Climate Change Messages for the “Alarmed” and “Concerned”

Data show that the American public can be divided into “six Americas,” which have different sets of beliefs and motivations regarding climate change. This perspective comes from the Yale Project on Climate Connections (formerly the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media), which conducts research and writes reports about public perceptions of climate change, and climate communication strategies.

At one extreme, 16% of the public is “Alarmed,” having great concern about what is happening to the earth’s climate and strong motivation to combat the problem. At the other extreme, 13% of the public is “Dismissive,” having little confidence that climate change is real and thus the lowest motivation to combat it. In between these groups are the “Concerned” (26%), the “Cautious” (25%), the “Disengaged” (5%), and the “Doubtful” (15%).

In theory, at least, effective communication strategies should be tailored to each of the different groups (which is easier said than done). For example, the important questions people want answered vary by group, with the “Alarmed” most interested in learning what actions can be taken to combat climate change, while the “Cautious” want to ask whether earth’s climate is really changing and, if so, why scientists are sure that human beings are causing the changes. Majorities of the “Doubtful” and “Dismissive” say they don’t even want to read or hear about the issue – therefore, messages aimed at those two groups need to be briefer than those aimed at the “Alarmed” or “Concerned” and engage them in a different way. A strategy recommended for many groups is to emphasize that desirable actions are growing in popularity and have been adopted by admired individuals (similar, perhaps, to the Got Milk? advertising campaign in which famous people were shown wearing a milk mustache): so-and-so installed LED bulbs (which saves him or her money) and drives an electric car.

I am particularly concerned about messages for the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned” because experts say that a promising strategy to change minds is to better educate members of these two groups and have them discuss the issue with family and friends. A few organizations, like Mothers Out Front, have adopted this approach.

What are the key messages to convey to open-minded individuals who are already alarmed or concerned about the climate? That is not a question with easy answers; climate change is a complex topic and there are many informative fat reports about it. Similarly, there are many perspectives from which the topic can be explored (science, policy, international diplomacy, economics, etc.).

Despite this complexity, my review of short videos about climate change, as well as conversations with friends, leads me to believe that several key parts of the climate change story are not being told well enough or often enough. If the “alarmed” and “concerned” don’t understand important parts of the story, they cannot convey them to others.

In my next post, I will discuss the messages that I believe are vital but not sufficiently emphasized even among the “Alarmed” and “Concerned.”

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