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Can you say “climate change” to a conservative?

One consistent conclusion from our analytic work is simple: more is more. The more we talk about climate change–the more messages that average citizens see–the more we increase support for solutions.

For the most part.

But today we’re exploring the dark underbelly of climate change communication: the messages that make things worse.

Backlash.

We’ll start with a key question: Does the term “climate change” itself cause backlash, especially with conservatives? We’ll then explore backlash more broadly, and offer data-validated recommendations on how to avoid it. Because in the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

That’s interesting …

There’s a sentiment among many that we shouldn’t always talk directly about climate change. We should celebrate the solution without harping on the problem. To sell a clean energy project, for example, hype up the jobs and avoid mentioning the impact it might have on climate change. Everybody likes jobs, the thinking goes. Not everybody cares about climate change.

We evaluated Potential Energy’s key messages for instances of the term “climate change.” We then analyzed the impact that those with and those without “climate change” had on conservatives. Did the term “climate change” systematically decrease support for government action?

Lift Among Conservatives

As the chart above shows, about 50% of the ads that explicitly said “climate change” significantly increased support for government action with conservatives, 30% had a modest effect, and only 20% had no effect or backlash. And the ads that didn’t say “climate” had on average 0% lift. While this is not a perfect analysis, to us it indicates that the term itself is not inherently or instantly polarizing.

Zooming in, some of our highest performing messages with conservatives actually leaned into climate change. An explainer video about how climate change causes an increase in forest fires lifted conservative support for government action by 10%. A scientist introducing a pragmatic action plan to fight climate change lifted support by 13%.

In short, we learned: Don’t be afraid to say climate change. Don’t be afraid to walk in the front door of this issue. The term itself does not inherently or instantly cause backlash.

It’s not whether you say it, but how you say it that makes the difference.

The data says …

So what does cause backlash? Out of hundreds of messages we’ve tested, today we’re zooming in on the few that decreased support with conservatives. What do they have in common? What themes emerge? And what can we do differently to avoid backlash?

Consistent Sources of Backlash:

  • The Idea of Bans. Limitation always loses. People don’t like being told what they can’t do. In testing, when we mentioned the phrase “gas stove ban,” we created 5 opponents to action for every one supporter. The key:
  • Message abundance. It’s not about banning the old technology, it’s about making the new technology innovations accessible and affordable for everyone. It’s not about banning an industryit’s about accelerating our shift to 100% clean energy for a safer, less polluted, more affordable world.
  • The Perception of Government Overreach. For a significant chunk of people, the government getting more involved in things doesn’t always sound like a good idea. We ran an ad that highlighted how frequently climate change resulted in government officials declaring a “national emergency.” We thought it would be evidence that climate change has gotten really bad. But for Colleen, a Republican from North Carolina, it was evidence that the government has gotten too involved. “Politicians declare a state of emergency every chance they get just to get more money from the federal government.”  What to do?
  • Don’t mention government action unless you can also mention personal benefit. How will this action improve life for my community? My family? My finances? My health? My child’s future? Abstract government action worries some people, but when we personalize and localize the benefits of action, we see bipartisan appeal.
  • Crisis Framing. “The crisis is here, act now” meaningfully reduced support among conservatives. Alarming facts didn’t necessarily polarize, but an alarmist tone–specifically one that felt like it had a political agenda–resulted in backlash.  The best substitute:
  • Keep it local and emphasize right-now consequences for people like me. Scary projections into the future can invite skepticism. But right-now consequences for the local camping site, or the construction workers exhausted by the relentless heat in the neighboring town … that’s impossible to ignore.
  • Judgmental messengers or messages. Making people feel guilty rarely wins you their support. We’ve learned this the hard way a couple times, with accountability messages that were perceived as putting the blame on individuals, or “kids’ future” messages that accidentally made some parents feel guilty if their number one voting issue wasn’t already climate change.  What we recommend:
  • Find unexpected messengers, and declare your nonpartisanship. Find apolitical messengers like doctors, farmers, scientists, outdoorsy families. A wide variety of people can carry the message of climate change. And one hack we’ve found: simply say, “It’s not political.” Overtly expressing non-partisanship lowers people’s defenses and increases engagement.

The data is clear: in the vast majority of cases, saying the words climate change to conservatives doesn’t harm progress. It just needs to be done properly.

John and Jessica