Research highlight

Climate change: Tailored online messaging shifts Republican voters' understanding of climate change

Nature Climate Change

June 15, 2021

Tailoring online messages to appeal to the ideals of Republican voters in the United States can increase their understanding of climate change and its risks and importance, according to a paper published in Nature Climate Change. Increasing public understanding among conservative voters is necessary to ensure bipartisan support for climate policies and action in the US.

By 2020, 73% of Americans believed that global warming was happening and 62% understood that it was caused by human activities. However, this shift in public opinion is largely driven by Democrats. Previous research has shown that, when asked how high a priority global warming should be for the President and Congress, 83% of Democrats said it should be a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ priority, whereas only 22% of Republicans agreed. Climate change communication is more likely to persuade people when the message and messenger resonate with the audience’s values and identities. Therefore, targeted communication strategies to increase Republican engagement around climate change are needed.

Matthew Goldberg and colleagues conducted a one-month advertising campaign field experiment targeting tailored, climate change-themed online messages to conservative voters in two competitive congressional districts (Missouri-02 and Georgia-07). The campaign presented a series of videos called New Climate Voices. This series, which used social identity theory, elite cues and theories of persuasion, was presented by spokespersons who were likely to resonate with conservatives. A comparison of results from 1,600 surveys administered before and after the campaign revealed that the videos increased understanding among Republicans in these two districts that global warming is happening and that it is being ‘caused mostly by human activities’ by several percentage points. Beliefs that climate change is ‘somewhat’, ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ personally important, and that it will cause a ‘moderate’ to ‘great deal’ of harm to future generations, also increased.

In an associated News & Views article, Phillip Ehret remarks that “these findings demonstrate that messages can be designed and used to change Republicans’ beliefs, even on highly polarized and politically charged issues — as long as the right strategy is used in the right way”.

doi: 10.1038/s41558-021-01070-1

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