How do you make conservatives care about climate change? An expert shares tips.
Ed Maibach spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to persuade people to do what’s best for them. He has been involved in many of the major public health campaigns of the last few decades. He studied how to persuade people to get tested for HIV back when getting tested for HIV carried a huge social stigma. He studied how to get people to stop smoking or – even better – to never start in the first place. When both of those campaigns began to show signs of progress, Maibach moved on. As he puts it, “I’ve always been attracted to the biggest fight that I think I can win.”
These days, that fight is climate change. In his career, Maibach has gone from being a social scientist studying human communication in academia, to being the worldwide director of social marketing for the PR firm Porter Novelli, and then back to academia, teaching the next generation of social scientists. As the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, he is studying the fine art of convincing people — particularly conservatives — that climate change is both very real and very bad.
How does one go about breaking it to conservatives that the climate is in trouble? I spoke with Maibach recently.
Q. OK. If I wanted to persuade a group of conservatives to care about global warming, how would I do that?
A. Fifteen years ago, there was very little difference between the way that Democrats and Republicans viewed climate change. About two out of three out of each group saw it as real and human-caused and serious. Now almost all Democrats are convinced that climate change is human-caused and real and serious. But now we’re down to about a third of Republicans.
One of the lines of argumentation that we have tested that is very helpful with conservatives has to do with the scientific consensus around climate change. In our research, we have found that people who believe there isn’t a consensus are the most likely not to believe that human-caused climate change is happening.
That is the most widely held myth in America about global warming. In fact, there is an overwhelming scientific consensus — at least 97 percent consensus. And that’s based on surveying climate scientists. If you survey the literature instead of human beings, it actually looks more like 99.9 percent.
What we found is that when you present a message that clearly states the extent of the consensus — a sentence like “Over 99 percent of climate scientists are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening,” when it is represented as coming to them from AAAS [the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences] — it has a powerful impact on resetting people’s understanding. Which then has a secondary benefit of making them a little more likely to believe that climate change is happening. We have found that it is particularly impactful when resetting conservatives’ beliefs.
There’s a problem with this. My colleague at Yale, Dan Kahan, thinks that this is a largely meaningless finding, because in the real world, voices in America who are trying to use this message tend to be liberal voices who are using it in a manner that demeans Republicans. Marco Rubio, for example — liberals specifically use the 97 percent as a cudgel to beat him over the head. Dan feels this is not a message that in reality is going to change conservative views about climate change.
But we have a lot of data showing at least that in our laboratory efforts — and when I say laboratory I mean when we pull together people from the internet and we test them — it really does work pretty well.
Q. Is anyone doing this sort of messaging out in real life?
A. [One example is] Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State — he’s the climate scientist that climate denialists love to talk to. He’s been invited to the Heartland Institute twice now to give a climate science talk.
My colleague at George Mason University, former congressman Bob Inglis, I think is doing a pretty good job. He has a tough task. Republicans in particular have redefined climate change as a political threat as opposed to an earth science problem. The kind of motivated reasoning that’s driven that polarization is very difficult to reverse.
Inglis doesn’t call it “data,” but he gets in front of conservative audiences all the time. He comes to them from a premise that they respect and understand, which is: “Look. We’re the party of ideas. We shouldn’t be threatened by solutions to this problem. We should actually bring our best thinking from the party of ideas forward to solving this problem. By doing so, we might also solve some of our nation’s other problems, like how messed up our tax system is.”
Bob finds that — and this is very consistent with the social science literature as well — the reason why this issue has become so polarized politically is because conservatives see the solutions that are being proposed by liberals as being worse than the problem itself. If you can approach conservatives with solutions that they find consistent with their worldview, then they are much more willing to engage in a conversation about the problem. They no longer feel the solutions to be inherently off-putting.
Q. So is there a solution that Bob is particularly fond of at the moment?
A. He’s very consistent, actually. He’s advocating for the principle of a revenue-neutral tax. In other words: let’s tax carbon pollution. Even conservative economists understand that dirty fuel has a cost to it. Even aside from climate change, dirty fuel is bad for our health.
Bob’s principle is: “Well, let’s put a tax on carbon pollution that is more or less equivalent to the degree at which it’s harming people and forcing other people to pay for it (usually taxpayers). And in exchange let’s reduce the tax burden on things we want more of. Like jobs. Or income. Or even the corporate income tax.”
