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What the Battle Over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Tells Us about Public Opinion and Climate Change Legislation

11/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Levi Novey Conservation & Natural Resource Management Professional | Director of Communications & Marketing at The Corps Network

This article was originally published on Ecopolitology, a website covering the politics of energy and the environment.

When the United States Congress finishes its work on health care this Fall, the next big challenge it will take on will be climate change legislation. Democrats in the House of Representatives barely secured passage of their climate bill in June, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). It was a wake up call for environmentalists that even getting watered-down legislation signed into law is going to be tough. An article in Slate Magazine has already smirked that if "You thought the health care battle was ugly. Just wait for the climate fight."

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A study about attitudes toward drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sheds some light on how conservationists might influence public opinion in favor of climate change legislation. (Photo by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons)

Seeing as that we've probably got a few months to go before this "ugly fight" takes place, it seems worthwhile to talk about strategy. Most of us who follow politics understand that what happens in Congress doesn't always reflect what Americans actually want. But if there's a choice between having public support and not having it-- it's almost always better to have healthy support from American citizens for government action.

So how does the public feel about climate change legislation right now? It's hard to say. Based on the data available it seems reasonable to suggest that a significant number of Americans know little about the legislation and have yet to make up their minds.

In May, only 24% of voters could correctly identify "cap-and-trade" as being a term that corresponded to environmental legislation. A more recent poll from late August indicates that 35% of Americans favor climate change legislation, 40% are opposed, and 24% aren't sure what to think. A less comprehensive poll that was recently completed in 16 political swing states showed 63% of its respondents favoring legislation. A survey conducted after ACES passed through the House in June suggested that 56% of Americans don't want to pay more in energy costs or in taxes to fight climate change. On top of this information, a recent poll indicated that 64% of Americans say global warming is at least a somewhat serious problem, and yet 47% of those same respondents believe global warming to be caused by climatic trends rather than human causes.

So how can environmentalists, politicians, and President Obama successfully rally public support for climate change legislation? One way to develop a winning strategy is to look at past examples of Americans' attitudes toward environmental issues and legislation, and see how and if these attitudes were directly and measurably changed via dialogue and communication.

The long-standing battle over whether or not the U.S. should allow for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is one area where we have some interesting data about how easily public attitudes can be changed, thanks to a study that was published in the journal of Society and Natural Resources.

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Located in Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is thought to contain large deposits of oil-- making it a repeated target of pro-drilling advocates. So far, drilling has not been allowed. Conservationists say the Refuge's rare status as a near-pristine ecosystem merit the area protection from exploitation. (Photo by madpai via Flickr)

In 2001, researchers at Colorado State University asked college students to participate in a study concerning their attitudes toward drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The students were unknowingly divided into experimental and control groups. They were then administered a pre-test about their attitudes toward drilling in ANWR, and then several weeks later filled out a post-test. The students who were in the experimental group were asked to read through what appeared to be real testimony given by experts to Congress both in favor of drilling in ANWR and opposed to doing so (the testimony, in reality, was not real). The post-test questionnaire then assessed whether after having read these "factual" perspectives students' attitudes changed in one way or another toward drilling in ANWR.

Was it possible to change peoples' minds about ANWR by providing "factual" information?

Unfortunately, no.

The pre-existing attitudes research participants had before being exposed to the treatment in the experiment were similar at post-test, if not even strengthened with the information that was provided in the study questionnare. Participants who were pro-drilling prior to the study found information to support their point of view, and vice-versa. In other words, those people who were respectively for and against drilling for oil believed that their opinions were bolstered by the two sets of opposing arguments presented in the questionnaires they completed.

The researchers suggest that this result is somewhat discouraging for communicators, as it shows that typical, "educational" communication strategies will not be effective when we want to sway peoples' pre-existing attitudes toward a desired way of seeing an environmental issue. Instead, the researchers from Colorado State recommend that more persuasive and shrewd strategies will be needed to change peoples' perspectives.

