Spinning the climate message doesn’t work


For years, climate activists have been concerned and puzzled by the fact that a lot of people don’t agree with them.  In order to rectify this problem, they tried to get the message out about climate change, thinking that if everyone had the correct information, we could all happily live together in a world of onethink and pursue the rapid and drastic political agenda they wish for. They then realised that this naive idea, called the deficit model, didn’t really work: despite an enormous effort from the climate propaganda machine, public concern about climate change and support for action continued its steady decline.

This “problem” is a regular concern at Adam Corner’s blog, Climate Outreach. The next idea was finding the right words: spinning the message in a particular way so that it might appeal to, for example, Conservative voters, or “framing the narrative”, to use the sociology jargon. Unfortunately for them, this doesn’t seem to work either.  A recent paper by McCright et al, discussed previously on these pages, tried framing the climate action story in terms of the economy, security, stewardship and health found that  “Overall, these four positive frames have little to no effect on ACC beliefs”.

This week, there’s an interesting new paper in Nature that finds that however you spin the climate message, it doesn’t make much difference to people’s opinion: Simple reframing unlikely to boost public support for climate policy, by Bernauer and McGrath, based in Zurich. The paper is paywalled, but there is also a university press release, Everyone sees the world through their own prism: “How can public opinion be influenced in favour of climate protection? ETH political scientist Thomas Bernauer explored the question in a recent study. His sobering answer is that there is no magic formula”.  “Someone who has always supported green policies will find their point of view validated by the arguments, whereas those who have always been sceptical about climate change will not be influenced by reasoning based on economic or health grounds.”  There’s a comment box at the end of the press release.

In two separate experiments, the researchers presented 1675 Americans with one of four “frames” (also referred to as “treatments” in the paper, as if the subjects were suffering from some disease): 1.  A control – the usual stuff about warming, droughts, floods, sea level. 2. Good Society – people, communities, caring. 3. Economy – taking action would lead to new industries, jobs and economic success. 4. Health – more walking, less car travel, less pollution.  They then asked them questions to assess “outcomes” in three areas: 1. Policy – is the Government doing enough about climate change? 2. Behaviour – how do you feel about reducing your CO2 emissions? 3. Environmental citizenship – are you going to write to your MP or newspaper calling for climate action?  They also asked people about their views on climate change and on politics.

The key section of the results is as follows: “There is very little difference across the treatment conditions in climate policy preferences overall. For each of the three experimental conditions, and each of the three outcome measures, there are no consistent patterns in treatment effects. The average treatment (framing) effects are very weak, and not statistically significant at conventional levels.” They also found some negative effects among the more sceptical participants.

In the summary at the end, they say that they don’t find evidence that alternative framings increase support for policy, in contrast to some previous work.  They think that policy preferences are shaped by factors that can’t be altered by climate messaging and they continue the medical analogy by saying that we are “immunised” against the “treatment”.

Compared with some of the nonsense that gets written in this field, I think this is a decent paper. I think it’s good that they publish what is essentially a negative result (they suggest that other such ‘non-findings’ may have been non-published) and the paper has a clear and detailed supplementary information file. I also like the way that that Bernauer says in the press release that “Fundamentally, it’s a good thing that people don’t allow themselves to be easily influenced”. Ultimately though, the theme of the paper is the usual inversion of democracy — what policymakers should do to manipulate public opinion to agree with their own preferred policies.

This results of this work could be worrying news for those in the climate communication industry:



  1. Perhaps the authors need to learn about Pareto’s Blindfold. Below is an extract from an excellent article that brings Pareto’s Blindfold into perspective with respect to climate messaging:

    Joyfully Wearing ‘Pareto’s Blindfold’

    Rogers took his cue from the Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, who, in 1901, wrote in The Rise and Fall of Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology: “The greater part of human actions have their origin not in logical reasoning but in sentiment [emotion]. Man, although impelled to act by non-logical motives, likes to tie his actions logically to certain principles; he therefore invents these a posteriori in order to justify his actions.”