It’s called the Pigovian tax. You tax more of what you want less of, you tax less of what you want more of. That’s the principle he’s been advocating, and I think it’s gratifying to see that this is coalescing into a movement. A fringe movement in the Republican party. But it’s got to start somewhere.
Q. We’ve done a lot of writing over the years about how having a carbon tax is pretty much politically unfeasible in most of America.
A. Right. Greg Mankiw wrote a piece in the New York Times specifically calling out liberals, because Washington state is pushing this carbon tax, but liberals are opposed to it because they want to raise more revenue and spend it on other liberal social priorities. Greg is supportive of a carbon tax, but he insists it should be revenue-neutral. As does Bob Inglis.
Q. Have you noticed any attempts to market the dangers of climate change to either religious conservatives, or just plain old conservatives?
A. Well, the pope. Even before the pope’s visit, there were groups like the Catholic Climate Covenant working very hard to engage faith communities in this issue. Our most recent poll shows that Catholics are more engaged in climate change issues than evangelicals. The evangelical community is pretty tough because they’re not only religiously conservative, they’re socially conservative as well. It’s very hard to make inroads.
Richard Cizik, the evangelical minister, has done incredible work trying to bring the evangelical community along. And it cost him. Not his credentials but his ministry. He has been thrown out of the evangelical community because he’s become convinced that climate change is a serious threat. And it’s a message that the evangelical community did not want to hear.
Q. So this thing that you mentioned, about Catholics being more concerned about climate change – has that been true for a while? Or is that related to this new pope?
A. The data I referred to was gathered in March and released in April this year in the study “Climate Change and the Christian American Mind.” We decided to focus on Christians because the three largest groups — Catholics, evangelicals, and Protestants – that’s 75 to 80 percent of America. Catholics are much more likely to be engaged in the issue — much more likely to believe that it’s happening. Protestants are right in the middle. Evangelicals are on the extreme opposite end; they’re the least engaged.
Q. I am wondering about what you learned during your time working on the anti-smoking campaign — did it change your views on how to message to people?
A. Oh, absolutely. Especially with the “Truth” campaign. When the state attorney generals across the United States settled with the tobacco companies in the late ’90s, part of the settlement called for a certain number of dollars to go to each state based on the degree to which each state had borne the Medicaid costs associated with tobacco use. And then there was a national settlement that created the American Legacy Foundation — a big foundation that was going to educate Americans specifically around tobacco use.
The very first state out of the starting gate to take their settlement and to use it to create an anti-tobacco campaign was Florida. I worked at Porter Novelli at the time. The state of Florida hired us to mount a teen smoking prevention campaign.
We asked adult leaders in each of the counties in Florida to identify opinion-leading teenagers in their community and to send them to Orlando for a three-day summit. During that summit, we pitched the teenagers on a campaign called “Rage.” We called it “Rage” because we really misunderstood our audience research.
We knew that teenagers didn’t like being manipulated. We all know that. We were teenagers once. But we misinterpreted that to mean it made them angry that tobacco companies were manipulating them. We turned up the volume a little and called it “rage.” But these 600 kids we pulled together said, “What you said is kind of right. We’re angry. But we’re not raging. We just want the truth. We don’t like being lied to.”
So that was the campaign. It was literally built around the brand name “Truth”, and it was about standing up to the tobacco industry and demanding that they tell the truth.
In the first two years, rates of smoking went down among middle school aged kids by 50 percent. Among high school students it was 25 percent. As a public health campaign researcher and developer, I had never seen anything like that. It completely changed my understanding of how powerful communication could be.
This was tapping into emotions that teenagers feel and turning their desire to control their environment against the tobacco industry. Teenagers are not so much rebellious — they want to differentiate themselves from the adult world that has controlled their lives up to that point. It’s part of normal human development to want to gain autonomy and independence. There had been successful anti-tobacco campaigns before that. But they tended to be much more cognitive in orientation than emotional.
After two years, the National Legacy Foundation realized that the best way to spend their tobacco settlement money was to take our campaign nationwide. It was never as successful as the campaign had been in Florida, because they didn’t reach the same level of per-capita spending. It was still the most successful anti-smoking campaign in U.S. history.
Q. You mentioned per capita spending — if you have less money, what is the best thing to spend money on when you are trying to modify human behavior?
A. The truth campaign never did systematic research like that. But the state of California was one of the earliest states to aggressively reduce smoking rates statewide. Not just for teens, for adults too.
