Political Participation and Voting Relevant to Climate Change
Summary and Keywords
Political participation on the issue of climate change can encompass many different forms of individual and collective actions designed to affect governmental policies. At the most basic level, issue-specific political participation occurs when individuals directly attempt to influence governmental actors or policies on climate change—most notably by voting, but also through donating money and communicating with public officials. These types of participation tend to be relatively rare, limited to a small subset of deeply committed individuals. In contrast, personal action on climate change is more widely dispersed, especially if one includes impact-oriented actions (e.g., actions that influence the environment but are primarily undertaken for other reasons, like convenience or saving money) rather than purely intention-based actions, which occur when individuals adopt behaviors with the goal of addressing climate change. Additionally, opportunities to engage in expressive participation, largely online, create new spaces for individuals to build networks to engage in political action, as well as potentially to reach unengaged groups that are less likely to seek out information on the issue.
A number of forces can contribute to whether an individual chooses to participate on the issue of climate change. Individual characteristics, like perceptions of impersonal and personal risks associated with climate change, knowledge of the issues, and environmental values all tend to produce people more likely to participate—especially when these attitudes become part of an individual’s identity as an opinion leader or activist. As a global issue, social norms play a particularly powerful role; when individuals believe others support and are likely to take action themselves, it tends to foster a sense of efficacy that such behaviors will be effective in producing change. Individual choices about media sources also intersect with media coverage and framing of the issue to influence perceptions of the issue and likelihood of taking action. Such media framing can exacerbate or mitigate the heightened political polarization on the issue of climate change that has erected barriers to effective political action in many democratic societies in recent years, most notably in the United States. New forms of political participation may create opportunities to encourage more participation on the issue of climate change, but they also raise ethical questions about inequality and participatory divides that privilege some groups over others.
The question of public engagement on the issue of climate change has been a concern for politicians, advocates, and scholars for decades. Although personal action on climate change can have some effect in mitigating its consequences, most scientists agree that for climate change’s worst impacts to be reversed, broad societal change is necessary, demanding political action by governments from nations across the world (IPCC, 2014; United Nations, 2016).
Such political action requires sustained interest and effort on the part of citizens to encourage governmental response. The first part of this article defines what political participation looks like on the issue of climate change, including the various forms it can take—from personal actions, like using energy-efficient appliances or riding a bike to work; to explicitly political activities, like donating money to a candidate or group; to large-scale group activism to highlight the issue and propose specific remedies, such as protest movements. This article begins by anchoring these definitions of political participation on the issue of climate change to traditional definitions of political participation from the political communication and psychology literature to explore similarities and differences across types and genres of participation.
The second part of this article addresses the theoretical and practical relationships that are likely to promote or deter participation among different groups of individuals. While many of the factors that encourage participation—such as personal attitudes, a sense of identification with the issue, and perceptions of social norms—are likely to apply across political and scientific issues (Ajzen, 1985; Bennett, 1998; Price, David, Goldthorpe, Roth, & Cappella, 2006), others are unique to the context of climate change, particularly uncertainty about the scientific consensus on the issue, the level of collective efficacy required for international efforts, and the potential for political polarization that exists in many countries surrounding the issue.
Defining and Identifying Participation
The first step in the process of investigating what spurs people to participate on the issue of climate change is defining what is meant by participation. Historically, the field of political science has defined political participation as “those activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of government personnel and/or the actions they take,” and has identified four main dimensions: voting, campaign activity, contacting officials, and collective activities (Verba & Nie, 1972, p. 2; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995).
While much attention has been paid to understanding who participates politically at a broad level, the changing structure of politics requires us to rethink political participation on specific issues. The political environment has become increasingly fragmented and diverse, allowing people more opportunities to attend to those issues that are interesting or personally relevant to them, while ignoring others (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008; Bolsen & Leeper, 2013; Ho et al., 2011). As such, more emphasis is needed on studies of “issue publics”—or groups who pay sustained attention to an issue and prioritize it in their political decision making and activities (Converse, 1964; Krosnick, Holbrook, & Visser, 2000; Price et al., 2006).
Although people who participate in politics generally (e.g., working for a candidate) also tend to participate more on a specific issue (e.g., writing a letter to a Congressperson about a specific issue), there are some notable differences in who is likely to engage in each type of participation (Price et al., 2006). Unsurprisingly, personal importance remains one of the most powerful predictors of participation on an issue (Becker, Dalrymple, Brossard, Scheufele, & Gunther, 2010; Price et al., 2006). However, the distinct set of challenges and opportunities, as well as discrete audiences (e.g., issue publics), may complicate efforts to apply traditional understandings of political participation to specific issues like climate change.
With that caveat in mind, however, the definitions of political participation should be relatively consistent across issues. Yet on the issue of climate change, there are many discrepancies in how political participation has been defined. Studies interested in political participation on climate change have used a diversity of terms: from environmental citizenship behaviors (Bain, Hornsey, Bongiorno, & Jeffries, 2012) or climate change behaviors (Albertson & Busby, 2015), to engagement with the issue (Jolley & Douglas, 2014; Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007; van der Linden, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2015b), or climate change activism (Feldman, Hart, Leiserowitz, Maibach, & Roser-Renouf, 2015; Krosnick et al., 2000; Lubell, Zahran, & Vedlitz, 2007; Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, & Zhao, 2014). While the choice of what to term the political participation that occurs surrounding the issue of climate change may seem like a superficial shift in nomenclature, it carries with it much broader implications for understanding the processes underlying political action and its implications for policy, making it important to consider what is meant by each of these terms.
Climate Change Behaviors and Engagement
In general, the overlap in operationalization between researchers investigating climate change (or environmental) behaviors and those interested in issue-specific participation more broadly tends to be high. However, for climate change issues, two types of behaviors are often encompassed in these measures: traditional measures of political participation, such as signing petitions or writing to politicians or newspapers on the issue (e.g., Albertson & Busby, 2015; Bain et al., 2012; Engels, Huther, Schafer, & Held, 2013), versus personal activities designed to address climate change, such as changing one’s driving habits or using energy-efficient light bulbs (Bolsen, Leeper, & Shapiro, 2014; Jolley & Douglass, 2014). Thus, while calling these activities “environmental” behaviors provides a precise way to define the actions themselves, it does not match important theoretical distinctions between what these behaviors entail.
