How to Convince a Climate Change Skeptic

In media coverage of ecological events, language and location matter

Photo by SeppFriedhuber/iStock

Climate change deniers belittle science and ignore public opinion, but there might be ways the media can help.

In a study of videos showing the effects of climate change, Mina Tsay-Vogel, codirector of the Boston University College of Communication (COM) Communication Research Center, found that factors such as the location of an ecological event and the complexity of scientific language used in reporting can sway viewers’ opinions. The research could help organizations battle skepticism of human-made climate change—and inspire more people to go green.

Working with Suchi Gopal, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of Earth and environment, and Rohan Kundargi (GRS’13,’16), Tsay-Vogel found that videos focusing on far-flung or global changes—a NASA study of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere, for example—were less effective than those that showed something happening down the street, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

According to the researchers, proximity was tied to certainty. The farther away a climate-related event was perceived to be, the less certain viewers were that humans were causing it. That made them feel less responsible for doing something about it and “lowered their own perceived ability to influence global climate change outcomes,” says Tsay-Vogel, a COM assistant professor of communication.

Seeing climate impacts at a world level reduced viewers’ motivation to take action and “lowered their own perceived ability to influence global climate change outcomes.” —Mina Tsay-Vogel

That didn’t surprise her, but the boundary between local and global did. Tsay-Vogel and her team had commissioned scientists and professors to categorize the videos by complexity and location. In a dry run of the study, they noticed participants perceived the proximity of a threat differently from the professionals. Experts classified events in the southern United States as far away from the Northeast, but viewers in Boston considered them close to home.

“Because it was still taking place in the United States, our participants felt like it was significantly closer than the experts had thought,” says Tsay-Vogel. An organization hoping to swing views on climate change in coastal Maine might not have much luck talking about rising tides in Asia, but showing the Florida Keys being swamped by ever-higher sea levels could work.

There was an additional nuance to the importance of location. “We also tested whether the events were perceived to be personal to participants,” says Tsay-Vogel. The more a viewer felt emotionally detached from an issue, “the lower their self-efficacy and responsibility to influence global climate change.” An animal lover, for instance, would react differently if a video showed environmental changes hurting animals, no matter the location. “They might feel as if those events are closer to them personally, even if spatially they are taking place out in Antarctica.”

The technical language in a video also influenced how certain people were about climate change and whether they thought they could help save the planet. The researchers showed them videos with simple words and others filled with jargon, like the “plastic polypropylene” and “thermosets” used by one TED Talks speaker. Viewers were more engaged with the complex videos and found them more meaningful, says Tsay-Vogel. “When you dumb down a particularly severe issue like climate change, that might seem like you’re not giving it full credit in terms of its level of importance.”

The study was completed using self-reported data, but Tsay-Vogel and Gopal are discussing adding a high-tech element to their research. The Communication Research Center has facial expression analysis equipment that would allow them to “see whether participants’ muscles—the way that they’re contracting and moving—are showing signs of joy, surprise, frustration, confusion and other emotions.” The researchers are also eyeing the center’s virtual reality gear to study how participants would react when they’re thrown into environmental events around the world and can witness ice caps melting or forest fires raging.

A version of this article was originally published in COMtalk.

One comment

  1. With a leading sentence “Climate change deniers belittle science and ignore public opinion”, how can this piece be in any way objective? This is research seems to be about how to propagandize scientific views to an ignorant public – interesting, but hardly novel.

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