Fresh analysis of public opinion presents a vexing challenge for climate communicators.

Climate communicators must be feeling confused. They’ve been advised to talk more about 1) extreme weather, 2) public health, 3) national security, and green tech, to cite just a few of the messaging frames recommended to them in recent years.


They’ve also been advised to widen the scientific conversation; be less boring; show climate scientists at work; make climate data more visceral; personalize climate impacts; and push back harder on disinformation.

Now, a new study led by Drexel University’s Robert Brulle submits that none of this matters as much as what politicians say about climate change:

A great deal of focus has been devoted to the analysis and development of various communications techniques to better convey and understanding of climate change to individual members of the public. However, this analysis shows that these efforts have a minor influence, and are dwarfed by the effect of the divide on environmental issues in the political elite.

The state of the economy and media coverage also play significant roles in shaping societal attitudes, the study found, but the “most important factor in influencing public opinion” on climate change is “the elite partisan battle over the issue.”

J. Craig Jenkins, a co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University, says: “It is the political leaders in Washington who are really driving public opinion about the threat of climate change. The politics overwhelms the science.”

Oh, great. This suggests that Republican voters have lately been taking their cues from Rick Perry’s blithe dismissal of climate science and Rick Santorum’s repeated assertion that climate change is a “hoax.” Political operators who have been pressuring the GOP to toe a more extremist position on climate change seem to have already intuited the study’s main finding.

With no prominent Republican office holders speaking out as a counterforce (Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have gone silent), it appears the polarized dynamics of the debate will rule the day. After all, how is it possible to forge consensus and compromise (much less have a civil, constructive conversation) on an issue if one of the two major political parties rejects it outright?

Brulle and his fellow researchers seem to presume as much, for they write: “Given the vested economic interests reflected in this polarization, it seems doubtful that any communication process focused on persuading individuals will have much impact.” The intractable politics of climate change leads them to conclude:

Therefore, any communications strategy that holds out the promise of effectiveness must be linked to a broader political strategy. Political conflicts are ultimately resolved through political mobilization and activism. Further efforts to address the issue of climate change need to take this into account.

It will be interesting to see how the findings of the Brulle et al analysis are received by other social scientists studying climate change. Some, like Dan Kahan at Yale’s Cultural Cognition project, contend that, “antagonistic cultural meanings are the source of the climate-change-debate pathology.” Kahan says the debate is filtered through our individual cultural and ideological values, not a rational understanding of climate science.

If that’s the case, and if the Brulle study holds up to scrutiny, then it seems the outcome of the climate change debate will be determined by the values of the political elite. But those values are not shaped in a vacuum, as we’ve seen with previous social movements in the U.S. that led to civil rights legislation, greater women’s equality, and foundational environmental laws protecting our air and water.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.