In contrast, scholars using the term engagement reference a wide range of concepts, often quite distinct from political action. For example, Lorenzoni and her colleagues define engagement as “a personal state of connection with the issue of climate change, in contrast to engagement solely as a process of public participation in policy making” (Lorenzoni et al., 2007, p. 446), combining cognitive, affective, and behavioral elements. Conversely, intended political engagement according to Jolley and Douglas (2014) mirrors what many scholars would call “issue-specific political participation”—including voting for pro-environmental candidates, signing petitions, and writing to newspapers or politicians on the issue, whereas Vraga, Anderson, Kotcher, and Maibach (2015a) investigate issue-specific engagement on social media, which they argue creates overlaps between traditional consumption versus expression divides because behaviors signal interest in a topic. For the latter scholars, issue-specific engagement focuses largely on the behavioral components of engagement, as defined by Lorenzoni, while considering the cognitive beliefs and emotions towards the issue as antecedents to predict who was willing to take action on the issue.
This approach of separating behavior from cognition and affect is well established in the literature. Many theories that have been applied to understanding climate change attitudes and behaviors—such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1985) or the Extended Parallel Processing Model (Witte, 1994)—suggest that while both cognitive beliefs and affective feelings towards an issue may be powerful predictors of behaviors, they cannot be considered as reflective of a singular state. Therefore, Lorenzoni et al.’s (2007) conceptualization of engagement as encompassing cognitions, affect, and behavior into a single measure may best serve as a reminder to the scholarly community to consider the methods by which behavioral engagement—which most closely aligns to participation in the traditional sense—may be encouraged among the population (e.g., van der Linden et al., 2015b), rather than as a single concept. However, for those interested in how to promote political action on climate change, care should be taken in terming such activity as engagement.
Climate Change Activism and Issue-Specific Political Participation
The question of the theoretical relationship between activism and participation on the issue of climate change is more difficult to parse. First, some studies of climate change activism again include a range of different activities in their measures of activism. For example, Lubell and colleagues (2007) argue that global warming activism is three-dimensional, encompassing environmental political participation, support for policies designed to reduce global warming, and engagement in personal environmental behaviors to mitigate the risks of global warming. Although theoretically, the authors combine these components into a single question of “activism,” their own analysis examines each of these separately and finds key differences between the predictors of policy support versus environmental political participation. Most notably, they find that, while perceived risk of global warming and a sense of personal influence predict all three forms of global warming activism, political participation specifically appears more responsive to beliefs about expected reciprocity from other actors (e.g., a form of collective efficacy regarding the likelihood of others participating) and to heightened political discussion with others—which have also been shown to promote political participation in other contexts (gil de Zuniga, Veenstra, Vraga, & Shah, 2010; McLeod, Scheufele & Moy, 1999; Shah et al., 2007).
However, most scholars investigating climate change activism limit their analyses to more narrowly defined participatory activities, distinguishing between attitudes on the issue—for example, support for a policy—and behaviors. Volunteering or donating money to an organization working to reduce climate change, writing a letter to a public official, and attending a group meeting have all been classified as environmental activism (Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, & Leiserowitz, 2014; Krosnick et al., 2000; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014). These measures show substantial overlap with indicators of environmental political participation (Lubell et al., 2007) or environmental citizenship (Bain et al., 2012)—as well as with issue-specific participation in other domains (Becker et al., 2010; Ho et al., 2011). For parsimony and to facilitate comparisons with other forms of issue-specific participation, adopting the term issue-specific political participation to describe these explicitly political activities would be an advantage to the field.
Calling such behaviors issue-specific political participation also avoids the potential to create confusion that may be engendered by using the term activism. As classically defined, activism represents only one dimension of political participation, largely dealing with collective action to communicate with public officials through formal group structures (e.g., joining a group) or through group activities (e.g., attending a protest or rally). Although some of the literature combines these traditional political participation activities with attending climate change rallies into a single measure of activism (e.g., Roser-Renouf et al., 2014), many others exclude any form of collective engagement in their measure of activism (e.g., Feldman et al., 2015; Krosnick et al., 2000). As such, it may create confusion as to what is meant by activism versus participation, and does not take advantage of the literature considering the specific barriers and incentives to participation that collective action usually carries (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Bimber, Flanagin, & Stohl, 2012; Verba et al., 1995; Wells, 2015).
Moreover, such an approach does a disservice to research into activism on the issue of climate change, particularly in terms of protest behaviors, both online and offline (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Hestres, 2014; Karpf, 2012; Pearce, Holmberg, Hellsten, & Nerlich, 2014; Segerberg & Bennett, 2011). This interest has been further spurred by the rise of social networking sites, particularly Twitter and YouTube, to examine ways in which individuals come together to form a social movement emphasizing climate issues (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Pearce et al., 2014; Uldam & Askanius, 2013). Social media have changed the shape of collective activism on a range of issues by reducing traditional costs of organization and by allowing more individuals to contribute to a social movement (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Vraga, Bode, Wells, Driscoll, & Thorson, 2014; Wells, 2015). Therefore, this increased scholarly attention to how such activism occurs in the context of climate change is a fruitful area of study as part of the toolkit by which activists exert political pressure on the issue.
However, levels of issue-specific political participation on climate change tend to be relatively low worldwide—which is unsurprising, given that political participation of any kind tends to be limited to a small number of individuals (Bennett, 1998; Putnam, 2000; Shah et al., 2007). For example, a survey of Americans in 2015 found that in the past twelve months, only 11% of likely voters contacted a government official about global warming (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2015), which closely aligns with the 18% of residents in the United Kingdom reporting that they took part in a campaign about an environmental issue in 2009 (Whitmarsh, 2009) and the 18% of Chinese adults who participated in a protest or expressed grievances about environmental problems in 2003 (Xiao & Hong, 2010). Issue-specific participation among Germans in 2011 appears higher, with 43% reporting that they have participated, or might participate in the future, in a demonstration regarding energy issues, and 82% saying they might sign a petition (Metag, Fuchslin, & Schafer, 2015); but these numbers reflect intentions, which tend to be inflated compared to actual behaviors (Ajzen, 1985; Kim & Hunter, 1993). By and large, low levels of issue-specific political participation across countries give rise to serious concerns about its frequency or its ability to influence policymakers.
When it comes to political participation, voting remains the most direct way to influence governmental policy on an issue. While many individuals claim that climate change attitudes influence their vote choices and intentions, particularly in terms of rewarding politicians who act to address climate change (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Howe, 2013; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf,Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2015), empirical evidence on actual behaviors is mixed. For example, an analysis of party manifestos of Western European democracies found increasing emphasis on environmental issues in these platforms through the 1990s compared to the 1950s (Green-Pederson, 2007), suggesting the environment is becoming an increasingly salient part of that political landscape. In contrast, research into environmental activism in Chinese politics is unclear: whereas Harris (2008) argues that ambivalent attitudes and behaviors towards environmental protection among the Chinese public makes it unlikely that politicians will address climate change until environmental consciousness grows (see also Stalley & Yang, 2006), Xie (2011) presents a more optimistic view, suggesting that the government is increasingly responsive to public pressure on environmental issues.
