US Survey Shows Climate Policy Is a Tough Sell

March 22, 2016 Updated: March 22, 2016

A survey of more than 1,600 Americans suggests there’s no magic formula for making it easier to “sell” climate policy.

“We looked into the question of whether—and if so, to what extent—the public’s attitude to climate policy and the risks of climate change can be influenced,” explains Thomas Bernauer, professor of political science at ETH Zurich.

“Above all, we wanted to know whether it is better to provide economic justifications, such as the positive effects of climate policy on technological innovation and the labor market, and personal aspects like protection of our health, rather than to focus on conveying scientific facts and the risks of climate change.”

Previous studies by other researchers have pointed to the idea that an emotional and personal presentation of the issue may help political measures gain acceptance more easily.

We all see the world through our own ideological prism.
— Thomas Bernauer, professor of political science, ETH Zurich

“We all see the world through our own ideological prism,” says Bernauer.

It’s not specific justifications, but rather preconceived ideas that ultimately decide whether people see climate protection as important and necessary.

“Our opinions on climate policy vary according to factors such as socialization, political attitudes, age, gender, and education.”

Someone who has always supported green policies will find their point of view validated by the arguments, whereas those who have always been skeptical about climate change will not be influenced by reasoning based on economic or health grounds.

Survey participants were given various justifications for costly climate protection measures. Then the researchers estimated the effect of these arguments on their attitudes to climate protection. Their findings were published in Nature Climate Change.

“The results of the study are certainly sobering in some respects,” says Bernauer—but only when viewed from the perspective of climate protection. “Fundamentally, it’s a good thing that people don’t allow themselves to be easily influenced,” he says.

As far as communication in climate policy is concerned, the study’s results suggest that in the future a comprehensive mix of information on climate change and various justifications for climate protection will be necessary. Scientific information about the risks is just as important as messages on the implications for health, technology, and the labor market.

The survey is part of a five-year research project on public opinion and climate change. Funded by a grant from the European Research Council (ERC), Bernauer’s team is investigating public opinion on climate protection in the United States, China, Brazil, India, Germany, and Switzerland.

This article was originally published by ETH Zurich. Republished via under Creative Commons License 4.0.