"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’s bit is brief and fun. It’s about setting a different kind of target: Targets for changing the attitudes of the public.


Attitudinal Targets

Targets and timetables can be proposed by policy specialists and pursued with the benefit of intricate trading schemes, but ultimately they will only be implemented if there is an adequate base of public support and "will." Given this, we now turn to a relatively neglected area of goal- setting in the climate change arena, that of measurable attitudinal targets, which may be crucial precursors to the setting of emissions reductions targets and other actions on climate change.

It is not, of course, easy to ascertain with any precision what attitudinal base of support one needs in order to pave the way for a certain emissions- reduction target, since this depends centrally on the configuration of constituencies at play at a given moment. One would intuitively expect that more stringent emissions targets (i.e., those likely to impose greater costs or lifestyle adjustments) would require more stringent attitudinal goals, meaning, for example, a greater percentage of Americans saying they think climate change is a serious or very serious problem.

Pollsters typically gauge support levels for certain policy actions by seeing if they hold even if the respondent is told that significant costs would be entailed. While this presumably helps to ferret out the most committed supporters of a policy, the reliability of oral representations about a readiness to incur costs is questionable, as opposed to behavioral evidence that they actually do agree to incur it.

So what kinds of attitudinal targets could be considered, specified and measured? One target might be to increase the percentage of Americans who say, in a cross-sectional, nationally sampled poll, that climate change is a serious or very serious national problem from the current approximation of 30 percent up to 50 percent by a target date. Agreement on such a goal might suggest a broad-based, grassroots strategy rather than a leverage-point strategy targeting influentials. One might still decide that some sub-segment of the general population would be more persuadable, and therefore worthy of focus, as long as a change in that segment’s attitudes would be sufficient to contribute measurably to the targeted increase in the national concern level overall.

An alternative model might be to set attitudinal targets that are reliably known to be predictive of behavior. For example, Jon Krosnick has written extensively about the "issue public" concept, which refers to that segment of the population that says an issue is personally important to them. Note that a person’s answers have been shown to diverge significantly depending on whether they are asked to indicate what is important to them personally versus important to the nation as a whole. Members of the issue public are, in effect, those who get married to the issue and engage in "attitude-expressive" behaviors like writing to their elected officials and the news media, joining or donating to organizations, factoring the issue heavily into their voting, etc.

The issue public on climate change, when last measured by Krosnick in early 1998, was around 11 percent (and it had grown from 9 percent — a statistically significant increase — during the course of the initial Kyoto Protocol debate). So one coordinating goal that those seeking to pro- mote national emissions reductions targets might set would be to increase the climate change issue public from 11 percent to 15 percent. This may sound small, but would add over 10 million Americans to this activist segment.

Decisions on which goal to adopt (i.e., increase the proportion of Americans saying climate change is serious/very serious versus increasing the size of the issue public) are not idle. Rather, they may drive strategic choices. A strategy to target those who might be candidates for entry into issue public membership would look quite different from a broad-based strategy to raise the level of concern about the issue among the general public: its messengers, tone, arguments, and other features would be "ratcheted up" to appeal to those with a stronger set of views on the issue.

Beyond this, there is an exceptionally wide suite of other options for identifying a specific cluster of beliefs and then doing careful pre- and post-intervention measurement to test the impact of information dissemination or other influence strategies on behalf of climate change science.

  • Energy beliefs.
    One could compare what specific energy policies Americans currently support to those that would have the biggest impact on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions — and then undertake targeted communications initiatives to attempt to induce these to align more than they do today.
  • Consequences.
    One could identify which of the many consequences of climate change are of greatest concern to different seg- ments of the population through a highly textured survey and then convey specific and accurate information about that risk on a narrowcasting basis.
  • Geographic.
    Specific attitudinal targets could be set on a geographic basis. For example, some at the Conference believe that the U.S. South could be especially pivotal in promoting national action on climate change. This is related to both partisan and religious cleavages in our society, but also adds additional cultural content. Many in the South reportedly see the North as a "know-it-all," culturally alien region, a factor that has impeded the South’s assimilation of information about climate change perceived to be largely sourced in the North, or at least heavily associated with liberal Northeasterners or Californians. Southern uptake of the climate change issue would, if it is to occur, probably need to be based largely on a local rationale that is true to the cultural, religious and other traditions of the South itself. Some believe that the Katrina tragedy may prompt greater receptivity to evaluating the issue.
  • Certainty beliefs.
    Krosnick has also investigated the substructure of beliefs on global warming and distinguished between existence beliefs (i.e., what percent of Americans believe that global warming exists), attitudes (i.e., what percentage think global warming will be, on balance, good or bad?), beliefs about human causation and efficacy, and others (see Jon Krosnick et al., "The Origins and Consequences of Democratic Citizens’ Policy Agendas: A Study of Popular Concern about Global Warming," forthcoming in the journal Climatic Change, 2006). The variable that turns out to have the greatest impact on an individual’s belief about the national seriousness of climate change is the "certainty" with which he or she holds the other beliefs (i.e., how certain are they of the existence of global warming, the role of human causation, the efficacy of remedial steps). This suggests that a potential civic engagement strategy might invest less in persuading those who don’t believe global warming exists that it does exist, and relatively more in strengthening the "certainty" with which those who already believe some aspect of climate change hold that belief, perhaps through provision of accessible scientific information.