Within the United States, scholars disagree about whether environmental attitudes substantively impact political choices. On one hand, Guber (2001) argued that issue positions on the environment had no impact on evaluations of the 1996 U.S. presidential candidates after party identification and ideology were taken into account. Moreover, Guber was skeptical that the environment could swing vote choice in the American context, given both the low salience of the issue overall and the fact that those who were most likely to swing to the Democratic party on the basis of their environmental attitudes (e.g., Independents and Independents who lean Republican) were also those most likely to say there were no differences between the parties in their handling of environmental issues. However, later research by Davis and Wurth (2003) directly contradicted Guber’s work, arguing that attitudes towards federal spending towards the environment predicted evaluations and vote choice for the 1996 presidential candidates. More recently, Nyhan and his colleagues estimated that Democratic support for the cap and trade bill in the U.S. Congress in 2009 harmed the chances of re-election for Democratic representatives, costing the party seats in the 2010 midterm elections (Brady, Fiorina, & Wilkins, 2011; Nyhan, McGhee, Sides, Masket, & Greene, 2012).
The relationship between environmental attitudes and vote choice may also depend on contextual cues. For example, issues like the economy or foreign crises often overwhelm other potential issues—like climate change—in predicting vote choice (Alvarez, Nagler, & Willette, 2000; Davis & Wurth, 2003; MacKuen, Erikson, & Stimson, 1992). Thus, the poor economy in 2009–2010 may have contributed to the harsh penalties that Democrats in the United States faced in the ballot box for their support of cap and trade (Brady et al., 2011; Nyhan et al., 2012). Similarly, concerns about the economy and immigration worldwide may be limiting the potential for climate to serve as a driving force in political elections across countries.
But there is also reason to believe that events that make climate change more salient may prime the issue as an important consideration for vote choice. One study suggests this is the case—residents of New Jersey were more likely to translate their environmental attitudes into candidate support for fictional “green” candidates in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy (Rudman, McLean, & Bunzl, 2013). Therefore, there is evidence that climate change can become an important issue for voters, but it is often superseded other issues.
However, examining issue-specific political participation on climate change may mask other ways in which individuals have gotten involved on the issue. In particular, the question of whether personal behaviors intended to mitigate climate change should be considered a form of “political participation” is nuanced. Unlike many other political issues, personal behaviors can meaningfully contribute to reducing the impacts on the environment, particularly if they occur at the aggregate level (Gardner & Stern, 2008; Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Stern, 2000). This raises a key theoretical distinction between activities that may affect climate change: actions that are impact-oriented—or behaviors that can influence the environment but may not be performed with that express purpose like using public transportation—versus those behaviors that are intention-oriented—or behaviors that people explicitly undertake to reduce the risks or impacts of climate change but whose effects may be less clear, like limiting aerosol use (Stern, 2000; Whitmarsh, 2009; Wiest, Raymand, & Clawson, 2015). Of course, the same activity may be both intention-oriented (undertaken to address climate change) and have a direct impact on the environment—for example, conserving energy in the home. Such activity would be defined as intention-oriented given that motivation is the key distinction between the theoretical categories.
Research suggests that the rationale and goals underlying these behaviors differ. Intention-oriented behaviors are driven primarily by values and a sense of moral obligation towards the environment, whereas impact-oriented behaviors are often related to tangible benefits, although environmental concerns can play a lesser role (Lubell et al., 2007; Whitmarsh, 2009). However, because the defining characteristic of intention-oriented behavior is on the motivation behind rather than the outcome of the behavior, these behaviors are not necessarily the most effective ways to personally mitigate climate change and are often limited to easier activities rather than more difficult behaviors (Lubell et al., 2007; Stern, 2000; Whitmarsh, 2009). Further, intention-based behaviors, much like issue-specific participation, tended to be limited to a subset of the population—one estimate found only 31% of the British public engaged in personal activity to deliberately mitigate global warming (Whitmarsh, 2009).
In contrast, impact-oriented behaviors, such as purchasing local food, recycling, and using energy-efficient products, tend to be more common than intention-driven forms of participation (IPSOS, 2014; Leiserowitz et al., 2013; Lubell et al., 2007; Morrison, Duncan, Sherley, & Parton, 2013). Unfortunately, like intention-oriented behaviors, impact-oriented behaviors tend to focus on less effective forms of addressing climate change, like recycling, rather than more effective methods, like reductions in personal energy use (IPSOS, 2014; Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Whitmarsh, 2009).
Separating behaviors determined by intention from those that may incidentally impact the environment not only offers an important theoretical distinction, but also provides guidelines to policy makers about effective campaigns. For example, impact-based behaviors may be able reach a larger population if framed in terms of their individual benefits—such as saving money or improving health—without necessarily engaging in a discussion of the issue itself, which can create motivated reasoning in those opposed to taking action (Feldman et al., 2015; Kahan et al., 2012; Lubell et al., 2007; Nisbet, Cooper, & Garrett, 2015). Meanwhile, those engaging in intentional behaviors may be guided towards more impactful behaviors by explicitly drawing upon their values and goals to make the case for specific behaviors.
While this distinction is valuable, it does not answer the fundamental question: can such personal activities—whether intentionally designed to reduce climate change or not—be considered a form of political participation? On the one hand, impact-based actions tend to respond to different factors than those that predict either intention-based climate behaviors or political participation activities generally (Lubell et al., 2007; Stern, 2000; Whitmarsh, 2009). Further, if political participation is defined by the goal of influencing government personnel and their actions (Verba & Nie, 1972), impact-based actions cannot be considered a form of political participation, although they are not without impact themselves.
On the other hand, such personal activities that are intention-driven should be considered an important part of the political process. This approach parallels a shift to thinking about forms of lifestyle politics or engaged citizenship, which many suggest have supplemented or replaced traditional forms of political participation (Bennett, 1998; Dalton, 2009; Shah et al., 2007). For scholars adopting this approach, decreased confidence and affiliation with traditional political entities, such as political parties and organizations, and reduced political participation (particularly voting) is of less concern because it is offset by other forms of participation that focus on personal expression and community-based efforts designed to address niche social and political issues (Bennett, 1998; Zukin, Keeter, Andolina, Jenkins, & Delli Carpini, 2006).
Lifestyle politics can be further divided into political or conscious consumption and civic participation. Political consumerism has been defined as personal consumption habits driven by political or social beliefs, such as boycotting (i.e., avoiding) or buycotting (e.g., deliberately using) a product or company based on political, ethical, or social beliefs (Shah et al., 2007; Stolle, Hooghe, & Micheletti, 2005; Willis & Schor, 2012), while civic participation tends to be defined as engagement in nonpolitical groups to advance a particular issue (Putnam, 2000; Shah, Cho, Eveland, & Kwak, 2005; Verba et al., 1995). Personal activities that are consciously and intentionally undertaken with the goal of affecting climate change align nicely with the literature on lifestyle politics and thus should be considered a form of political participation.
