Pierce Study Examines Best Ways to Tell Climate Change Story

Written by Laura Paskin
January 4, 2016

Using a form of storytelling called “policy narratives” to explain climate change significantly increases people’s beliefs that climate change is indeed occurring and that it is caused by human activities, according to research led by Institute of Public Service Professor Jonathan Pierce. The study, “Effects of Narratives on the Beliefs of the U.S. General Public about Climate Change,” found that policy narratives that frame oil and gas corporations as both villains and heroes had the greatest impact on supporting beliefs that human activity has had a significant impact on climate, increasing level of worry about climate change and elevating the credibility and persuasiveness of environmental organizations.

“The lesson to be drawn is not simply to demonize and blame the oil and gas industry for climate change,” says Pierce. “Rather, we should embrace and endorse industry’s recognition of the human causes of climate change. People should be aware that BP and Exxon, among other major energy corporations, agree that humans are causing climate change and that government action is necessary.”

Pierce said recent surveys show that the percentage of Americans who believe that climate change is occurring and is significantly caused by human activity has declined overall in the past decade.  

One strategy to better inform the general public about the existence, causes and potential harms of climate change is the use of stories or narratives, he says. “The purpose of our research was to determine how to develop or write a narrative that would persuade climate change deniers.”

Background

Policy narratives are strategic stories told to persuade audiences about public issues. A unique feature is the components that construct their form and include characters (heroes and allies, villains and victims), setting (context), plot (time dimension), and moral of the story (proposed policy solution). The characters are defined as potential fixers of a problem through action or information, victims are those harmed by the problem, and the villain causes the problem, either intentionally or accidentally.

For the study, researchers developed and tested two different one-page-long policy narratives. Each includes all of the components identified above and were 82 percent identical.  The only differences are four sentences quoting oil and gas corporation websites (in narrative No. 2) stating that climate change is occurring, it is significantly caused by humans and government action is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, oil and gas corporations are positioned as heroes/allies as well as villains in one of the policy narratives. It was compared to narrative No. 1, where oil and gas corporations are only described as villains.

To test the hypothesis, a survey was administered to 261 paid members of the U.S. general public matching the census for gender, region and age distribution. Respondents were surveyed twice over a period of two weeks in July 2015 to determine if narratives had any influence on their beliefs. The sample size was not large enough to represent the entire U.S. population. However, that was not the purpose of this study, says Pierce. Rather, the purpose was to focus on the effect narratives have on beliefs about climate change held by the general public. This was obtained by having respondents complete a baseline survey, and 10 days later, the same respondents completed a second survey with the same questions after reading a policy narrative.  

Summary of Findings

Researchers measured four outcomes:

Do policy narratives influence the beliefs of respondents about climate change?  After reading narrative #1, respondents significantly increased their level of agreement that climate change is happening (+2.2 percent) and decreased their level of belief that climate change is mostly caused by nature (-6.6 percent). After reading narrative #2, respondents significantly increased their level of agreement that human activities have a significant effect on climate change (+2.5 percent), and that human activities mostly cause climate change (+3.3 percent).

Do policy narratives influence the beliefs of respondents about the harm or threat of climate change? After reading narrative #1, respondents significantly increased their level of agreement that climate change will harm people in developing countries (+3.9 percent). After reading narrative #2, respondents significantly increased in terms of being worried about climate change (+3.3 percent).  

Do policy narratives influence the beliefs of respondents about proposed government action and specific policy proposals seeking to mitigate climate change? After reading narrative #1, respondents significantly increased their level of support for the U.S. government to take action to mitigate climate change (+5.1 percent). However, they significantly decreased their level of agreement for taxing corporations for greenhouse gas emissions (-5.3 percent) and funding renewable sources of energy (-3.8 percent). After reading narrative #2, respondents did not significantly increase any beliefs related to government action or policies, but did decrease their level of agreement for funding more energy efficient buildings (-5.3 percent).  

Do policy narratives influence perceptions about reliability and persuasiveness from various sources of information about climate change?

After reading narrative #1, respondents significantly decreased their level of agreement that the news media is a reliable source of information about climate change (-4.7 percent). After reading narrative #2, respondents significantly increased their level of agreement that environmental organizations (+4.1 percent) and energy corporations (+8.4 percent) are a persuasive source of information about climate change. Respondents of this narrative also had a significant increase in their level of agreement that environmental organizations (+7.2 percent) and energy corporations (+7.7 percent) are reliable sources of information about climate change.

The study, funded by a grant from the Seattle University College of Arts and Sciences/Dean’s Research Fellowship Award, will be presented in April at the Midwest Political Science Association.

A pdf of the study, Effects of Narratives on the Beliefs of the U.S. General Public about Climate Change, is available upon request. The document includes the surveys and the two narratives that were presented.

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