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Americans & Climate Change Report

The facts of climate change cannot be left to speak for themselves. They must be actively communicated with the right words, in the right dosages, packaged with narrative storytelling that is based rigorously on reality, personalized with human faces, made vivid through visual imagery — and delivered by the right messengers. Doing this will require that climate change communications go from being a data-poor to a data-rich arena. Social science methods have not been adequately applied to date — and that must change, given the stakes.

Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action” (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

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Part I has already invoked the work of social scientists, including that of academic survey specialists who are well equipped to provide a more textured and ultimately actionable picture of the drivers of attitude change than standard pollsters. This needs to be extended to other scholars whose work may be relevant to society’s engagement on climate change. A variety of disciplines — including psychology, linguistics, communications, sociology, political science and interdisciplinary fields like persuasion theory — have developed robust insights into the process of attitude formation, change, and persistence that could be harnessed in seeking to boost civic understanding and engagement on climate change.

For example, cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky produced a rich body of Nobel Prize-winning psychological work on how people make everyday judgments under conditions of uncertainty, and the simplifying shortcuts they use (see Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds., Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge University Press, 1982). Some of these shortcuts serve people well, while others produce systematic biases and errors. Much of this work awaits extension and application to the issue of climate change and could help illuminate the following kinds of questions. How do people draw inferences when evaluating information or risks associated with climate change? What errors do they make in interpreting the probabilities of climate-related forecasts? How can optimism and other emotional or intuitive factors shape their decisions, in comparison to rational processing of the facts? What determines what people recall from their memory when making current decisions about climate change? When comparing two policy options or personal actions intended to mitigate climate change, which few features do people choose to base the decision on and why?

Much of the research on these questions also demonstrates that the way choices are framed can influence the decisions individual make. By tapping into this existing work and formulating new applied research questions, those seeking to promote civic engagement on climate change may be able to do a much better job of framing scientific and other factors for maximum understanding and motivation.

Enthusiasm has grown since we adjourned the Conference for building on our efforts to connect social and natural scientists in a problem- centered model — with climate change as a worthy case. This has spawned additional dialogues about how to promote such cross-fertilization, whether through joint panels at the annual meetings of scientific associations or deeper integration through new research programs.

So why do more social science? Perhaps the most compelling rationale is that it likely constitutes a good investment. The Conference, for example, recommended the creation of a “new overarching communications entity or project to design and execute a well-financed public education campaign on climate change science and its implications . . .” and further called for funding it with $50-100 million. Applying just a small portion of that sum to first conducting rigorous social science research should help ensure that the proposed campaign will have the desired impact on public engagement. Such research should go far beyond the routine use of qualitative focus groups or broad-brush polling and into laboratory and field experimentation to test cognitive and social psychological mechanisms. Further reinforcement for the value of such research comes, by implication, from past campaigns on climate change, which have apparently had limited impact despite considerable multi-million dollar funding in some cases.

Accordingly, a key foundational recommendation of the Conference is to undertake systematic and rigorous research to test the impact of environmental communications in all media on civic engagement, public opinion, and persuasive outcomes, and to apply the findings to inform new creative work on multi-media climate change communications (Recommendation #26).

Yale’s Environmental Attitudes & Behavior Project is presently working with collaborators, including a number of the scholars who were at the Conference, to develop a research program that will apply social science theories and methods more effectively to the problem of climate change. This is not the place to sketch out the research agenda, but it is actively taking shape today, based in part on new insights and collaborations formed at the Conference. The following examples illustrate the type of research questions being formulated and considered.

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