Like other personal behaviors, lifestyle politics may be more common than issue-specific political participation. Many people believe that personal action may be necessary to address climate change: 66% of Americans believe that people will need to make major changes in their lifestyle to reduce the effects of global warming, compared to 75% of Germans, 39% of Russians, 58% of Chinese, and 89% of Brazilians (Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015). However, while the numbers of people performing individual lifestyle changes are higher than those engaging in political activities, many fewer individuals actually perform such behaviors themselves than admit they may be necessary on a larger scale; one study found 28% of Americans had engaged in conscious consumption of companies working to reduce global warming, and 22% had punished companies for opposing global warming efforts, compared to 11% who had contacted a public official (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2015). Similarly, 31% of Chinese adults made a monetary donation to an environmental protection cause, compared to 18% who participated in a protest or expressed grievances about environmental problems (Xiao & Hong, 2010). However, comparisons in personal behaviors depend greatly on the nature of at the activity being studied—one study found that Americans were more likely to recycle then residents of Mexico or Peru, but were less likely to use public transportation or conserve water (Schultz & Zelenzy, 1998).
Growing attention to these alternative forms of participation are also particularly appropriate, given their appeal to younger generations in particular (Dalton, 2009; Zukin, Keeter, Andolina, Jenkins, & Carpini, 2006)—the same generations who tend to be most interested in, most concerned about, and most supportive of efforts to address climate change (Feldman, Nisbet, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2010; Funk & Rainie, 2015; Metag, Fuchslin, & Schafer, 2015; Vainio & Paloniemi, 2013). For example, among 18 to 29 year-olds, 85% of American youth, 95% of French youth, and 74% of Indian youth support limiting their country’s greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 60% of Americans, 84% of French, and 64% of Indian adults over age 50 (Stokes et al., 2015). Moreover, these alternative forms of participation may not only appeal to younger adults, but offer individuals new pathways to get involved in the issue of climate change that are best suited for their level of interest, skills, and resources, all of which tend to be important predictors of participation (Verba et al., 1995).
Online Expression and Participation
Despite the range of participatory behaviors currently being examined in the context of climate change, not enough work has investigated how political participation on this issue has changed as it moves into online spaces. Yet online participation may tap into different constructs than traditional offline participation because it presents fewer barriers to entry than resource-intensive offline forms of participation—it is much easier to “like” an organization, comment on a news story, or sign an online petition on an issue than it would be to donate money or physically attend a meeting of a group offline (gil de Zuniga et al., 2010; Shah et al., 2007).
That is not to say that online and offline forms of participation are equally effective or even address the same goals. Individuals recognize that online expressive forms of participation are particularly well suited to communicating information to other people, but tend to see them as less effective at influencing government, especially compared to voting (Hoffman, Jones, & Young, 2013). While some worry that online actions such as posting about politics or an issue on social media may serve as a form of “slacktivism” that discourages more meaningful forms of participation (Gladwell, 2010; Morozov, 2009), research generally suggests that it serves as a gateway to encouraging greater political participation in other spaces—including offline political participation (Bode, Vraga, Borah, & Shah, 2014; Penney, 2014; Vitak, Zube, Smock, Carr, Ellison, & Lampe, 2011; Vraga, 2016). Indeed, political expression and participation online should connect individuals to others who share their ideas and beliefs, known to encourage greater participation (Mutz, 2006), as well as help individuals develop a sense of themselves as a leader on a particular issue, which should also foster a willingness to engage in such behaviors in other spaces (Bode et al., 2014; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014). For example, one study suggests that engaging in climate change-specific activity on Facebook, such as liking energy pages and sharing energy news, was related to heightened opinion leadership (e.g., seeing oneself as influential) and external political efficacy (e.g., believing that public officials are responsive to the public) among Republicans on the issue of climate change (Vraga, Anderson, Kotcher, & Maibach, 2015a), both of which are linked to issue-specific political participation (Feldman et al., 2015; Jolley & Douglas, 2014; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014).
Such expressive forms of online participation may not only mobilize the individuals, but also encourage participation among their networks as well. In general terms, seeing political content on Facebook has been related to more frequent political posting oneself, as well as more participation offline (Bakshy, Rosenn, Marlow, & Adamic, 2012; Vitak et al., 2011; Vraga, 2016). A study on Facebook during the 2008 U.S. presidential election found that Facebook users who saw an “I Voted” button with the pictures of friends who had clicked the link were more likely to vote themselves and share that information with their friends on Facebook (Bond et al., 2012), providing evidence for a social contagion effect. Such sharing of political or social issue positions—for example, the famous Red Equal Sign campaign to promote marriage equality—may be designed explicitly to raise awareness of an issue or belief, but it also has the ability to create and reinforce norms about appropriate behaviors (Penney, 2014; Vraga, Thorson, Kligler-Vilenchik, & Gee, 2015b), and as such may be consequential in increasing political participation.
Participation in Non-Democratic Societies
It is also necessary to reflect on what climate change participation may look like in non-democratic societies. Certain issue-specific political activities (most notably, voting) do not apply to non-democratic societies, which may require alternative mechanisms to address the issue, where a non-confrontational approach may be more effective.
For example, successful environmental movements in China rely heavily on personal connections and a shared sense of “socioenvironmental responsibility” derived from a sense of collectiveness encouraged by the Chinese Communist party (Xie, 2011). Further, NGOs may also represent a particularly important mechanism to put pressure on the government, given their association with international associations and funding that can put external pressure on government officials (Xie, 2011), although Stalley and Yang (2006) found knowledge and support of environmental NGOs, particularly local or national Chinese NGOs, as relatively low among college students in Bejing, suggesting more work needs to be done to build visibility.
Online political participation may also be particularly important in less democratic societies. Aström and colleagues (2012) found that e-participation—which encompasses information dissemination, dialogue between the public, businesses, and government, and opportunities to impact public policy—is on the rise in non-democratic societies, especially as Internet access and economic globalization increases. Additionally, an emphasis on personal behaviors to limit climate change may be more fruitful. Although Harris (2008) argues that fewer Chinese adults are taking personal action to address climate change than expressing concern about the issue, Zheng (2010) finds such environmental actions tend to be higher among residents of Bejing compared to other East Asian cities. Emphasizing personal actions rooted in collective national activities, international connections through social organizations, and online activities to address climate change may all be especially important for less democratic societies.
