can inform ongoing social science research on climate communication?


Climate change has largely become a social challenge and this report offers insight into the underlying dynamics that influence public opinion and how we can expand the community of people who are engaged in the issue.


1. We have a scientific consensus on climate change, but not a social consensus

  • When people hear scientific evidence about societal risks they actively filter it.
  • People tend to accept evidence they find consistent with cultural values and reject evidence they feel challenges their worldview.
  • The politicization of climate change in the US has been a barrier to uniting public understanding of climate change.
  • Political affiliation is one of the strongest correlates of individual uncertainty about climate change, not scientific knowledge.
  • A “denial industry” of powerful individuals, think tanks, lobbying firms, and other forces undermine scientific evidence around climate change and paint it as a liberal political cause.

2. Define the target audience for communication strategies

  • The “persuadable middle” of the climate change debate, not the die-hard skeptics, will make the critical difference in changing public opinion, behavior, and policy.
  • Scientists should clearly communicate the concept of scientific uncertainty for a public audience to avoid misinterpretations of scientific confidence.
  • Discussing climate change on a local level should be a priority for climate communicators.
  • Focusing on moving the needle on public opinion should be considered less of a priority than activating the public that is already concerned.
  • For businesses, climate change can be framed as a risk and an opportunity.
  • For people of faith, if we love our neighbors as we love ourselves, it is wrong to pollute our shared atmosphere.
  • For conservatives, climate change action is about accountability.
  • A more engaged grassroots effort is needed to reliably respond to the proliferation of anti-climate messages on the internet and in the media.

3. Meet the audience members where they are

  • Climate communication is not primarily about sharing facts, but about speaking to values.
  • Climate change communicators should present climate change in a way that affirms the listener’s sense of self and emphasizes the linkages between his or her values and environmentally benign behavior.
  • Messengers with credibility and shared experience with a given community have a far greater chance of earning trust on a message that could seem threatening.
  • We should create spaces of respectful dialogue where people can process information slowly and thoughtfully.
  • Climate science should be communicated through visual infographics, interactive online activities, and social media.

4. Focus on risks versus rewards

  • People tend to engage more readily with a positive call-to-action than “doom and gloom” warnings.
  • Need to amplify success stories of climate solutions.
  • Storytelling resonates with people regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.
Image is from report cover by Mike Gould
Date: 2012
Strategic Approach: Audiences, Engagement, Framing, Other
Strategic Approach: Audiences, Engagement, Framing, Other

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