A guy named John Pierce at UC San Diego spent years investigating which elements of California’s anti-smoking effort were working best. It’s been years since I’ve seen it. But they know for a fact that price — raising the tax — was probably the most effective thing they were doing, particularly for teenagers.
But their other messaging was working too, especially their quit line — staffing a 1-800 call line to help smokers figure out how to quit. Those were three specific elements that were deemed to be quite effective.
Q. Are there other campaigns throughout time that you think have been particularly effective?
Bob Hornik, who is a communication professor at Penn and at the Annenberg School, edited a book in 2002 called Public Health Communication: Evidence for Behavior Change. It’s very much by academics, for academics.
But the reason it’s so terrific is that he hosted a conference and invited all these public health officials from around the world to specifically lay out the case that their campaign had successfully changed behavior. What he found was that lots of public health agencies thought they had been part of a successful campaign. But really only about a dozen and a half had evidence – real hard data – showing that their campaign had made a difference.
There’s very good evidence that the campaign to get people to buckle up really worked. Same with convincing parents to get their children vaccinated. I know now that looks a little weird, given the anti-vax campaigns that are emerging in California and elsewhere. But in general, efforts to convince parents to vaccinate their children have been very effective.
Also, when the anti-smoking campaigns moved away from educating consumers. While those “smoking causes cancer” campaigns made a difference, they eventually plateaued and weren’t getting any more people to quit. The response to that plateau was to move the message away from smokers and move it towards the people who aren’t smokers — but who were being harmed by secondhand smoke. That started with messaging to stewardesses on commercial airlines and bartenders and eventually moved towards spouses and children of smokers.
That’s what convinced people to outlaw smoking in public places — because it makes no sense to allow smokers to place others in harm’s way. In the process of doing this, we made smoking a pariah behavior. We don’t let smokers smoke in our homes anymore. By driving them outdoors, we have ostracized them — not them as people but the behavior that they’re engaged in. That was a victory of using communication to advance policy change.
Q. Why do you think there has never been an equivalent climate-related campaign to the anti-smoking ones? Is it lack of funding?
A. I’m going to take you back to ancient history for just one moment. In 1968, the FCC — the Federal Communication Commission — ruled that the television networks were obligated, for every seven tobacco ads that they showed, to show one anti-smoking ad, pro bono.
Obviously, the tobacco industry has limitless money to market their product, and the anti-tobacco advocates were working with almost no money. But that ruling changed everything. The anti-tobacco forces were still being outspent seven to one, but there’s been some very solid research that shows that by 1971, the tobacco industry essentially blinked. They said, “We’ve decided to withdraw our ads from television.”
The reason they did this was because their own research showed that even though they were outspending anti-tobacco activists, they were losing. They were spending their own money to essentially enable the opposition to get on air, and so they said, “Let’s just stop advertising on TV.”
So why aren’t we mounting national campaigns to build a national resolve to deal with climate change? I do tend to believe it’s because we don’t have a government that is willing to fund it. Lots of the anti-tobacco work after 1971 was funded by government agencies — local and state governments. Then there were the large agencies — the National Cancer Society, the National Lung Association, and even the American Heart Association.
The same has never been true with climate change. I know that the Sierra Club received $50 million from Michael Bloomberg for the Beyond Coal campaign. My guess is that is the single largest marketing/communication expenditure ever on any issue related to climate change.
And that’s only $50 million. That’s a quarter of what a commercial marketing budget would be for a really small commercial product. Pick a third-tier pizza brand and they’re spending more than $200 million a year on advertising. So it means that we’ve never tried. Nobody has ever had the money to try a sustained national marketing campaign to build our national will or our resolve to actually put in place a solution to climate change.
Q. So how much did you spend on the Truth campaign in Florida? I mean, that was only one state.
A. I think that was about $70 million. For the first year. I think by the time we took the campaign nationwide it was somewhere between $200 and 300 million a year. And that campaign went on for at least 10 years. It was not a very well-funded campaign compared to commercial campaigns. But it was very successful.
If the White House took up Sen. [Sheldon] Whitehouse’s suggestion to wage a full investigation into the fossil fuel industry for all of their collusion and stonewalling to confuse the public about the harm of fossil fuels; and if a RICO suit were successful; and if there was a settlement between the government and the fossil fuel industry — there is no question in my mind that a good portion of that money should be spent on a national campaign to educate people on the risks of climate change, and build their resolve to work towards solutions. If this were treated as a public health problem, that is exactly what would be done.