Future Directions for Defining Participation
More research is needed into how participation regarding climate change as an issue occurs in online spaces, with special attention paid to the expressive forms of participation that are occurring on social media. Another fruitful extension for those interested in political participation on the issue of climate change may be to investigate other ways of differentiating between types of political participation. For example, Pattie, Seyd, and Whiteley(2004) identify three distinct forms of participation: individual acts of participation (e.g., voting, conscious consumption choices), contact participation (e.g., contacting public officials, attending meetings), and collective participation (e.g., participation in rallies, joining organizations). More recently, Hong and Rojas (2016) argued that participation can be broken down into iterative behaviors such as protesting or expression, which require a sustained effort to be effective, versus episodic behaviors, such as voting or civic participation, which can occur without an ongoing commitment. Finally, participation can occur in “private” or in “public” (Scheufele & Eveland, 2001; Stern, 2000), which prioritizes different inputs to behaviors.
Those interested in participation on climate change would do well to adopt a more nuanced approach to defining political participation in line with other fields. This approach allows for more precision in understanding what the levels of participation are among different contexts and issues as well as the forces that may encourage or deter such behaviors among diverse audiences for an issue.
Although attention to the theoretical distinctions between different types of political behaviors on climate change is merited, that is not to say such activities tend to be divorced among the population. Research has broadly supported the argument that while the mechanisms underlying participation can differ depending on the type of participation being examined, there is often a relationship among different forms of participation, with people who are active in one form also choosing to participate in other ways as well (Bode et al., 2014; gil de Zuniga et al., 2010; Price et al., 2006). This assumption appears largely validated in climate change research—for example, political consumption activities related to climate change, such as reducing use of disposable water bottles, reducing energy consumption, or using carpools to reduce driving, have been related to increased political participation on the issue, even when taking into account past levels of political action and involvement (Whitmarsh, 2009; Willis & Schor, 2012).
The next step beyond looking at different ways to define political participation is to examine the forces that encourage or discourage such behaviors. These mechanisms not only shed light on who is participating currently but also offer guidelines into how to overcome the barriers that limit people’s ability or willingness to participate on the issue and the types of participation that might be most appealing to different groups of people.
Several theories from the psychology and communication literatures have been particularly important in explaining political participation broadly, as well as the issue of climate change specifically. These theories point to a number of specific antecedents to political participation, which can serve either as barriers or motivators to political action. Broadly speaking, an individual’s attitudes and values related to the issue, their estimation of the social norms surrounding participation, and their sense of efficacy—both for their own participation and the success of the political activities—stand out in determining who participates.
Individual Attitudes, Beliefs, and Knowledge
Perhaps unsurprisingly, issue-specific political participation tends to be most closely associated with individuals’ attitudes and level of concern for the issue at hand (Becker et al., 2010; Ho et al., 2011; Price et al., 2006). For the issue of climate change, a number of attitudes are particularly salient for determining participation: an individual’s assessment of risk and their concern about the dangers of climate change, their beliefs in their own ability to effectively respond to the issue, and their levels of knowledge about climate change, particularly in terms of its causes, consequences, and scientific consensus existing on the issue.
First, an individual’s sense of concern about the risks of climate change is one of the most prominent explanations for political action. And this makes sense. Witte’s (1994) Extended Parallel Processing Model predicts that people will only take action in response to a persuasive message when they perceive a sufficient level of threat, defined both in terms of its severity and their own susceptibility to the threat (Hart & Feldman, 2014; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014). Studies predicting climate change behaviors have borne out this assumption, as personal interest, concern, and risk perceptions about climate change all predict participation, both in terms of personal and political activities (Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher, 2000; Krosnick et al., 2000; Leiserowitz,Maibach,Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Howe, 2013; Lubell et al., 2007; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014).
Concern about climate change may be divided further into personal versus impersonal concern about risk. People tend to have an optimistic bias towards risk, believing that other people—especially distant people—are more at risk than themselves (Douglas, 1985; Vraga, Carr, Nytes, & Shah, 2010; Weinstein, 1989), and this also occurs for estimations about the effects of climate change (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2015). Thus, climate change is largely seen as an impersonal risk, which affects communication on the issue. For example, one study suggested that focusing on the local impact of climate change boosted climate change engagement while a global perspective did not (Scannell & Gifford, 2013). In the absence of personal threat, Kahlor and colleagues (2006) suggest that environmental risk communicators emphasize the audience’s information insufficiency in their messages to encourage more effortful processing and thus boost effectiveness.
However, an individual’s perceptions of the risks of climate change can also create a potential barrier to effective action. The Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) suggests that, when perceptions of risk are high but people do not feel able to take effective action on an issue, they are likely to engage in defensive reasoning, which can lead people to dismiss the issue and become even less likely to engage in effective behavioral response (Witte, 1994). This sense of personal ability is often referred to as internal or self-efficacy, and in general has been linked to higher levels of participation on the issue of climate change (Bolsen et al., 2014; Jolley & Douglas, 2014; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014; Whitmarsh, 2009; Witte, 1994).
Internal self-efficacy may be particularly important in predicting the personal behaviors that individuals can perform on their own. In other words, a sense that one can effectively bike to work or replace their light bulbs at home may be sufficient to produce these behaviors (Bolsen et al., 2014; Jolley & Douglas, 2014; Whitmarsh, 2009). But when it comes to actions explicitly designed to influence government behaviors, one has to believe not only that they can effectively perform these behaviors (e.g., writing to a congressperson), but also that the governmental actors will be responsive to their efforts, in what is labeled external political efficacy (Feldman et al., 2015; Jolley & Douglas, 2014; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014).
Therefore, political participation on the issue of climate change should be highest when both of these types of efficacy—internal and external—are combined (Feldman et al., 2014; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014; Stenhouse, 2016). Importantly, these efficacy beliefs can be responsive to the environment. For example, perceptions of a hostile media environment can depress external self-efficacy on the issue of climate change, as can media coverage of conspiracy beliefs regarding the science behind climate change (Feldman et al., 2015; Jolley & Douglas, 2014). Meanwhile, engaging in expressive behaviors regarding climate change on social media can boost individual self-efficacy on the issue (Vraga et al., 2015a). Therefore, efforts to boost internal and external self-efficacy on the issue of climate change should be a fruitful avenue to increasing participation, especially when combined with information highlighting the potential risks of climate change (Hart & Feldman, 2014).
