"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. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

Today, two more social-science analyses: dynamic responses (the conflicts between multiple media messages) and issue cycles (the waxing and waning of public attention to an issue). Good stuff.

And with this, we conclude Part I!


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Dynamic Responses and Canceling Out

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Given the partisanship and controversy that has afflicted the climate change issue, it is important to better test and understand how individuals respond to being cross-pressured by opposing or otherwise varied arguments. There is little question that Americans are somewhat confused about environmental issues. For example, a 2005 Yale Environmental Poll found that 53 percent of Americans agree with the statement: "There is so much information and disagreement in the media that I don’t know who to believe about what is best for the environment." Since most climate change policies do entail costs to some in society, any initial success that a concerted communications campaign on climate change experiences is likely to elicit counter-advertising as to why the proposed actions should not be taken. As a result, the longer-term success of any climate change communications campaign will likely depend on the extent to which the focal messages of the campaign are able to survive counterattack.

Rigorous pre-testing can reveal the kinds of argument that are most robust. Social science can reveal how arguments and counter-arguments cancel one another out in the minds of the public, depending on their relative volume, quality and other comparative attributes. This should be done not only upfront before a communications campaign is launched, but also in iterative updates that allow recalibration of messages based on unfolding evidence about the audience’s response to cross-pressures.

Issue Cycles

How can climate change emerge amidst the severe competition for space on the national agenda? We know that it ranks relatively low on the public ranking of issues of concern, but don’t yet know enough about the factors that could cause climate change to move ahead of other issues. We tend to believe that media coverage is a big factor, but social science evidence for the media’s "agenda-priming" capability is mixed and, in fact, a significant body of research has found that media coverage has "minimal effects" on public opinion. This may be, in part, because those in an audience whose opinions prove to be most susceptible to media influence — i.e., those whose concern is most appreciably boosted by an issue communication — tend to be the least informed on an issue. More importantly, their concern level, in turn, tends to be relatively unstable, subsiding just as quickly as it spiked (see Richard E. Petty and Jon A. Krosnick, Attitude Strength: Antecedents or Consequences, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, May 1995). So if the goal is to build a cumulative base of public support for action over some period, reliance on media-based messages alone may be unwise.

Findings like these, if robust across multiple studies, can significantly reorient one’s investments in how to communicate about an issue like climate change. Channels that are perceived to be high impact may prove less so, once the stability of the achieved attitude change over time is evaluated. Climate change is at a stage in its maturation as an issue where it requires the most sophisticated possible research about public attitudes, motivation and behavior. Armchair speculation is not sufficient.

A number of political scientists have portrayed the dynamics of how issues cycle through the national agenda. Anthony Downs described a five-stage cycle, with the spike in "issue-attention" occurring in the second stage when a dramatic event brings a particular issue to the public’s attention. This occurred for climate change in 1988 in the United States, during the worst drought in 50 years and an exceptionally hot summer — punctuated by NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony to Congress. Unfortunately, later stages of Downs’ cycle also appear to have been borne out, as the costs and threats associated with solving a problem diminish the public’s ardor to undertake remedial action — and finally the public succumbs to relative boredom if not complete obliviousness about the issue that had previously gripped it (see Anthony Downs, Political Theory and Public Choice, Edward Elgar Publications, July 1998).

More recently, political scientist Frank Baumgartner, a participant at our Conference, has borrowed from biology’s punctuated equilibrium theory to describe the episodic intensification of public attention and action on issues like climate change (see Robert Repetto, Editor, Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy, Yale University Press, May 2006). This is driven by a set of mutually reinforcing factors, many of them resistant to intentional orchestration, that must be better understood if we are to fashion a successful model for civic engagement on climate change.