If We Know What Does Not Work in Climate Communications, What Does?

Climate opinions in America are difficult to track and often waver with the political tide – an ebb and flow of economic and party line rhetoric. While surveys such as the Sage Report demonstrate that Americans place high concern on monetary risks, moral messaging remains a steadfast tool in garnering support for climate initiatives.

In a country with an overwhelming population segment that identifies as religious, faith leaders bear a special responsibility. When taking up your sacred duty as a faith leader, you did more than obligate yourself to hermenutic endeavors; you signed up to demonstrate how the scripture may guide the individual through the moral maze of American life.

Persuading Americans to Act On Climate Change

By By Bethany Albertson and Joshua Busby for The Washington Post

For almost two decades, legislation in the United States to address climate change has been stuck and the issue has now been elevated to a source of severe partisan division. Although institutional barriers have made it difficult for the United States to ratify international climate agreements and pass domestic legislation, climate advocates also view weak public support as a problem. To that end, activists have sought to re-frame the issue to be more appealing to the American electorate, which might in turn push lawmakers to take heed. What kinds of appeals does the U.S. public find persuasive on climate change?

In surveys of Americans, climate change is an important environmental concern, but environmental concerns rank lower than issues such as national security and the economy. Advocates of climate change policies must confront the challenge that the public historically has viewed climate change as physically and temporally remote. A high-profile political event such as the Copenhagen climate negotiations or a weather-related catastrophe such as Hurricane Sandy catches attention and puts climate change on the political agenda. But attitudes about the causes of climate change and the appropriate level of government response are affected by one’s sense of personal risk (see Leiserowitz here, here and here). Partisanship may override the limits of individual knowledge: Democrats and independents are much more likely than Republicans to believe that there is solid evidence of global warming, by as much as a 30-point gap.

Throughout the 2000s, advocates experimented with a variety of frames to garner public support. The original frame of climate change as an environmental crisis focused on the effects on future generations and humankind. Such an appeal for transnational and intertemporal altruism is largely a moral claim. Indeed, some activists made this appeal through efforts such as the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign, an effort to link Christianity to environmental stewardship. In contrast, the green jobs orientation of the early 2000s, that then went on to infuse the rhetoric of the Obama administration, is a primarily material interest-based logic. In the late 2000s, advocates also sought to tie climate change to national security. Which of these various approaches is most likely to be successful?

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