For instance, they suggest that by using a technique of "portraying the opposing side as unconcerned about important values," then support for a policy or idea might be gained. They also stress that research has shown concise messages, repetition, and the utilization of sources deemed credible by given audiences can help to sway attitudes. What they are hypothetically saying in a modern context is that if Fox News begins to say that "Climate change legislation will improve the economy" repeatedly, this message will probably resonate with a large portion of the Republican base, who would then be more likely to support climate change legislation. Needless to say, I don't think this is going to happen.

As a final caution about interpreting the study's findings, it is worth noting for our purposes that the researchers recognized that their sample of college students was not representative of the general population, and that this was a significant limitation to their investigation.

How the ANWR study and polling data should influence our strategy for gaining public support for climate change legislation

Given what we know from polls about Americans' current attitudes toward climate change legislation and also the findings of the ANWR study, I have a few thoughts about how we should craft our messages about the American Clean Energy and Security Act to bolster public support. The good news is that Democrats have already seized upon some of these ideas.

1. Target the ignorant and ambivalent.

According to one poll, 24% of Americans "don't know what to think" about climate legislation. These are the people that can be influenced. Their pre-existing attitudes toward climate change are weak or non-existent, meaning they are the most likely to be changed in one way or another.

2. Don't get bogged down in the details.

If there's anything that seems to deter people from taking political action, it's knowing the details. Only 24% of Americans know what "cap-and-trade" is. That's good! Let's keep it that way for now. While I personally believe a cap and trade system is a crucial part of the legislation to help prevent deforestation via REDD (among other things), I don't think it's a good point for selling the legislation to the public. Instead, generalizations about what the legislation will do should suffice: reduce our dependence on foreign oil, provide us with cleaner air and water, and create jobs. As said in the ANWR study, keep the messages simple and clear, and repeat them like crazy via as many credible sources as possible.

3. Have clear messages that target moral values.

As the Colorado State researchers suggested in their study, targeting the moral aspect of environmental issues is a powerful persuasive technique. Just as President Obama has voiced that the health care system should be reformed to better reflect the "character of America," he should likewise use these appeals to American identity and morals to sell climate change legislation. This might constitute universally-appreciated ideas like a desire to leave the world with cleaner air and water for future generations.

4. Tell people what's in it for them.

Just like with health care, Americans tend to favor changes in government policy that would lead to them receiving tangible benefits while simultaneously costing them less of their own money. Is it realistic? No. Is it something that needs to be addressed? Yes.

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Advocates of climate change legislation need to be more clear about what "green jobs" are and how readily they will be available. (Photo by Oregon DOT via Flickr)

While 56% of Americans don't want to pay more energy costs or taxes for climate change legislation, is there a silver lining? Will having more solar energy and wind energy ultimately save people money in some concrete amount of time? After 5 years? After 10 years? Will climate change legislation mean that new "green" jobs will be created? And just what exactly is a "green" job? Is it a job that would pay well and have good benefits?

5. Focus on people -- not animals or the planet.

This is probably the hardest thing for environmentalists to accept. Recall the polling data I cited earlier: 47% of Americans believe global warming is caused by climatic trends rather than human causes. If you think this way, then you are most likely going to believe that global warming is not a problem Congress needs to be addressing at all. Nature will take care of itself.

This hammers home the point that the sales campaign for climate change legislation shouldn't be focusing on polar bears, rainforests, melting glaciers, or other charismatic parts of the natural world. The sales pitch needs to focus on America obtaining cheaper long-term energy from our own sources, creating steady jobs for Americans that pay well, and giving Americans a less polluted country that improves our personal health and that of future generations.

Plus, who is a better sales person? Someone who shrilly warns others of impending danger and disaster and the need to act? Or someone who promises an improved life and benefits such that it improves our collective self-worth and identity?

I'm hoping it's the more optimistic sales person.