From a behavioural perspective, communicating climate change is rife with difficulties.
We often prefer things the way they are (status quo bias) and will interpret new information in a way that aligns with our worldviews (confirmation bias). We are not wired to react to threats that seem uncertain and far away (uncertainty bias, present bias). We are overoptimistic – for instance about the ability of science to save the day – and reluctant to take costly actions today, especially when we expect someone else can take care of it (diffusion of responsibility).
Volumes have been written about how we might best frame the subject of climate change: we might highlight the catastrophic damage to the environment, or call attention to immediate health effects of pollution or promote the economic benefits of future green transition for example.
But the best approach might be different today compared to five years ago – public attitudes and awareness shift quickly. And it is likely to differ between audiences, with public attitudes to the environment varying greatly.
Climate communications specialists Climate Outreach have identified seven segments in the UK (the Britain Talks Climate segments) based on their views on climate. Ranging from the most sceptical ‘Disengaged Traditionalists’ who are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, all the way to ‘Progressive Activists’, consistently acting to fight it.
Testing framings to boost engagement
Spurred on by the huge attention given last year to the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, we ran a large online randomised-controlled trial with a UK representative sample of 8,007 adults to test different ways of framing the importance of the event. This was the largest such trial to our knowledge, comparing multiple message framings, across different population segments, in a single recent UK study. Participants were shown a short briefing about the climate summit and then were randomised to see one of seven framings (or none, in the control group):
- Public health – highlighting that climate action can prevent pollution and severe weather, saving lives
- Economy – stressing that the ‘green transition’ could bring new economic opportunities, more exports and more jobs
- Environment – emphasising that action can help restore the natural balance and protect innumerable species and habitats in the UK and beyond
- Moral Conservative – highlighting that international commitments can help preserve the purity of British landscape and save rural livelihoods, as well as boost our energy independence
- Moral Liberal – underlining the moral imperative of climate action to prevent harm, protect the world’s poorest who are the most vulnerable to climate change, and create a better future for our children
- Collective Momentum – showcasing the UK’s lead in tackling emissions and everyday actions we all take
- Multi-framing – A ‘best of’ framing, highlighting that climate action can help protect our health, environment, as well as boost our economy
We found that the Environment and Moral Liberal framings performed best
These two framings increased participants’ intent to engage with COP26, in terms of following COP26 in the news (+11pp vs no framing), watching COP26 livestreams (+11-12pp), and talking to their friends or family about it (+13-14pp).
Interestingly, the Environment framing worked best across different Britain Talks Climate Segments. In fact, this messaging had the biggest impact on boosting the engagement of the least engaged groups, such as Disengaged Battlers, Traditionalists and Backbone Conservatives (14-19pp vs no framing).
Figure 1. Framings’ effect on engagement with COP
Most Brits are willing to take action and support ‘green’ policies
We also looked at people’s willingness to take carbon emissions-reducing actions in their daily lives and the support for government policies tackling climate change. All framings worked to weakly boost people’s willingness and support (by 2-3pp) from already high levels, showing the limits of communications alone.
On average 8 in 10 Brits were willing to take low to medium impact ‘green’ actions, such as recycle, save home energy, adapt homes for energy efficiency, or use public transport, cycle and walk more often. Surprisingly many were even up for high-impact difficult actions, such as flying less (71%), switching to a low emission car (60%) or eating less meat and diary (59%).
Looking at policies, the most popular were using renewable energy sources (89%), insulating public buildings (87%) or installing charging points for EVs (86%). However, even the toughest policies like taxing meat or frequent flying are still supported by more than 1 in 2 Brits.
Figure 2. Participants’ willingness to take personal action
Our findings were surprising, as they contradicted the existing literature or received wisdom. They suggest that:
- The ‘traditional’ environmental and moral liberal arguments for climate action actually can have a big traction for general campaigns. This contrasts with past research suggesting it’s wise to align climate action with other, non-environmental benefits. However, co-benefits likely matter more for specific actions.
- They work well across different groups (the Britain Talks Climate segments) – with the least engaged parts of the society responding the most to them.
- People are up for taking significant carbon-emission reducing actions and support governments taking the lead with their policies.