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Framing the Climate Conversation:
Researchers Investigate Discourse Across Party Lines

Climate change has slowly become more of a partisan issue over the last few decades, fuelling heated debates despite the scientific consensus (and, quite often, about whether there is in fact a scientific consensus) that human activities are causing climate change. Amidst this tumultuous political landscape, how to communicate effectively about climate issues has become difficult.

Researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the Academies) have taken up the challenge, with hopes to find more common ground among the American public.

A study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people who identified as conservative were more likely to support “pro-environmental” ideals when the issues were reframed as matters of obeying authority, defending the purity of nature, and demonstrating patriotism. The study’s lead author, Christopher Wolsko, an assistant professor of psychology at OSU-Cascades, says this underscores the ways in which important topics are informed by a person’s moral and ideological perspective.

According to Wolsko, moral foundations theory suggests that liberals and conservatives respond differently to broad moral categories. Liberals respond more favorably to moral issues involving harm and care, or fairness and justice, and conservatives respond more favorably to issues framed by loyalty, authority and respect, and the purity and sanctity of human endeavors.

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Wolsko and his co-authors tested how shifts in moral framing affected attitudes towards environmental issues such as climate change by reframing questions around ideals of patriotism, loyalty, authority and purity and pairing them with imagery such as flags and bald eagles. They found that the changes led to shifts amongst conservatives, but there was no noticeable shift among liberals.

“The classic move is to segment people along these ideological lines,” Wolsko said. “But if we’re more inclusive in our discourse, can we reduce the animosity and find more common ground?”

He recommends the use of more neutral messaging that appeals to people with both liberal and conservative ideologies.

“I’m really interested in the extent to which we can bring everyone together, to be more inclusive and affirm common values,” he said. “Can we apply these lessons to the political and policy arenas, and ultimately reduce the vast political polarization we’re experiencing right now?”

Luckily, there are early signs that the political polarization on climate change may be lessening. According to survey results released this week by Yale and George Mason universities, 73 percent of registered voters think that global warming is happening, and 56 percent think that it is caused mostly by human activities. The party lines are still clear: The vast majority of Democrats both believe in global warming (95 percent of liberals and 80 percent of moderates) and that it is caused mostly by humans (75 percent overall); while far less Republicans are on board. However, the number of Republicans who believe in climate change has increased significantly since the midterm elections of 2014.

The survey showed that the percentage of liberal and moderate Republicans who believe in climate change increased by 10 points over the last two years to 71 percent, while the percentage of conservative voters leaped 19 points up to 47 percent. About half of liberal and moderate Republicans (49 percent) and a quarter of conservatives (26 percent) believe it is mostly human-caused.

Further, politicians may be able to gain bipartisan support on solutions such as clean energy without raising up the climate debate. 84 percent of all registered voters support funding more research into renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, including 91 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans. Giving tax rebates to people who buy energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels received similar support, from 81 percent of all voters including 91 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans.

Still, scientists and communications experts remain concerned about the rejection of broadly accepted scientific findings among the climate change deniers who remain.

“America and the world have an enormous stake in assuring that the public trusts the integrity of science and scientists,” Climate Central President Paul Hanle wrote in a recent op-ed on Scientific American. “Rejection of accepted science threatens our society, not only because the enterprise of scientific research has undergirded our enormous technical and material advances since the Enlightenment, but also because science is a foundation of knowledge for improving the human condition.”

Climate Central is supporting a project to investigate the science of science communication that was recently launched by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the Academies). Over the two-year study, a group of thirteen academics is charged with providing specific, practical guidance to the scientific community that can further research in this field and improve communication about the most controversial scientific issues.

The committee will seek to identify the factors, media influences, and communications approaches that affect how science relating to a broad range of issues – such as climate change, childhood vaccinations, food safety, healthy behaviors, and nanotechnology – are understood, or misunderstood. They hope to answer questions such as, ‘Why do so many people reject broadly accepted scientific findings? What are the psychological, behavioral, and cultural threads that tie together the fear of vaccinations with denial of climate change? And how can we apply the answers to these questions to improve the communication and understanding of science?’

The Academies committee will publish its findings at the end of 2016, and will include input from panels of experts on how the public develops opinions about controversial topics that may conflict with the facts for deeply held and complicated reasons, including psychological, social, cultural, contextual, political, and economic factors. The applied research project connected with Climate Central will be completed in 2017.


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