Faculty Student Research on Climate Change

Faculty-Student Research: Influencing Public Opinion on Climate Change

Although most scientists and policymakers believe that climate change is real and is caused by human activities, almost 30% of the electorate are not convinced. Institute of Public Service Professor Jonathan Pierce used a form of storytelling called “policy narratives” to determine best ways to explain climate change. The study, “Effects of Narratives on the Beliefs of the U.S. General Public about Climate Change,” found that policy narratives that use members of the oil and gas industry as heroes as well as villains elevate the credibility and persuasiveness that climate change is real.

“The lesson to be drawn is not simply to demonize and blame the oil and gas industry for climate change,” said Pierce. “Rather, we should embrace and endorse the 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.”

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.

“The purpose of our research was to determine how to develop or write a narrative that would persuade climate change deniers,” he emphasized.
 
Key findings from the research found that policy narratives influence beliefs of respondents about climate change and increase support for the federal government to take action to mitigate climate change.

“More than the news media or the government, the survey found that scientists and environmental organizations are believed as reliable sources of information about climate change,” Pierce said.

Thanks to a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Research Fellowship program, Professor Pierce hired Public Affairs student Samantha Garrard to be his research assistant. Working with Pierce and graduate students, Garrard helped design the survey, write the final report, and present the conclusions to students and outside agencies.
 
“The experience taught me about the process of research and its challenges--how we start with a question and answer it, where do you even start,” she said. “I had no idea what was really involved until I worked directly with Professor Pierce and his team of graduate students.”
 
As much as gaining insights into research, Garrard welcomed the opportunity to expand her writing skills, fine-tune her presentation skills, and achieve greater understanding of how policy narratives can change beliefs.
 
“I’ve always been surprised that climate change is such a debated issue in the U.S., and that’s why I was really intrigued by this project,” she said. “Now I know not only what can work to persuade those who deny climate change, but I can see how this type of research can carry over into other areas.”

Pierce, who focuses his research largely on environmental issues, sees his work as important especially for scientists.

“Too often the scientific community has difficulty talking about controversial issues,” he said. “Using narratives in addition to facts and figures gives them a powerful tool to make their case.”

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Published April 2016.