Matthew Nisbet On How to Communicate the Climate Crisis

Professor and Blogger
According to Matthew Nisbet, those who frame the issue most convincingly will win the global warming debate.
  • Transcript


Question: What mistakes are made in the effort to communicate information about global warming?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well, you know, what's interesting is that the conservative movement actually used audience research to figure out the frames that would downplay the urgency of the issue.  So, Frank Luntz a well known GOP pollster using focus groups in polling wrote a now infamous memo earlier this decade suggesting to conservative leaders if they wanted to downplay the urgency, keep reinforcing for the public that the scientific debate remains open and that any policy action will lead to unfair economic consequences for the United States.  Why?  Because countries like the India and China are not playing along.  Environmentalists, initially Al Gore in the movie "An Inconvenient Truth" and even some scientists and then following their lead, journalists decided that the best way to respond to this strategic framing on the part of conservatives is to really to go with what I call the Pandora's box frame, dramatize the urgency of climate change and the science by using examples of major climatic impacts such as more intense hurricanes, melting polar ice, the threat to polar bears, et cetera.  There is really three problems with that message.  The first problem is that compared to the general phenomena of human activities leading to rising temperatures, each one of these impacts the level of scientific uncertainty is much greater than the general phenomena of global warming.  So, each one of these claims can be answered by conservatives as "Oh, you're just engaging in alarmism."  The second problem is that it's kind of like the anti-drug message in the 1980s. "This is your climate.  This is your climate on greenhouse gasses."  It's essentially a fear appeal.  And what we know from research is that if you go at the public with a fear appeal and you don't give them solutions or ways that they can take into account some type of action to deal with that risk, it translates into fatalism.  "Oh, there's nothing we can do about it.  It's so complex.  The train has left the station.  There's nothing- nothing can be done about climate change."  And the third problem is that it really only appeals to people who already have strong environmental values.  Many people living in urban cities, many moderate republicans, they don't care about polar bears.  They might think polar bears are cute.  They might think that the polar region is an important place, but they have a lot of other more important things that they care about.  And it really only intensifies the opinion of people who already care about climate change to go within the Pandora's Box presentation.  So, that's why we suggest that there needs to be new interpretations on climate change that in fact, activate that hard to reach in many cases Republican base and to recast climate change as an energy problem, an energy opportunity to grow the economy around investment in renewable energy or to put into the mental box that this is fundamentally a national security problem or alternatively say, in fact, actually this is a moral and religious problem.  We have a duty to future generations and we have a duty to God's creation to take care of the Earth and if we don't do so, then it's not being a good Christian.