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The Difficulty of Climate Messaging

J. Mijin Cha

New Orleans, LA, Sept. 14, 2005One of the first climate scientists to detail the dangers of climate change, NASA scientist James Hansen, released a new paper providing more evidence that irregular weather patterns and extreme summers are linked to global warming. In the paper, Dr. Hansen addresses the need for the public to be able to link human actions to climate change. In other words, the public needs to see that climate changes are occurring beyond the usual weather and climate variations and that their actions can have some impact on this trend. The paper provides another body of evidence that shows a distinct warming trend over the past three decades and makes an appeal for swift action.

Yet, even though the scientific case for climate change is strong, it is not translating into bold climate policy. Part of the problem is how effective the right has been in forcing climate change into the culture wars. This is compounded by recent research showing that conservatives increasingly distrust science, which means that a climate message based on scientific evidence is not persuasive. And, part of the problem is the messaging of climate advocates. Dr. Hansen has called climate change a “moral issue” on a par with slavery.  Climate change will absolutely cause severe economic and social suffering but attempting to equate it with slavery feeds into cultural polarization and further removes relatability for people who are not complete climate change advocates.

Climate messaging is difficult. On the one hand, focusing on the science and technical issues, such as how many degrees Celsius need to be reduced, works to bring rational evidence into the debate. It also does not have the rallying cry needed to bring broad public support to call for change. On the other hand, appealing to the moral value of the need to stop climate change brings the impacts home on a more personal level. It also works to further polarize people based on their political party affiliation.