A new approach for evaluating climate change communication

Abstract

Many scholars study when climate change communication increases citizen engagement. Yet, past work has largely used public opinion-based measures of engagement to evaluate alternative frames. In this paper, we argue for a new approach to evaluation, which is premised on research on the policy-making process showing that space on the political agenda and, ultimately, policy change are more likely to arise in response to changes in both public opinion and collective political action. Thus, we argue that alternative frames should be evaluated based on their consequences for both. This is especially critical given that frames can have divergent effects on attitudes and behavior. Using a combination of field and survey experiments, we apply our approach to evaluate two frames related to climate change risks. We find that they heighten people’s concern about climate change yet decrease their rate of political action to express that concern. Our results suggest caution with regard to these frames in particular and that, more generally, frames that might seem advantageous when examining public opinion may not be when political behavior is analyzed.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    There are some exceptions, such as Bain et al. (2012) and Bernauer and McGrath (2016), which examine the effect of frames on behavioral intentions but do not measure political behavior itself. Also note that our focus is on political engagement – that is, attitudes and behaviors designed to affect public policy. A separate line of work examines the effect of frames on non-political, environmentally friendly behaviors such as personal energy consumption (e.g., Bolsen 2011; Bolsen et al. 2014).

  2. 2.

    Both of our partner organizations requested that they remain anonymous in print.

  3. 3.

    With different partners, such as more conservative-leaning organizations, we would likely have chosen to rent from different lists.

  4. 4.

    Note that, unlike many previous climate change studies, the control groups in our experiments always received some climate information. The reason is because, in a field experiment setting like ours in which even our control group was receiving an email from our partner organization, it would not have made sense to have only neutral and/or non-climate information. For instance, the control groups received information about the National Climate Assessment and the scientific consensus about climate change (see the Supplementary Information).

  5. 5.

    We minimized psychological distance by focusing on impacts in the USA and using language that conveyed temporal proximity (Leiserowitz 2005).

  6. 6.

    Two theoretical points are worth noting here. First, we acknowledge that adding text can introduce a possible confound (increased email length). In another paper with a very similar experimental design Levine and Kline (2017) rule out this potential confound by showing that it is the threat to material well-being that accounts for differences across groups, and not simply lengthened text. Second, as shown in the appendix, the treatment text in all of our experiments was very personal – it encouraged all respondents to directly think about how the issue would threaten their own material well-being. Levine and Kline (2017) show that a treatment text that uses sociotropic language has a similar effect but only among people that are already experiencing health hardships in their own lives (i.e., they are the respondents most likely to personally feel threatened). We would argue that the underlying mechanism – the idea that frames highlighting threats to material well-being can make people feel poorer, which in turn reduces their willingness to spend scarce resources on politics – is the same across studies.

  7. 7.

    These outcomes were tallied one week after the emails were sent.

  8. 8.

    In fact, to put these numbers into perspective, the total number of responses to our email led to an almost 25% increase in the size of the organization’s total membership list.

  9. 9.

    Again, we omit its name in print.

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Correspondence to Adam Seth Levine.

Additional information

We thank Andrew Gooch, Donald Haider-Markel, Yanna Krupnikov, Brendan Nyhan, our anonymous reviewers, and seminar participants at UCSB, Syracuse University, and Dartmouth University for helpful and engaging feedback. We also thank the Atkinson Center for aSustainable Future at Cornell University for generous funding

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Levine, A.S., Kline, R. A new approach for evaluating climate change communication. Climatic Change 142, 301–309 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1952-x

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Keywords

  • Public Opinion
  • Partner Organization
  • Political Engagement
  • Climate Change Risk
  • Climate Change Communication