For the issue of climate change, individual beliefs may need to be complemented by accurate knowledge on the topic to produce the strongest effects on participation. As a complex scientific issue, there is a lot of confusion about the causes and consequences of climate change (Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher, 2000; Bostrom et al., 2012). This is further complicated when one considers the impact of climate change on our environment—and assessments of that impact depend on whether one is considering a local versus international perspective or whether one is thinking about immediate versus future impacts. For example, many more Americans believe climate change will harm future generations (70%) and remote others such as people living in developing countries (63%) or the world’s poor (62%) compared to proximate others such as people in their community (46%) or they themselves (41%) (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2016; see also Morrison et al., 2013, for comparison to Australian adults). As such, climate change tends to be seen as a distant rather than proximate threat. Moreover, visible climate change effects are often confusing for the public, especially when considered in concert with weather patterns that naturally fluctuate over time (Goebbert, Jenkins-Smith, Klockow, Nowlin, & Silva, 2012; Hamilton & Stampone, 2013; Myers, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Akerlof, & Leiserowitz, 2013). As a result, knowledge about the science behind climate change tends to be relatively low worldwide, although it has improved in the past decades (Bostrom et al., 2012; Tobler, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2012).
This lack of knowledge is not only problematic on its own, but also has direct and indirect impacts on the likelihood of political participation on the issue. First, knowledge about the causes of climate change is associated with the perceived risks of climate change and how quickly such risks will occur, as well as for support for different policies designed to address climate change (Bord et al., 2000; Bostrom et al., 2012; Malka, Krosnick, & Langer, 2009; Tobler et al., 2012). Similarly, knowledge of the level of scientific consensus regarding climate change (e.g., the fact that over 97% of climate scientists believe human-cased climate change is occurring) shows a comparable relationship with climate change beliefs and support for political action (McCright, Dunlap, & Xiao, 2013; van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, & Maibach, 2015a). Therefore, knowledge about the science underlying climate change can both produce indirect effects on participation, by spurring risk perceptions, and directly encourage more effective action to reduce climate change (Bord et al., 2000; Whitmarsh, 2009).
Issue knowledge can also shape how people respond to information about climate change. Several studies have suggested that greater scientific knowledge can create polarization in attitudes about climate change in line with existing differences such as political orientation or cultural cognitions (Kahan et al., 2012; Malka et al., 2009). Such an assumption lines up well with other research into motivated reasoning, which finds that greater sophistication produces polarization on a range of issues (Kunda, 1990; Taber, Cann, & Kucsova, 2009; Taber & Lodge, 2006). In contrast, recent work has suggested that knowledge of the scientific consensus surrounding climate change’s causes can mitigate differences in worldview (Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2013).
In addition to enabling climate change skeptics to more successfully defend their attitudes, knowledge may also alter receptiveness to climate change messages. For example, one study found that highlighting the economic benefits of addressing climate change produced greater participatory intentions only among knowledgeable participants, although its effects were limited to relatively low-cost forms of participation, like signing a petition or discussing the issue with friends (Albertson & Busby, 2015). Another study suggests that the beneficial effects of knowledge on climate change concern are limited to those who also trust the scientific community to provide information on the topic (Malka et al., 2009).
Thus, while this research provides several promising directions, it also raises a number of questions about which attitudes are likely to be relevant in predicting political participation on climate change and under what circumstances. Efforts to raise personal concern about the risks of climate change may be effective in encouraging greater participation—particularly in combination with messages designed to increase internal and external efficacy on the issue—as might communicating information about the level of scientific consensus regarding climate change. However, whether and which types of knowledge can exacerbate or reduce polarization in attitudes on the issue of climate change is a question that merits more study.
Values and Identity
Moreover, it is not just people who believe climate change presents a risk to themselves or others who are willing to take action, but also those who start to see climate change activism as a fundamental part of their identity or value system. Values have long been recognized to be a driving force in political behaviors, predicting the types of candidates and policies an individual supports, as well as their willingness to engage in particular types of political participation (Ingelhart, 1981; Lakoff, 2002; Tetlock, 1989). The issue of climate change is no different. People who endorse environmental values are more likely to take political action on the issue of climate change (Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Lubell et al., 2007; Stern, 2000; Whitmarsh, 2009).
Environmental values can be defined in a number of ways. First, attitudes towards the environment broadly—including its fragility and the role of humans in protecting the environment—measured by the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) scale have been shown to predict participation (Huang, 2016; Lubell et al., 2007; Rudman et al., 2013; Whitmarsh, 2009). Second, altruism and concern for other living things have also been shown to be important predictors of environmental behaviors across nations (Lee, Kim, Kim, & Choi, 2014; Schultz & Zelezny, 1998). Finally, environmental values can become part of an individual’s self-identity—and this self-identity as an “activist” is an even more powerful predictor of issue-specific participation (Roser-Renouf et al., 2014; Stenhouse, 2016).
Stern (2000) incorporates these diverse values into a single model in his Value-Belief-Norm (VBN) theory of environmental action. His model proposes that basic values, such as altruism or orientations towards power, contribute to attitudes towards the environment broadly, before leading to behavioral knowledge and action. Stern’s framework thus proposes that diverse values can both directly and indirectly impact pro-environmental behaviors, but they are likely to be most powerful when they work in combination to become part of an individual’s identity.
One way in which personal identification can manifest itself is through perceptions of opinion leadership on the issue. Opinion leaders are individuals who see themselves as influential on an issue, and who tend to be more knowledgeable on that issue, more attuned to the media environment, and more willing to share their opinions with other people (Katz, 1957; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948; Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009). Opinion leaders on climate change are particularly important to identify: Not only are opinion leaders more likely to engage in political participation on climate change themselves, they can potentially mobilize larger social groups using their interpersonal influence—groups that otherwise might not be receptive to messages from climate change activists (Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014; Valente & Pumpuang, 2007; Vraga et al., 2015a).
However, identifying opinion leaders presents a variety of challenges. Several techniques have been proposed for classifying opinion leaders, ranging from self-selection (e.g., asking whether people see themselves as influential), to nomination by social networks (e.g., asking a social network to identify who serves as a source of information and advice), to harvesting network information to isolate individuals who are well-positioned to serve as opinion leaders (e.g., mapping an individual’s position relative to others) (Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009; Katz, 1957; Valente & Pumpuang, 2007; Wu, Hofman, Mason, & Watts, 2011). The rise of social networking sites has provided additional impetus for the latter technique by offering clearer data patterns to map the transmission of information (e.g., Wu et al., 2011; Zhang, Zhao, & Xu, 2016), as well as offering an opportunity for individuals to develop their opinion leadership on the issue by engaging in issue-specific behaviors online (Vraga et al., 2015a).
As a result, most research still relies on the self-identification of opinion leaders originally proposed by Lazarsfeld and his colleagues (1948), usually through survey techniques (Katz, 1957; Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009; Vraga et al., 2015a). But, while this approach benefits from simplicity and cost-effectiveness, it suffers from a number of limitations. Most prominently, people’s self-assessments of their opinion leadership may not line up with their actual ability to influence others, which can occur both in terms of over- and under-estimation of opinion leadership (Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009). Similarly, opinion leadership tends to be issue-specific (Lazarsfeld et al., 1948; Katz, 1957; Vraga et al., 2015a), so defining the domain in which opinion leaders are important can be tricky. How closely related is opinion leadership on climate change versus energy issues versus politics more broadly? Which domain is most relevant to encouraging people to participate more in political action for energy policies designed to mitigate climate change? Identifying opinion leaders becomes an important challenge for designing campaigns to promote political participation on climate change.
