Photograph by Jocelyn Sage Mitchell (2022)
Climate change education is very important to me! In my interdisciplinary classes on climate change, I emphasize the importance of finding local solutions and the power of government incentives to guide us toward environmentally friendly behaviors. But political science has another insight that can help us solve the problem of climate change: the importance of telling the right story. Words have power! And powerful communication can help us achieve our common goal of a safe and habitable planet for generations to come.
There are three ways we can harness the power of political science to tell the right story. First, we can use the right language. Second, we can emphasize our common goals. And third, we can embrace our competitive natures!
(1) Use the right language
The right words matter. For maximum impact, choose the words and ideas that will best persuade your different audiences!
Here’s an example from Qatar. In 2015, Qatar University’s SESRI surveyed a nationally representative sample of Qataris to better understand their environmental views. The survey team built a language experiment into the poll: half of the Qataris were asked about their opinions on “climate change,” and half were asked about “global warming.” It turns out that global warming is a more salient term in Qatar than climate change. When asked about global warming, 39% of Qatari respondents considered it a “very serious” problem and only 8% felt it was “not serious at all.” However, for the Qatari respondents who were asked about climate change, only 30% considered it “very serious” and 14% felt it was “not serious at all.” When it comes to polls on public policy attitudes, those are big differences—and it’s all about the choice of words!
So how do words matter when it comes to what Americans think about climate change? It used to be that Democrats and Republicans were on the same page. In 1988, then–Vice President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, was campaigning to be the next US President (spoiler alert—he won!), and he said these words in a campaign speech in Michigan:
“Our land, water and soil … can only take so much and we must remember to treat them not as a given but as a gift. These issues know no ideology, no political boundaries. It’s not a liberal or conservative thing.”
And ten years later, in 1997, equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats (about 50%) believed in global warming, according to Andrew J. Hoffman in How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate.
Unfortunately, a lot has changed in the past 25 years. Now, if you know which political party someone supports, you can make a good guess as to what that person believes regarding climate change. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, about 50% of Americans believe that human activity contributes “a great deal” to global climate change. However, only 14% of Americans who identify as “conservative Republican” (and 35% of those who identify as “moderate Republican”) believe this, while 84% of Americans who identify as “liberal Democrat” (and 64% of those who identify as “moderate Democrat”) believe this.
So how can we get Democrats and Republicans to find their shared interests and come together to pursue solutions to climate change? An interesting 2016 study by Christopher Wolko and colleagues studied the impact of different stories on people’s beliefs about climate change and about their intentions to change their behaviors. Each respondent received one of two stories, and then they were asked about their intentions to engage in environmentally friendly behaviors as well as their attitudes about climate change as a whole. Read the two stories below, and think about the word choices in each one!
STORY #1: Many people around the world are concerned about the health of the natural environment. We are interested in what you think and feel about this issue. First, please read through the following brief public service announcement before answering a few additional questions. Show your love for all of humanity and the world in which we live by helping to care for our vulnerable natural environment. Help to reduce the harm done to the environment by taking action. By caring for the natural world you are helping to ensure that everyone around the world gets to enjoy fair access to a sustainable environment. Do the right thing by preventing the suffering of all life-forms and making sure that no one is denied their right to a healthy planet. SHOW YOUR COMPASSION.
STORY #2: Many patriotic citizens of the United States are concerned about the health of the natural environment. We are interested in what you think and feel about this issue. First, please read through the following brief public service announcement before answering a few additional questions. Show you love your country by joining the fight to protect the purity of America’s natural environment. Take pride in the American tradition of performing one’s civic duty by taking responsibility for yourself and the land you call home. By taking a tougher stance on protecting the natural environment, you will be honoring all of Creation. Demonstrate your respect by following the examples of your religious and political leaders who defend America’s natural environment. SHOW YOUR PATRIOTISM!
The first story uses words that emphasized individual connections to a larger humanity. And the second story uses words that emphasized American patriotism and a duty to higher powers (country, religion). According to the results, the self-identified liberals in the study responded equally well to both of these stories. But the self-identified conservatives were much more likely to state that they had intentions of behaving differently, and of expressing belief in and concern about climate change, after they heard the second, patriotic story. This result might seem a little obvious, but it’s actually very powerful when you think about it. Simply by using the right message, the right words and images, you can find common ground!
(2) Emphasize our common goals
The Wolsko et al. (2016) study, above, shows that our language choices set the foundation for creating and emphasizing our common goals. The conservative Americans in this study weren’t persuaded by the goal of caring about the global community—but they did care about the common goal of preserving America’s natural resources. In order to create a groundswell of support for collective action, we always have to think about what kind of common goal we can emphasize to reach the biggest possible audience.
The 2019 Pew Research Center survey gives us some ideas about good common goals on which many Americans agree. Two in three Americans believe that the federal government is not doing enough to protect the environment, including to protect water quality, air quality, and animals and their habitats, and to reduce effects of global climate change. (See the Pew infographic here.) The fact is, reductions in water quality, air quality, and animal habitats are a direct result of global climate change! One way of gathering bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans is to focus on measures that protect air, water, and animals. By doing so, these measures can also reduce the effects of global climate change.
Another point of common ground can be found in American support for renewable energies, such as wind, solar, and hydrogen technology. Three in four Americans want to prioritize the development of alternative energy sources instead of expanding fossil fuels—and this group includes 62% of Republicans! (Even “conservative Republicans” are evenly split here, and 82% of “moderate Republicans” support renewables; see the Pew infographic here.) If we focus on bipartisan support for renewable energy sources, we will succeed in reducing our fossil fuel use and our carbon emissions.
The upshot to this discussion: We can emphasize common goals that both Democrats and Republicans support, and find solutions together to the problem of climate change!
(3) Embrace our competitive natures
Last but not least: Competition is fun! Have you ever noticed how a little competition can get people to become deeply invested in anything? (Like a Kahoot! quiz about the US Congress?) We humans are social animals. We like to play games together, and we like to win. Why not apply some competition to inspiring a group of people (like your friends, a class or university, or a workplace) to take action for the climate? Here’s a great Vox video clip of some social psychology research on how competition can “move us from a state of apathy to action.”
There are lots of apps and programs that can help you track your own carbon footprint and environmental impact, and compare yourself to others! Groups and organizations can check out resources like JouleBug, Ducky, Meatless Mondays, and the Climate App, all of which are founded on the principles of educational feedback and healthy competition as motivation to change our behaviors. And the field is wide open for tech-savvy entrepreneurs to create new apps that help educate and motivate people to improve their climate-friendly behaviors, along the lines of the (sadly, now defunct) Climatarian Challenge! A little friendly competition can go a long way toward creating new habits and reducing our environmental impact.
Note: Much of this material is originally from my political science lectures from our interdisciplinary “Ways of Knowing: Climate Change” course. I am available (and willing!) to present this material to a public audience!