ENVIRONMENT
05/06/2016 02:27 pm ET

How To Convince Someone To Care About Climate Change

Fair warning: It's not easy.
Research shows framing climate change as a matter of personal responsibility isn't as persuasive as framing it collectively.&
MARK RALSTON via Getty Images
Research shows framing climate change as a matter of personal responsibility isn't as persuasive as framing it collectively. 

How do you persuade someone to take action on climate change? 

Conventional wisdom says to convince people that it's their duty to recycle more, drive less or eat fewer burgers. But that might not be the best motivator, according to a new study from researchers at The University of California, San Diego.

Instead, if people believe climate change to be an issue of collective responsibility -- that is, if they think it's caused by a global reliance on fossil fuels, for instance -- they're more likely to actually do something about it.

"There are a lot of tacit assumptions built into the way we communicate with people when trying to be persuasive," Nick Obradovich, a political science doctoral student at UCSD and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post. In the case of climate change, he said, "Those assumptions might work, but sometimes they may not."

The consequences of climate could be dire, scientists say. The continued use of fossil fuels threatens to accelerate the warming of the planet, resulting in higher sea levels, stronger storms and more intense droughts, among other destructive changes to the environment. Those changes could result in deaths, job losses and mass migration in many parts of the world. 

Environmental activists have tended to assume that appeals to personal responsibility would get people fired up about slowing the rapid pace of climate change, Obradovich added. Convincing people to contribute to a climate change campaign or reduce their carbon footprint meant asking them to think about how their everyday behaviors -- how they eat, get around or use electricity -- might be contributing to the problem. 

But when Obradovich asked participants in his study to think about climate change in collective terms, he found that their donations to a pro-climate advocacy organization jumped by 50 percent.

Since so many campaigns around climate change stress people's personal responsibility, the UCSD researchers' findings could encourage environmentalists to rethink the tactics they use to solicit donations or recruit supporters.

"Advocacy organizations might want to reconsider some of their baked-in assumptions," Obradovich said. The study isn't perfect, he added, but it's the first empirical look at how framing climate change in terms of collective responsibility influences how people behave. 

Appealing to a sense of collective responsibility can encourage people to do more about climate change, new research say
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Appealing to a sense of collective responsibility can encourage people to do more about climate change, new research says.

That approach, however, is unlikely to work with hard-line conservatives, according to another new study from researchers at Duke University. Convincing skeptical conservatives to care about climate change is next to impossible, researchers found.

That's due in part to the fact that Americans still don't know that much about climate change, even as more and more of them believe it's happening. 

"It's an issue that people have heard about, and they’ve heard about it for a long time," Jack Zhou, a doctoral student in environmental politics at Duke and the study's author, told HuffPost. "But people don’t really care that much about it or know much about it objectively."

As a result, Americans tend to defer to their political party's position on the issue, according to Zhou. When confronted with information that contradicts that position, conservatives don't reevaluate their beliefs; they double down on them. 

"They have very little incentive to change their position on the issue," Zhou said. "As it becomes more polarized, they feel they need to dig in more and more."

Even so, there are still ways to convince someone to care about climate change, Zhou said. Research shows that making your case in person -- no matter how you frame your evidence -- increases the odds that you'll bring someone to your side.

"Personal communication is really valuable in getting people to change their minds," Zhou said. 

Ultimately, though, there's no easy way to convince someone who doesn't already care. 

"There's a thought of the perfect message or silver bullet message to pierce right through the issue," Zhou said. "Maybe at one point there was. Now I’m not so sure."

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