Social Norms and Collective Efficacy
It is not just an individual’s beliefs and abilities that matter for who engages in political participation on climate change, but also their perceptions and location within the social environment. The powerful role of social norms has been codified in a number of theories, such as the Theory of Planned Behavior, which argues that an individual’s intention to take personal action on an issue depends on their own attitudes, their estimation of the social norms, and their sense of behavioral control towards the issue (Ajzen, 1985, 1991; Stern, 2000).
Social norms are likely to be particularly relevant for issues like climate change, which require action by large and sustained groups of people to be effective. In particular, two types of social norms are likely to contribute to climate change behaviors. Descriptive social norms refer to what behaviors are typical among a population, whereas injunctive norms refer to behaviors that are desirable or approved (Bolsen et al., 2014; Cialdini, 2003; Ho, Liao, & Rosenthal, 2015). These social norms can serve as both incentives and barriers for participation. If individuals perceive that others value and expect an individual to take action on the environment, they are more likely to do so themselves—but by the same token, if they perceive others value consumption that runs counter to climate change activism (e.g., owning a car as a status symbol) or are unlikely to take action, they are less likely to participate (Bolsen et al., 2014; Cialdini, 2003; Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008; Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Stern, 2000).
Moreover, it is not just perceptions of descriptive social norms about what others are doing, or injunctive norms about what others support doing, that predicts participation, but also a sense of group efficacy. Much like individual self-efficacy, a sense of collective efficacy—or a belief that the group can work together to achieve their goals—is also critical for participation (Hart & Feldman, 2014; Lubell et al., 2007; Roser-Renouf et al., 2014). Several potential threats exist to collective efficacy, and one of the most prominent is the concern about “free riders,” other people who benefit from the hard work of the group without contributing (Lubell et al., 2007). Free riders do not just hinder social norms that activism is appropriate, they also harm group cohesion and purposefulness. Additionally, perceptions of unequal effort flies in the face of social norms of equality and participation. These threats to collective efficacy may also explain why new research suggests that descriptive norms may be more powerful than injunctive norms in predicting environmental behaviors (Ho et al., 2015; Liao, Ho, & Yang, 2016).
Like individual attitudes, social norms and collective efficacy are also responsive to the environment. For example, social norms are more powerful in collectivist societies (Lee, Hubbard, O’Riordan, & Kim, 2006; Ho et al., 2015). Further, social norms can be manipulated: several experimental designs have demonstrated that highlighting that other individuals support and take personal action on climate change and conservation issues (descriptive norms) tended to produce greater effects than an appeal to environmental protection on its own—although this also applies to descriptive norms that create a perception that inaction is acceptable (Bolsen et al., 2014; Cialdini, 2003; Goldstein et al., 2008). As such, social media represent an important place where these descriptive and injunctive norms may be developed (e.g., Penney, 2014), reinforcing the value of understanding the amount and impact of expressive participation on climate change that is occurring in online spaces.
Skepticism, Politics, and Motivated Reasoning
For the issue of climate change, special attention must be played to climate change skeptics, especially because such skepticism is often correlated with political identity. Most notably in the United States, but to some extent apparent in other countries like Australia, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom (e.g., Morrison et al., 2013; Stokes et al., 2015), high levels of political polarization exist around the issue of climate change. Among the American population, liberals and Democrats are more likely to believe climate change is a concern, that it is man-made, and be willing to take personal and political action to mitigate its risks compared to Republicans and conservatives (Dunlap & McCright, 2008; McCright, Dunlap & Xiao, 2013). This political gap has grown over the past decades, worsening long-standing differences in orientations towards environmental issues (Anthony, 1982; McCright & Dunlap, 2011). As such, this creates differential incentives for politicians to respond to participatory behaviors on the issue, which is further exacerbated by the substantial geographical variation in attitudes and support for policies to mitigate climate change that exist at the Congressional district level (Howe, Mildenberger, Marlon, & Leiserowitz, 2015).
Several reasons can explain the broadening gap between political groups in their orientations towards climate change. First, polarization on the issue of climate change has occurred among political elites (especially politicians) in the United States (Dunlap, Xiao, & McCright, 2001; McCright & Dunlap, 2011). This elite polarization signals to party loyalists the “correct” position on climate change, leading the public to polarize on the issue as they adopt the party’s stance (Carsey & Layman, 2006; Druckman, Peterson, & Slothuus, 2013; Fiorina & Abrams, 2008; McCright & Dunlap, 2011). In addition, when media coverage of climate change increases, the public tends to be reminded of elite polarization on the issue and their own political identity becomes salient, widening gaps among the public (Hart & Nisbet, 2012; Krosnick et al., 2000; Unsworth & Fielding, 2014). This process is reinforced when selective exposure to different media content is taken into account, as representations of climate change and the scientific certainty regarding the issue differs depending on media outlet (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2012; Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, & Leiserowitz, 2014). As a result, more sustained attention to climate change among elites or in the media strengthen differences in public opinion, complicating efforts to make climate change a sustained political issue.
It is also possible that polarized stances on climate change are simply responding to the increased polarization that generally characterizes the American populace. As Congress has offered clearer distinctions between the parties in terms of their ideological beliefs, individuals can more easily select a party that represents them and are thus better sorted, rather than more polarized (Fiorina et al., 2005; Fiorina & Abrams, 2008). The result is an American public that is more ideologically polarized on a range of issues, and climate change is not unique in facing partisan divides (Abramowitz & Saunders, 2008; Bafami & Shapiro, 2009).
Another component that may contribute to polarization on the issue is trust in the scientific community reported by different ideological groups. Specifically, trust in scientists has declined precipitously among American conservatives in the past 30 years, leading conservatives to be more distrustful of the scientific community overall (Funk & Rainie, 2015; Gauchat, 2011; Kraft, Lodge, & Taber, 2015). This distrust of scientists may encourage greater skepticism of their claims of a changing climate, as well as more receptiveness to conspiracy theories that suggest a scientific hoax or cover-up on the issue, such as the “climategate” email scandal (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Smith, & Dawson, 2013). Conversely, others suggest that such distrust of scientists is likely for any issue that flies in the face of their political ideology—for example, climate change for conservatives versus nuclear power for liberals—as people engage in motivated reasoning to discredit the information (Nisbet et al., 2015).
