Cate Roser, Staff Illustrator

From the catastrophic forest fires in California to the recent flooding of Yale’s dormitories, the impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent to many Americans, and with that, Yale researchers are asking how to hold productive conversations on climate change across political lines. 

A team of eight researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication released results from a study investigating Americans’ willingness and receptiveness to prepare for “climate change” as compared to “extreme weather”. Lead author Jennifer Carman, a postdoctoral associate at the YPCCC conceptualized and designed the study in order to help climate change communicators better lead conversations on the environment. 

“There’s a lot of concern among people who are communicators on the ground, that talking about climate change may turn people off from preparing for impacts,” Carman said. “Adaptation and responding to these impacts is going to continue to be really important, so figuring out how to talk about this in a way that helps people act is going to be really important.”

The study, which was published on the YPCCC page last month, shares the results of a survey that measured the willingness of 1,588 Americans to take preparedness actions and support preparedness policies based on which terms were provided to them, either “climate change” or “extreme weather.” Respondents were randomly assigned to two groups, with 781 participants asked questions about actions to prepare for “extreme weather” and the other 777 participants asked the same questions, using the term “climate change” instead.

The first portion of the study focused on analyzing how the different terms affected participant’s responses to personal and collective preparedness actions. By personal actions, the study referred to questions which included asking respondents if they were willing to buy personal generators or prepare emergency kits. Collective actions included asking respondents if they were willing to participate in community preparedness planning or join a local campaign.

Most respondents in both groups stated that they were willing to take personal preparedness actions, with 90 percent in the “extreme weather” group and 84 percent in the “climate change” group responding positively. In contrast to personal actions, less than half of the respondents in both groups said they were willing to take collective action.

In addition, the study analyzed the two groups’ responses to preparedness policies. One notable study result found that using the term “climate change” when it came to preparedness policies did have negative effects. Participants were six percent less likely to support protecting infrastructure and resources and 14 percent less likely to support protecting transportation, roads and bridges when “climate change” was used.

Another notable study result was the important differences in reactions to the terms based on the respondent’s political ideology. Respondents were asked to self-identify based on their political ideologies as liberal, moderate or conservative. In total, 595 respondents identified as liberal, 269 identified as moderates and 692 identified as conservatives. 

It was found that while liberals and moderates did not significantly differ in their willingness to carry out personal preparedness actions, conservatives were somewhat less likely to prepare emergency kits in response to “climate change” compared to “extreme weather”. 

For collective actions, there was little difference between moderates and conservatives, but a substantially higher willingness to engage in collective actions from liberals, with 54 percent of liberal respondents willing to join a campaign compared to only 23 percent of moderate and 28 percent of conservative respondents. 

This difference in political ideologies was further demonstrated in participant’s responses to preparedness policies, with conservatives being less likely to support protection of infrastructure and transportation than liberals and moderates. However, local policies such as constructing damage-resistant buildings and infrastructure and planting more trees received a high level of support from liberals, moderates and conservatives alike. 

The study concluded that for a liberal audience, using the term “climate change” is not harmful and can even be beneficial. For moderate audiences, the term “climate change” appears to have little positive or negative effect and for conservative audiences, the term “climate change” could potentially result in less receptiveness. 

Tom Murray, the speaker series coordinator for the YPCCC, shared his own experiences on communicating climate change.

“Audience background matters tremendously when communicating about climate,” he said. “Communicating climate often comes down to appealing to people’s personal lived experiences, the morals they hold and the group identity they associate with.”

Carman hopes that this research can guide the conversations that climate change communicators have with different audiences across America.

Jennifer Marlon, research scientist and lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment and the YPCCC, explained the importance of communication in increasing preparedness for climate change.

Most people — and more importantly organizations — are still not talking enough about it and adjusting their plans accordingly,” Marlon wrote. “We need to be changing our plans and even changing the way we plan, because extreme weather is increasing due to climate change, and the only way we can prevent it from getting much worse is by talking more about both of these things.”

Marlon also noted that it is more important that a conversation on climate change exists at all than the terms being used to discuss it. 

Anthony Leiserowitz, senior research scientist and director of the YPCCC, commented on Carman’s findings. 

These results reinforce the finding that communicators need to consider their audience when designing messages, including when informing people about the risks and how to prepare for the extreme weather impacts of climate change,” he said. 

Carman shared that her next steps would be using the insight from these findings to ask more questions about what behaviors and policies people are willing to support related to climate change.

The amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere reached record levels in 2020, hitting 417 parts per million in May.

Brandon Wu covers relations between the School of Medicine and the School of Public Health. Originally from Cupertino, he is a sophomore in Pauli Murray studying Computer Science and Humanities.