    We can think of this as “Pareto’s Blindfold” and apply it to climate reporting: Reasoning about science with many environmental reporters is futile because you’re not dealing with science or reason, you’re dealing with illogical principles invented to justify their fear, loathing, human guilt, and retribution. Reporters can’t see this, much less admit it to themselves.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Its hard to spin failed predictions like AGW means less snow, when there is more. Its harder to spin notions like renewables are cost competitive when no one invests in them without subsidies. Its even harder to spin renewable intermittency not a problem when the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. Warmunists do not have a failure of communications, as they assume. They have a failure of common sense reality.
    That reality gap grows more apparent with time, to more and more people. No significant warming in this century. No child graduating high school has experienced any AGW in their lifetime. Sea level rise not accelerating. Arctic ice has not disappeared. Polar bears thriving. Fewer hurricanes and tornados.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. An optimist might view Ms Oreskes’ perfunctory Tweet above as a welcome brush with the real world. A battle-scarred climate war veteran, with the “D” word tattooed inside his arm, wonders if it’s just a prelude to – “if persuasion hasn’t worked on the bastards – we have no option but to use force”.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. To understand why they got such weak reactions, you only need to look at their prompt material. This is the control condition climate risk frame i.e. the standard argument for dangerous man-made warming, as they see it:

    It can be confusing with all the science that comes out about global warming. Many people say that reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which are regarded as the main cause of global warming, will stop the planet heating up, and most scientists seem to think that. I think that because there is general consensus among scientists we have to accept that global warming is real. I’ve been thinking about the impact of taking action on global warming, and I think the effects on the environment will be obvious – it follows from the science. We’d stop sea levels rising, reduce the chance of extreme weather like droughts and floods, and save plant and animal species. We would be less affected by food and water shortages, heat waves, flooding, and health issues that come with high temperatures. Reducing carbon emissions would certainly reduce these risks from global warming, and that would be a good pay-off.

    I don’t know what you think, but I think that paragraph was written by a committee of thinkers who’d stopped thinking. I wouldn’t admit I agreed with it even if I was sure I understood what it meant.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Yes, after thirty years or so of getting every one of their alarming prognostications wrong, it’s difficult to understand why they can’t grasp the reasons that nobody believes them.

    Who can ever forget David Viner’s famous pronouncement that “children will not know what snow is” or the multitude of claims that the Arctic ice cap would by now be ancient history…

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Calling people “deniers” and coming out with fraudulent “research” to demonstrate that such deniers are mentally deficient in some doesn’t help either.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Geoff,
    You might add to the list above something like ” and balanced against all that my old Morris might start more often of a morning.”

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Climate activists throw hands up in horror when they find that years of dishonest campaigning have unwittingly mass vaccinated the public against their bullshit.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Geoff, they do comment on possibly changing the wording, but say that they chose it because that was what a previous paper (claiming that it worked) did. They also say “one could add visually more powerful graphical treatment conditions”. Perhaps they should have tried this sort of emotional blackmail, as employed by Van der Linden et al in their consensus messaging ‘treatment’:

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This article shows why the warmist agenda has got so far – they use simple messages – not techno speak and the public are persuaded. The inclusion of the AAAS advert seals the deal – 97% pops up yet again and has a simple message – the complex analysis that shows that 97% is a false statement is only understood by a few who take the trouble to read up on the subject. At this rate we are all set to ensure that every year for the next 20 can be declared the hottest ever – simple false information wins over complicated facts and honest assessment anyday.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Perhaps it’s because the public is well-educated about marketing people making claims that have been shown to be false. Various people have falsely cried “Wolf” too often. Or to put it another way, a hypothesis that is refuted by the data is still rammed down our throats by unscrupulous “scientists” and we, the public has had enough. In fact we wonder why some of these people aren’t charged with making fraudulent claims when we know that this would happen for false claims on consumer issues.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Paul Matthews 14 Mar 16 at 12:43 pm
    Comparing the 97% climate consensus with medical doctors is total nonsense. I certainly would not have taken my children to “doctors” if the field of medicine had no demonstrated competency, and the practitioners had no ethical code to put the patient first. The climate consensus (from Cook et al 2013) is of publishing academics from a huge spectrum of fields. After over two decades of research, they still cannot tell if there is no problem, or a catastrophic one. Further, the treatment programme is always the same – reduce CO2 emissions, regardless of how effective that treatment is, or the harmful side effects.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Why spinning won’t work: People are getting wise to the fact that there is a great deal of natural variability. Some years we will have late winters; others we will have early springs. Some years we will have mild winters, but I notice the eastern half of the planet seems to get hit harder those years. When we have more severe winters, the eastern half of the planet seems to have mild ones. I haven’t seen any climate science giving that any consideration – there is a balance. Another reason spinning won’t work: the globe doesn’t have a single climate and a single global average temperature tells you nothing. All it takes to raise the temp is for it to not get as cold. It’s not getting “warmer” if it’s only getting down to 0 instead of 20 below.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. The majority of sceptics point to the fact that there’s no way to prove that the theory of Catastrophic Global Warming is correct (and also no way to prove that it’s not correct) within a hundred years or more. The measured warming is much lower than was predicted 10 or 20 years ago – so something’s not understood.

