Climate change is an urgent worldwide threat that has resulted in many negative outcomes including increasingly intense heatwaves, wildfires, and hurricanes. These negative outcomes will continue to increase until mitigation targets are hit. Yet achieving these goals will be difficult. According to the 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by half by 2030 to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
While widespread policy change and significant technological breakthroughs will be necessary to meet these goals, individuals will also need to shift their behaviors. Strategic communication is and will continue to be essential to motivate individuals to make choices and adopt behaviors that will mitigate climate change and its effects.
While shifting individual behavior is important, this goal is made more difficult due to the general public’s limited understanding of the issue. According to a 2023 Pew survey, only 46% of Americans believe human activity is the primary cause of climate change and 14% do not think global warming is happening at all. And while many outlets and organizations are producing and disseminating climate-related information, much of that messaging is proving ineffective because the target audiences and their underlying motivations are poorly understood.
To discover which messaging improves understanding of climate change and motivates people to act to address it, AVDF awarded a $300,000 grant in 2021 to the Yale Program in Climate Change Communication (YPCCC). With AVDF funding, YPCCC produced, tested, and distributed climate-related messaging within specific demographic groups, and disseminated the findings to the broader climate community.
“Since 2008, YPCCC has built one of the most effective climate news organizations in the nation. They also provide evidence-based resources to other organizations who are seeking to address climate change by shifting Americans’ attitudes and behaviors,” said AVDF Director of Programs John Churchill. “Yale produces—and they help other organizations produce—messages that are tailored to specific audiences, based on those audience’s values. This makes their messaging more engaging and influential, across a variety of American audiences.”
To help climate communicators better understand target audiences, YPCCC created the “Six Americas” taxonomy that categorizes Americans along a spectrum from “Alarmed” to “Dismissive” based on their attitudes about climate change. To test the effectiveness of climate-related stories, Yale divided the Six Americas taxonomy into two main groups. The first group included Americans who were cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive about climate change. The second group included Americans who were concerned or alarmed about climate change.
Yale produced over 150 climate-related stories to test their effectiveness in shifting the attitudes and behaviors of the two main groups. All the stories were aired on the nationally broadcast radio program Climate Connections. Climate Connections receives more than 1.1 million listens each week and 57 million listens each year.
The stories that were most effective in engaging audiences were selected for more extensive experiments to better understand their effects when it comes to behavior change and attitudes about climate change. The testing was done through randomized control trials among 4,700 participants who were in the Concerned/Alarmed categories, and among about 2,300 participants who were in the Less Concerned/Dismissive categories. For each audience, Yale measured the group’s relevant beliefs, attitudes, and policy support before and after exposure to the selected climate-related messages.
The results of the experiments revealed that the YPCCC stories have positive impacts on both audience categories when it comes to changing beliefs, attitudes, and catalytic action related to climate change. For the Concerned/Alarmed group, top-performing stories included: Why a St. Louis church went solar; Illinois offers $4,000 incentive to electric vehicle buyers; and Ulster County, New York, aims for 100% clean electricity by 2040. For the Less Concerned/Dismissive group, top-performing stories included: Tybee Island residents see more flooding as sea levels rise, Montana fly-fishing guide sees effects of melting glaciers firsthand, and Hotter summer temperatures prompt fly fishing restrictions in Montana.
The Yale team has disseminated these insights to organizations such as the Potential Energy Coalition, the Digital Climate Coalition, and others in the climate community. YPCCC is also preparing to submit its findings to peer-reviewed journals and their wide network of contacts.
“We are excited that our research insights are helping climate organizations better communicate with and engage their target audiences. For example, we find that it is vital to help people better understand both the threat of climate change and what they can do about it (risk perception and personal and collective efficacy). Together, these two factors can help build public and political will for climate action,” said YPCCC Director Anthony Leiserowitz.