But so far, despite President Obama’s efforts over the last few months to raise the public health implications of climate change, we are still not dealing with climate change as a public health problem. We’re dealing with it as an environmental problem.
Q. I’ve heard that lead is one of the most successful environmental campaigns — but that’s also a public health campaign.
Absolutely. Lead in people’s homes is treated as a public health issue. And the reason that we use unleaded gasoline in our cars is because of the passage of the Clean Air Act. And the passage of the Clean Air Act happened because of research showing that lead was literally depressing our national IQ. It was seen as an environmental health threat, and we dealt with it as such.
Q. Do you put much work into the identifying and mobilizing people who might not otherwise be mobilized to do something about climate change?
A. The short answer is yes. The long answer is that the findings are a little bit depressing to me as an American, because I choose to believe that we are the oldest and the greatest democracy on the face of the planet. But then when we look at our data we find that people who are concerned about climate change are much more likely to express their concern through their purchases as a consumer. It shapes what people buy and it shapes who they are willing to buy it from much more than it encourages them to engage politically as citizens.
Even the group of Americans that we call the “Alarmed” — from our Six Americas study — currently about 13 percent. Of that 13 percent, only about a quarter of them — do the math, about 3 percent of Americans — tell us that they are engaged with contacting their elected officials about how they would like to see climate change dealt with. But virtually 100 percent of them are changing what they buy and who they buy it from. I find that depressing as an American that we see ourselves more as consumers than citizens.
A. Yes. That’s research that Tony and I have done together. Even though they tend not to believe climate change is real, they do accept the fact that fossil fuel is dirty fuel and that dirty fuel harms our health and pollutes our air and water.
Conservatives aren’t really for fossil fuels, and conversely, they are wildly for clean renewables. It’s just that they don’t believe that we have the ability, either economically or technologically, to pivot quickly away from fossil fuels. But they do totally get the fact that fossil fuels are harming our health.
And so, when exposed to messages about climate and health and the impact of climate change on health, it tends not to make them angry, in the way that other messages about climate change tend to. Because at some level, even if they don’t believe that the climate is changing, they do accept that fossil fuels are bad for our health and that at some point they would like to transition away from them and towards renewable energy. It makes as much sense to them as it does to liberals.
Q. Do you ever get to go out and interview conservatives in person? Or does most of this happen with surveys?
A. Most of what we do is with surveys, but yes, I have gone out into the field, and I’m so glad I have. We did this one study where we went down to the National Mall, figuring that on the National Mall on any given day of the year, you were going to find people from all over America.
We approached people. We asked them if they were tourists. If they were tourists, we asked them if they could give us 5 minutes of their time to answer a quick survey. Then we offered a few of them $50 to sit down and do an in-depth interview. We took them into the Sculpture Garden at the Hirshhorn Museum, a lovely, quiet place. At the culmination of the interview, we gave them a one-page essay that talked about how climate change is bad for our health in the following ways, and how dealing with it and responding to it is good for our health in the following ways. And we gave them a pair of highlighting pens — a red one and a green one — and asked them to mark down anything in green that they find to be helpful information, and anything in red that they find to be unhelpful or untrue.
The Dismissive types would take their markers and highlight the entire essay in red except for three sentences about the benefits of cleaning up our fuel supply. And so I would say, “I can’t help but see that you’ve marked everything in red except for those three sentences. What in those three sentences struck you as helpful?” I personally interviewed half a dozen Dismissives, and they said the exact same thing to me: “Look, I’ve told you already that climate change isn’t real. But I’m not an idiot. I get that fossil fuel pollutes our air and our water, and that’s bad for our health, and I totally get that moving towards renewables is the right thing to do, and will help out my kid with asthma or my father-in-law with chronic obstructive lung disease.”
They even highlighted in green the part about changing our city streets for active transportation options and reclaim them from cars. They would say things like, “I don’t feel comfortable not being able to let my kid out on the street any more. I would feel better if I could ride a bike with my kid in city streets.” Or “It would be better for my elderly mother if she felt comfortable walking on the city streets and didn’t worry that cars were moving too fast for her.”
We’re not going to convince them that the climate is changing. But we are going to convince them that some of the responses to climate change are in their best interest.
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