    The more folk try to persuade sceptics, the more likely it is that they have ulterior motives in believing it. Career, money, ideology, arrogance, could all contribute to their reasons. Oh dear, that’s more or less what they’re accusing sceptics of – but using lots of insults. What a good job it is that most sceptics are engineers who don’t believe anything unless they see it with their own eyes!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Paul
    They did change the wording, removing the name of Al Gore because it was considered divisive!
    Beyond the fact that the wording is clumsy and badly written is the idea that you can test a psychological concept with material that you, the researcher, have written yourself. What they call “framing” is advertising copy, no more or less. But if they called it that they couldn’t publish it in a scientific journal. And people would ask why they hadn’t employed professional copywriters instead of bungling it themselves, (or in their case, copying it from the already bungled effort of someone else).
    We’ve already seen this kind of nonsense in this article http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-012-0424-6 by Corner Whitmarsh and Xenias. They wrote pro- and sceptical articles on global warming, and found that the sceptical ones were more credible, despite having been written by Corner, a confirmed Green activist!
    Every first year marketing student knows about the dangers of knocking advertising. The only result of this kind of research is to show that social scientists are bad copywriters.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. What’s the best way to sell something to the public? Sell them stuff they already want. When it comes to persuading the public, some are predisposed to believing in AGW but nobody is sold on what it would take to do anything about it (spending other people’s money doesn’t count). We’re all a mixtures of beliefs and concerns but what we do is a measure of how genuinely worried or committed we are. Some might think that climate activists are the proof that people genuinely believe in AGW but people like campaigning. The social aspect, the moralising, the relaxed dress code, what’s not to like?

    One of the easiest things to give up should be flying but ask most warmists to do so and you’d think you’d made an indecent proposal. Their commitment to reducing CO2 runs out before you get to the terminal, never mind the end of the runway. Their excuse is that they don’t see why they should suffer more than anyone else. How laughable. I believe we shouldn’t waste energy but I don’t refuse to insulate on the grounds not everyone else will follow suit. I like saving money but I don’t feel compelled to fritter it away because others don’t agree with me.

    No amount of spin will persuade you to do what you fundamentally don’t want to. The persuasion has to be genuine. It also has to be proportionate to what is being asked. So the evidence needed to tick a box on a form is very small but the amount needed to pry warmists out of planes is much greater and is a target that climate scientists haven’t met.


  17. Interesting, but not surprising. We find the same thing when trying to convince funders of the worth of our work. Their response is vastly more related to larger externalities such as the overall financial condition of the funder than to how good a job we do at framing the work we do. Given current world economic conditions, any massive scheme to revamp our energy system and impose further sacrifices is a very hard sell. Why would anyone expect anything else?


  18. Another thing that continues to amaze me is that the obvious things that are easy to see and make economic sense such as switching to natural gas and nuclear as far as possible are just ignored in favor of less attractive things such as wind farms and solar in Northern Europe (where solar insolation is almost negligible some times of year). This does call into question for me whether the people trying to make the sale are even sane. The most viable hypothesis is that they are guided by ideology rather than sober reflection on the alternatives.


  19. Its about time the climate science community got a grip and changed the name again – it started as global warming and moved onto unprecedented climate change – will the next one be unstoppable climate fluctuations – that way 97% of them will be able to agree again


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