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Communicating Climate Change

Greg Studen  |  10/20/10 @ 10:22pm

Public reactions to information about global warming show that many people are very resistant to believing the conclusions and predictions of climate scientists.  A lot of work needs to done to understand public attitudes, and to present sound scientific information in a way that is understandable and believable. 

Recently, a paper entitled "Global Warming's Six Americas"  was published by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The paper is available here.

The Yale Project segments the American public into six audiences along the spectrum of concern and engagement on the issue of global warming.  They range from the the most concerned, the Alarmed (18% of the US population), who are convinced and quite worried about the reality of global warming, to the Concerned (33% of the population), the Cautious (19%), the Disengaged (12%), the Doubtful (11%), and finally to the Dismissive (7%). These categories reflect the widely diverse backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, and values of the American public. Some people know a lot about climate change, others, almost nothing. Some trust science, some don't. The prospect of government action is welcome to some, and anathema to others. Generally, the Alarmed and Concerned know about climate change, think that global warming is a serious problem, and support actions to address it. The Cautious and Disengaged tend to know little about the issues. The Doubtful and the Dismissive frequently have studied the issue carefully and know a lot about it, but still reject the conclusions of the majority of climate scientists, and are opposed to government action. 

The analysis of the Six Americas relies partly on related work that has been done on the more general topic of "cultural cognition."  Cultural cognition is the field that studies how fundamental world views influence the way in which people gather and process information, and then form beliefs. Cultural cognition theorists often divide people into two groups which have widely different world views and ways of processing information. These different views are sometimes referred to as "ideologies," although some prefer the more neutral term "world view," since "ideology" carries implications of views that are false but blindly followed because of economic or other interests. Cultural cognition tries to identify these groups in an objective way, without indicating whether one is better than the other.

Yale University has a group of scholars ( including Dan Kahan) united in what they call the "Cultural Cognition Project" (CCP).  See their website here:   http://www.culturalcognition.net/

The Yale group defines cultural cognition as follows:

Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.

The two basic cultural identities proposed in cultural cognition studies are called first, "egalitarian/communitarian" (referred to as "e/c"); and second, "hierarchical/individualistic" (referred to as "h/i").  Egalitarians tend to believe in more equality and less stratification in social roles, while hierachicals tend to believe in a well-defined pattern of stratified social roles. Communitarians tend to identify with the needs of the group, while individualists value more the independence of each person.  There is a strong association of egalitarian attitudes with communitarian, and of hierarchical with individualistic, hence the "e/c" and "h/i" dichotomy. The conclusion of many surveys is that people who hold the e/c world view tend to believe much more strongly in anthropomorphic climate change than those who hold the h/i view. 

The observations of the "Six Americas" paper seems to fit very well with the basic framework of cultural cognition. The detailed analysis of the six groupings reveals that attitudes about climate change correlate rather well with the e/c-h/i framework.  As we move from the Alarmed to the Dismissive on the scale of concern, we also move quite dramatically from e/c to h/i cultural attitudes.  This analysis suggests that it is likely that the groups most open to messages about the need to take action on climate change would be the two middle Six Americas categories of "Concerned" and "Cautious."  These are people who care enough about the issues to be receptive to the message, but are not already committed one way or another.  The "Alarmed" people are already true believers, and the "Disengaged" and "Dismissive" are too hard to convince.  The combined force of the Alarmed, Concerned, and Cautious would be 71% of the US population, according to the Six Americas study.

The observations of the Six Americas paper seems to fit very well with the basic framework of cultural cognition. The detailed analysis of the six groupings reveals that attitudes about climate change correlate rather well with beliefs on the e/c-h/i scale.  As we move from the Alarmed to Dismissive on the scale of concern, we also move quite dramatically from e/c to h/i  cultural attitudes.  This analysis suggests that it is likely that groups most open to messages on the need to address climate change would be the middle Six Americas categories of "Concerned" and "Cautious."  These are people who care enough about the issues to be receptive to the message, but are not already committed one way or another.  The "Alarmed" people are already true believers, and the "Disengaged" and "Dismissive" are too hard to convince.  If we could combine the force of the Alarmed, Concerned, and Cautious, that would be 71% of the US population, according to the Six Americas study.

Cultural cognition is related to the issue of "framing" in presenting arguments in favor of public policy. Framing is the study and practice of choosing certain ways of looking at a problem, in order to appeal to the cultural and psychological predispositions of a certain group. For example, any given problem  can be "framed" as a threat or an opportunity, depending on the viewpoint and goals of the person describing the problem. Here is a very interesting discussion of the frames that may be applicable to climate change: 


In this article, Nisbet has a good discussion of framing in the context of climate theory, and reviews how climate change deniers have successfully framed the issue as one of uncertainty, where not enough is known to justify action, and of whether we will mandate dramatic measures with unacceptable economic consequences. He has two suggestions for reframing the issue: first, emphasize the economic benefits of making behavioral and technological changes to lessen dependence on fossil fuels; second, frame the issue as one of morality and ethics, in which people's care for the Earth and for "creation" are enlisted to motivate action.

