Communicating with the Six Americas of Climate Change

by |April 14, 2011

Larry D. Moore

The 2009 study by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, “Global Warming’s Six Americas: An Audience Segmentation Analysis,” classified Americans based on their views on climate change into six groups (Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, Dismissive). This report helped climate communicators distinguish and better attune to their various audiences. Yale scientists, Anthony Leiserowitz and Nicholas Smith have released an updated version, “Knowledge of Climate Change Across Global Warming’s Six Americas,” which can once again steer climate communication strategies.

Overall, the study finds that most Americans have significant gaps in their understanding of climate change, although the degree varies across the six groups. 49 percent of the Alarmed, 33 percent of the Concerned, 16 percent of the Cautious, 17 percent of the Doubtful, 4 percent of the Dismissive, and 5 percent of the Disengaged received passing grades on their surveys, which asked questions about the climate system and about the causes, impacts, and mitigation of climate change. Misconceptions persist for all groups, particularly about the hole in the ozone layer. 63 percent of the Alarmed and 49 percent of the Concerned believe that the hole in the ozone layer is a significant contributor to anthropogenic climate change. It is interesting to note that the knowledge of the American public about climate change and understanding of climate change phenomena is comparable to that of the rest of the world (Brechin, 2003).

Among the Concerned, Cautious, and Disengaged, fewer than 1 in 10 believe they are “very well informed” about climate change. Nationally, 75 percent say they want to know more. 76 percent of the Alarmed say they need more information, while, by contrast, 73 percent of the Dismissive say they do not. Although information can be a necessary precursor to effective action, it is clearly not enough to engage all of America on this issue.

The six Americas place their trust on very different sources of information about climate. The Alarmed and the Concerned trust scientists and scientific organizations more than any other source of information, while the Doubtful and the Dismissive trust their family and friends the most. Of the Dismissive, 46 percent strongly distrust university professors and 43 percent strongly distrust school teachers. Military leaders inspire neither high levels of trust or distrust. Mainstream news media is strongly distrusted by 20 percent of the Alarmed, 13 percent of the Concerned, 14 percent of the Cautious, 15 percent of the Disengaged, 58 percent of the Doubtful, and 64 percent of the Dismissive. This variety in sources of information reinforces the need to find the right messenger when communicating about climate change.

In a recent New York Times interview, Andrew J. Hoffman, a University of Michigan professor researching the cultural and social underpinnings of the resistance to climate change science, explained why certain messengers are ineffective. He warned that environmentalists can be perceived as socialists trying to control American lifestyles and the work of academics can seem inaccessible and thus also inappropriate in determining how people should live.

“In our society today, I think people have more faith in economic institutions than they do in scientific institutions. Scientists can talk until they are blue in the face about climate change. But if businesses are paying money to address this issue, then people will say: It must be true, because they wouldn’t be throwing their money away.”

The Yale study helps us understand the range in world views and values within the American public. It is clear that the same message, no matter how scientifically accurate, will not reach all of “the six Americas.”  A messenger must also possess the same values and beliefs as the audience being addressed.

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One thought on “Communicating with the Six Americas of Climate Change

  1. Carrie says:

    With Earth Day approaching rapidly, it is definitely a great time be thinking about what each of us can do to help upkeep our Earth best we can. Dr. Alley, of Penn State University, has been studying the effects of pollution and the idea of climate change here on Earth. I thought some of you might be interested in some of these videos and interviews with the renowned scientist. Here’s the link: http://wpsu.org/earth_the_operators_manual_richard_alley
    Take care.

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