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How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: plain facts, pie charts or metaphors?


Previous research has identified public perceptions of the scientific consensus on climate change as an important gateway belief. Yet, little research to date has examined how to effectively communicate the scientific consensus on climate change. In this study, we conducted an online experiment using a national quota sample to compare three approaches to communicating the scientific consensus, namely: (a) descriptive text, (b) a pie chart and (c) metaphorical representations. Results indicate that while all three approaches can significantly increase public understanding of the degree of scientific consensus, the pie chart and simple text have superior recall and are most effective across political party lines. We conclude that the scientific consensus on climate change is most effectively communicated as a short, simple message that is easy to comprehend and remember. Representing the consensus visually in the form of a pie chart appears to be particularly useful.

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This research was funded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF) as well as by Lawrence Linden, Robert Litterman and Henry Paulson.

Author contributions

All authors contributed to the conceptualization of the study and research questions. S.L.V., A.A.L., and G.D.F. designed and conducted the survey. S.L.V performed the data analysis and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. A.A.L., G.D.F., and E.W.M wrote, commented on and revised parts of the manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Sander L. van der Linden.

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van der Linden, S.L., Leiserowitz, A.A., Feinberg, G.D. et al. How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: plain facts, pie charts or metaphors?. Climatic Change 126, 255–262 (2014).

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  • Metaphor
  • Descriptive Text
  • Climate Scientist
  • Scientific Consensus
  • Public Opinion Poll