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: