Georgia State University’s Risa Palm, professor of urban geography, and Toby Bolsen, associate professor of political science, did a Q&A session about why divisions occur and how communication breakthroughs might be made by experts and leaders about climate change. You can read the full interview by clicking this link, but here’s an excerpt:
One of your recent surveys asked who was likely to be most believable when it came to delivering messages about the changing climate — and found that climate scientists were low on the list. Why is that?
Bolsen: We still trust doctors and experts when our health is on the line. It’s just when we deal with this subset of scientific issues that have become infused with meaning and political identities, it undermines people’s ability to trust the science in the same way as if they were dealing with the information in a different context.
What do you think needs to happen to help move the needle when it comes to impactful climate messaging? What needs to change?
Bolsen: The politicization of climate science and the rise of extreme partisan polarization present formidable hurdles for generating the public consensus necessary for meaningful policy action. We have to move past a long-standing focus on “educating” the public about the “facts” of climate change as a way to generate support for action, because people are often motivated to interpret information in a way that protects their existing beliefs, political identity, and cultural worldview.
We have to recognize how different information-processing motivations can cause people to reject scientific information. Recent work suggests that climate messages are most impactful when they resonate with and affirm a person’s underlying values and identities. For instance, some recent work finds that Republicans respond positively to messages that emphasize market-based solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Our own work also demonstrates that when climate messages are linked with trusted in-group sources, such as Republican Party leaders emphasizing the risks of climate change, this information can be particularly impactful among Republican audiences. It is, therefore, crucial for Republican Party leaders to begin to advocate for meaningful climate action if we hope to depoliticize the issue and generate the public consensus necessary for change.
Palm: Simply providing more and better information to people will not necessarily change opinions. We need a strategy that will convince the general public that we need to make major changes, even if that requires individual sacrifices or doing things differently. We may need to change how much we travel, what we eat, or the kinds of buildings we occupy. We may also need to agree to participate with other nations in efforts to reduce carbon emissions, or even to adopt some of the geo-engineering strategies (such as carbon capture and storage) that could make society carbon neutral. Until people are convinced that we have a problem, that the problem is serious and that there are things we can and must do, little will change. And that would be tragic.