Newly released research on effective messaging to Americans regarding needed climate change actions points to discrete audience segments and urges careful targeting at each of six different group’s concerns, needs, and values.

The research by academics at Yale University* and George Mason University is based on telephone surveys done in the summer of 2007 involving 1,980 respondents. The authors caution that “much has happened” since then, and they say they are doing new research to understand whether and how the six audience segments have changed. More in-depth research findings are expected to be released in early 2009.

The authors begin with the premise that climate change “is an urgent problem,” and they point out that public opinion polls generally show the issue ranking low among Americans’ public policy concerns. A PDF of the 42-page report can be downloaded here.

“Communicators are faced with the daunting task of fostering public engagement with this complex and relatively abstract issue at a time when highly concrete issues including the economic recession and melt-down of global financial markets, the wars in the Middle East, and our deteriorating health care system are all justifiably important national concerns,” they write in a report overview. That helps explain, but not justify, many Americans’ “wait and see” attitude, a choice, they say, “which will only worsen the impacts we are facing” from climate change.

The researchers say their approach, called latent class analysis, looked only at respondents’ climate change beliefs, policy preferences, and behavior, and not at their age, gender, ethnicity, education, income, and other demographic characteristics. They identified six distinct audience groups and then profiled each group based on demographics, religious affiliations, media use preferences, and involvement with civic organizations.

Emphasizing the importance of the “know thy audience” rule so important to journalism, they divided the respondents into six categories as a percentage of the population:

  • Alarmed (19%)
  • Concerned (22%)
  • Cautious (20%)
  • Unconcerned (12%)
  • Doubtful (16%)
  • Dismissive (11%)

For each group, the researchers discuss comparative uses of TV, newspapers, radio, and the Internet and each group’s specific reliance on select national or regional newspapers, broadcast and cable outlets, and websites. They also discuss what communications strategies and approaches might be most effective with each segment when the goal is to “most effectively promote changes in behavior and build support for aggressive policy responses.”

For the nearly one-fifth already convinced that climate change poses alarming risks, the researchers wrote, a key to communications may simply involve getting them to act on those beliefs as citizens and as consumers. Those “concerned” likely would benefit from a similar approach, perhaps along with some emphasis on local impacts. For the cautious, the authors emphasize messages that “there is strong scientific agreement that global warming is happening, that it is primarily human caused, and will be harmful to people.”

For those apparently less convinced and worried, the researchers also recommend an emphasis on strong scientific agreement and on local impacts for the “unconcerned.” For those in the “doubtful” segment, they say messages should explain that “outlier views in the scientific community are outlier views.” They point to the potential usefulness of analogies involving a parent’s sick children or involving the cautious practice of having fire insurance on one’s home. They say other strategies for addressing the “doubtful” might involve points concerning potential economic savings through conservation, growth from “green” industries, or reducing reliance on foreign oil supplies.

The researchers make clear that the communications hurdles get most difficult when it comes to the “dismissive.” This segment distrusts government, most news media and also environmental organizations, many scientists, and doctors when it comes to climate change, they say. The group is “strongly predisposed to disbelieve that global warming is happening, human caused, or a serious threat to the world.”

They say one potentially effective message for informing this group could involve the goal of reducing reliance on foreign oil and fostering growth of new American industries. But the researchers caution against focusing climate change public engagement resources on this group while at the same time avoiding any belittling of their concerns: “It is important to offer groups with opposing positions face-saving ways of moving beyond their opposition,” they write.

The study – “Global Warming’s ‘Six Americas’” – is the work of Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D., Yale Project on Climate Change, and Edward Maibach, MPH, Ph.D., and Connie Roser-Renouf, Ph.D., the latter two with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

*A principal author of this study, Anthony Leiserowitz, is publisher of this online journal.