There's no awareness issue in climate change - almost no one on the planet hasn't heard of it or lacks an opinion.

62% of Americans believe global warming is happening - which means 38% do not. Like evolution or anti-science beliefs about genetic modification and vaccines and autism, the majority may fall along particular cultural lines but acceptance is still a problem that defies easy categorization and stereotypes. Yet framing and deficit thinking have all been tried, and they have made the problem worse. Instead of leading to more science acceptance, opinion on the climate now goes up and down with media reports about the weather.

In April, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that 46% of those surveyed are "very sure" or "extremely sure" that it is not happening at all. Meanwhile, every other week 'the science is settled' framing gets debunked by studies showing there are a lot of variables in nature and they aren't always account for in projections. It can be confusing for the public, who have been taught to be skeptical and then berated by climate scientists and the media for not believing conflicting studies.

Academics in the humanities have set out to help - by surveying college students.  Writing in Science Communication, Z. Janet Yang, PhD, assistant professor of communication at SUNY Buffalo and Lee Ann Kahlor, PhD, associate professor of public relations and advertising at The University of Texas at Austin, discussed results of their online survey of 736 undergraduates from two large U.S. universities - 61.3 percent female, 62.5 percent white and median family income, $90,000. 

The survey was developed and executed using Qualtrics software and was designed to ascertain: 

  • The subjects' general affect in relation to climate change – positive (excited, hopeful, happy) or negative (concerned, worried, anxious)
  • How much information about climate change they thought they had and how much more they thought they needed
  • How severe they found the threat of climate change to be to themselves and to nature, and its impact around the world
  • How valuable they thought seeking information on the subject would be to them
  • How much they valued others' opinions toward seeking information about climate change
  • The confidence each had in his or her ability to find information about climate change

"Earlier research in social psychology has found that emotion, both positive and negative, is motivational and involves action tendency and action readiness," Yang explains. "Those with a negative affect may seek out information, even if it includes negative predictions, in order to reduce their uncertainty and perhaps reassert control over the situation."

"On the other hand, those with a positive affect who say they avoid seeking information may do so because they want to maintain their uncertainty – and their emotional equilibrium – from negative information that might upset them as well as contradict the attitudes of their social support group.

"Our key variables of interest were 'information seeking' and 'information avoidance.' We found that emotions have different impacts on both behaviors and that those with whom we socialize also are an important influence on our communication behaviors."

In particular, according to Yang, the study found:

  • Those who had negative feelings toward climate change – feelings marked by states of fear, depression, anxiety, etc., – actively sought more information about climate change. They also saw climate change as having serious risks, and considered their current knowledge about it insufficient.
  • Those driven by a positive affect toward climate change – an emotional state marked by hopefulness, excitement, happiness, etc. – actively avoided exposure to additional information on the issue. They also said climate change presented little risk to nature and humans, and they viewed their knowledge about climate change as sufficient.
  •  Our social environment has the potential to strongly influence whether we seek or avoid climate change information. This, the researchers say, may be because we are most often around people who agree with us about important issues, reinforce our perception of risk and support or discourage further action.

The researchers say the surveys present several ways to improve the communication of risk information related to climate change.  Basically, communications people say we need better framing.  People who don't accept climate change would benefit from a dose of deficit thinking by science media - in other words, the same two things that got us in this problem in the first place: 

  • Arousing a sense of curiosity and debunking false beliefs about ecological risks so people are not complacent about what they already know
  • Highlighting potential negative consequences and fostering a positive attitude toward learning about climate change
  • Monitoring the audience's social environment and its perceived ability for finding and understanding information about climate change
  •  Promoting optimism that human action, such as reducing greenhouse gas, could actually combat the consequences of climate change.

Z. Janet Yang, LeeAnn Kahlor, 'What, Me Worry? The Role of Affect in Information Seeking and Avoidance', Science Communication April 2013 vol. 35 no. 2 189-212 doi: 10.1177/1075547012441873 (open access)