Here are a few ideas from cultural cognition studies and framing theory that suggest how to approach people who may be "Concerned" or "Cautious" in the Six Americas framework, and who may tend to the "h/i" side of the cultural cognition scale:

1. Appeal to experts and authority figures who are congenial to the social reference frames of more conservative people. These would be cultural conservatives, religious leaders, and other authority figures who have conservative credentials. For someone who is doubtful about global warming, but doesn't know much, the opinion of a well-known conservative can be very convincing. For example, George Schultz, former Secretary of State under Reagan, and conservative businessman and political leader, has come out in favor of controlling carbon dioxide emissions and transitioning to a new energy economy.  See here for a brief report on Schultz's views in the San Francisco Chronicle: 


Note also that Bjorn Lomborg, the "Skeptical Environmentalist," and leading global warming denier, has recently acknowledged that the Earth is warming and that we need to act (Note that Lomborg's change of heart  is subject to qualifications, but the basic idea is that it's getting very hard for even committed deniers to deny the facts of warming):


2.  Reframe the climate issue as one of economic development. Tie the warming of the planet to the problem of peak oil and rising demand/dwindling supplies of fossil fuel. Appeal to the economic threat of being "left behind"--China is forging ahead in the development of wind and solar power and is already the world leader. There''s a tremendous market out there, and we need to adapt US economic policy to go after it.

3.  Use social norming. This term refers to the finding that people are strongly influenced to adopt beliefs and behaviors that they perceive are dominant among their peers. The idea here is to find the h/i people who believe in global warming  and use them to carry the message to other h/i's (who may be somewhat conservatives and skeptical of the science.)  Here's a useful paper on the social norming concept:  http://piee.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/docs/behavior/becc/2007/presentations/1B-Cialdini.pdf   There is a significant amount of support for global warming initiatives among evangelical christian leaders: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/national/08warm.html See also here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/special/globalwarming.html   Local church leaders could sponsor programs or study groups on the issue.

4.  Reframe the "fear" approach to presenting the consequences of global warming to one of "security."  The notions of fear and threat may indeed cause some people to react negatively, but the idea of providing security to one's home, family, and lifestyle has a positive resonance.  People who are highly individualistic and do not want government action may still agree that they should take energy-saving personal actions to protect the security of their own families against the risk of high prices and more limited fossil fuel supplies. Even the Pentagon military planners have recognized global warming as a looming national security issue. See here for a report on the Pentagon's recent serious consideration of global warming:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/science/earth/09climate.html

5. Put more emphasis on the description of the scientific process that has led to the overwhelming consensus which supports the conclusion of anthropogenic global warming, and less emphasis on the debate over details of the facts.  Confidence in the results of climate science requires defense of science as a process. Objectivity in learning about the natural world can only be sought by following the ideal of the scientific method, in which open criticism and examination of evidence and data by recognized experts determines the state of the best scientific knowledge at any time. It is fruitless to argue about "facts" when there is no agreement about the legitimacy of the method by which the so-called "facts" are determined. Therefore, defenders of climate science have to argue forcefully and tirelessly for the legitimacy of the scientific method, as applied by the climate science community.  

Reliance on the scientific method  in no way denies that individual scientists may at times unwittingly or even deliberately betray the ideals of the method, by allowing bias, personal failings, or just honest mistakes to lead them into making claims that cannot withstand criticism . However, the intensely social and self-critical nature of modern science has a powerful self-correcting effect on these aberrations.  The process that has led the scientific community to its consensus on global warming is the same process that has given us modern medicine, computers,communication, agriculture, and a host of other successes in our applied understanding of the natural world. We have no choice but to rely on this process in making vital decisions about the ability of our society to flourish within the constraints of the natural world.

This view of science leads to the thought that what we want is the truth about global warming. Analyzing why different groups tend to believe or not believe in a scientific theory is all well and good, and is in fact a branch of classical rhetoric, defined as the "art of persuasion."   However, experience has shown that the scientific method itself is the best, and perhaps only, way that we have of seeking the truth about what is going on in the natural world. So, in the last analysis, rhetoric is all well and good, but in matters that we classify as "scientific,"--and that means the entire range of study of natural phenomena--we must always seek the truth by applying the internal processes of the scientific community. In the end, only the consensus of the scientific community can tell us, to the extent possible, what is the truth about global warming. This means that we should never stop going back to the basic scientific models, arguments, and data that show the reality and extent of global warming, regardless of the target audience.

We should also note that the psychological classificatory schemes described above are external to the practice of science itself; and so, if we use scientific practice as our criteria for truth, they are irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the basic scientific claims about global warming. This point is particularly telling because those who believe in the science of global warming are also members of one of the described classes; that is, they are somewhere on the scale of e/c-h/i, as well as Alarmed or Concerned or Cautious, etc., on the Six Americas scale. Therefore, they also have their particular backgrounds, experiences, and ways of looking at the world, which may have led them to believe in the truth of global warming. However, like everyone else, they still have to rely upon the internal practices of climate scientists to defend the truth of their belief in global warming. In other words, whether or not we accept all the arguments about classification of beliefs and framing of arguments,  we ultimately have rely upon the conclusions of the community of climate scientists to make our case.

For those who are interested, here are some additional resources on cultural cognition and climate change:

Here's a short essay that describes the study of cultural cognition, and its role in belief about climate change: http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/?p=730)

A slightly different view of cultural theory is presented here:  http://www.peopleandplace.net/media_library/image/2010/3/9/climate_worldviews_and_cultural_theory

In this paper the author uses a modified scheme of classification of world views, but preserves the categories of individualist, hierarchist, and egalitarian.

A good explanation of cultural cognition is given in the following Nature magazine paper (Subscription required). The author, Dan Kahan, is a member of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project (see below for link to the Project) and a leader in the field of cultural cognition: 


The Cultural Cognition Project has an interesting study entitled "Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus," on the web here: 


In this paper the authors analyze public attitudes towards global warming, among other issues. You can go straight to the graphs on pages 16 and 18 if you want to see a summary of results: dramatic differences in beliefs about the facts of global warming between e/c and h/i groups.

Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has a number of other papers on the topic at their project website here:   http://environment.yale.edu/climate/publications/

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