Even if the latter is the case, and liberals discount scientific information that counters their ideological beliefs, it raises interesting questions on how to best convey accurate scientific information on climate change to conservatives. Although misinformation is difficult to correct, using simple, strong, and factual retractions of scientific misinformation can be effective, especially when they are not associated with a partisan source (Bode & Vraga, 2015; Lewandowsky, Ecker, Seifert, Schwarz, & Cook, 2012). In the realm of climate change communication, providing information about the scientific consensus on the issue has shown a promising ability to reduce polarization (Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Vaughan, 2013; van der Linden et al., 2015a), and future research should continue to test other avenues by which motivated reasoning can be overcome.
However, overall differences between ideological groups on the issue of climate change sometimes mask the more nuanced distinction among conservatives. Specifically, liberal and moderate Republicans represent a middle ground on climate change beliefs and often resemble the beliefs of moderate or conservative Democrats on the issue (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2015; Maibach et al., 2013). Similarly, lower levels of scientific literacy may be limited to those holding socially conservative views, whereas economic conservatives demonstrate similar or higher levels of scientific literacy than those who are economically liberal (Carl, Cofnas, & Woodley of Menie, 2016). As a result, Republicans in the United States tend to be at least somewhat supportive of many climate change actions and relatively trusting in the unbiased opinion of the scientific community (Funk & Rainie, 2015).
Interestingly, although public skepticism about climate change remains a consistent part of the political system, political action to explicitly counter efforts to address climate change tends to be relatively rare. For example, one survey of Americans found that only 2% reported that they contacted an elected official to oppose action on climate change (Feldman et al., 2015), while another suggested that 26% of American voters were more likely to vote for a political candidate who strongly opposed action to reduce climate change (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2015). Similarly, although Germans overall had relatively low levels of issue-specific participation, climate change skeptics had even lower levels of issue-specific political participation than climate change supporters (Engels et al., 2013). That said, information that raises doubts about the certainty of climate change can reduce efficacy and decrease intended personal and political behaviors to reduce climate change (Jolley & Douglas, 2014). However, research overall suggests that political participation against climate change represents a very small proportion of issue-specific participation.
Therefore, while skepticism on the issue of climate change represents a real hurdle for climate change communicators, it is not insurmountable. Many conservatives appear at least somewhat receptive to climate change messages, and this number may increase if the issue is framed and addressed in non-political terms (e.g., Bain et al., 2012; Kahan et al., 2012). Scholars may also be able to look to countries where skepticism and polarization on the issue tends to be lower, such as Germany (Engels et al., 2013; IPSOS, 2014), or to methods of correcting political misinformation, for ideas on how to mitigate motivated reasoning and more effectively reach the entire population on this issue.
Media Effects and Climate Change
These individual differences–including polarization on the issue—matter not just on their own; they also intersect with the messages people seek out and receive about climate change from the mass media to predict participation in a number of ways.
First, people who pay more attention to media regarding the environment—or who talk about the issue with their friends and family—are more likely to take action (Cho, Keum, & Shah, 2014; Ho et al., 2015; Huang, 2016; Olausson, 2011). Such a relationship is likely to be reciprocal—more concerned individuals seek out coverage on the issue, which reinforces their worries and their participation (Feldman et al., 2014).
However, individuals’ responses to media coverage also matter for engagement. Olausson (2011) demonstrates that, although media coverage often defines the boundaries of public debate, Swedish citizens use their own experiences to derive meaning from media content. Similarly, individuals can choose to express themselves on social media on the issue, which is not only valuable in its own right but also produces greater participation in more traditional settings (Bennett, 2012; Bode et al., 2014; Vraga et al., 2015a). More broadly, perceptions of the media environment, such as seeing the media as influential and as hostile to one’s views on an issue, tend to produce heightened participatory intentions, at least among some groups (Feldman et al., 2015; Liao, Ho, & Yang, 2016).
Of course, not all media messages are the same, and the ways in which the media choose to cover climate change impact participatory intentions. Such an approach is rooted in framing theory, which defines frames as “interpretative storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it” (Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009, p. 15). Although frames are not inherently associated with a particular position, their effectiveness depends on resonance with an audience, meaning that certain frames tend to be more effective for one side versus another. For example, one could use an economic frame to argue either for or against climate change policies or action (McComas & Shanahan, 1999; Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009).
Because frames represent a perspective that is being emphasized as part of a message, the number of possible frames on the issue is nearly infinite. A single news story can carry multiple frames, as different actors use competing language to define the issue in ways that advantage their perspective (Lakoff, 2002). Nisbet and Kotcher(2009) identifies eight frames from scientific policy debates relevant to climate change. Research agrees that competing frames activate different constructs and shape individual responses to the issue (e.g., Albertson & Busby, 2015; Bain et al., 2012; Scannell & Gifford, 2013; Wiest et al., 2015).
Of course, such media effects are not uniform among the public. First, individuals can choose which media they consume—and those choices shape the information they receive. Thus, the more dismissive tone toward climate change taken by U.S. cable network FOX news, compared to CNN or MSNBC, reinforces the skeptical attitudes of Republicans, who make up the primary share of FOX’s audience (Feldman et al., 2012; 2014).
Second, even when individuals are exposed to the same media content or frames, their interpretations can differ. For example, one study found using a local frame about climate change increased behavioral intentions to address climate change among Republicans and Independents, whereas a benefit frame decreased policy support among Democrats (Wiest et al., 2015), while another study found that a self-interested economic appeal was more effective among those knowledgeable about climate change (Albertson & Busby, 2015).
Therefore, climate change participation is best understood at the intersection of personal predispositions and the mediated and interpersonal communication to which these individuals are exposed. However, these relationships tend to be complicated by an ever-evolving media environment, which necessitates new theory development and empirical evidence to understand how their effects are similar to and differ from previous types of media experiences.
This article set out to examine the current state of the literature regarding political participation that is occurring around the issue of climate change. As demonstrated, political participation on this issue can take a variety of forms and formats, which can make understanding levels of participation difficult, it but also opens new avenues to encourage a variety of individuals to participate in ways that best suit their own interests, goals, and resources.
While much of the literature has focused on more traditional forms of participation—including both personal actions that individuals can take to address global warming and more explicit ways of interacting with the government—more effort is needed to understand the new types of participation that can occur. Social media offers an opportunity for collective movements around particular events (e.g., climate summits like the G20 meeting in 2008) and can also lead to sustained dialogue about issues (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Pearce et al., 2014). Such online participation, moreover, has the potential to create the conditions to mobilize even more individuals—both for those posting themselves and for their social networks (Bode et al., 2014; Bond et al., 2012; Vraga et al., 2015a; Vraga, 2016).
Another important area for continuing research is exploration of the ethical repercussions of divisions in who participates and in efforts to encourage greater participation. Political participation is often resource-intensive, which may disadvantage some individuals and groups from having their voices heard (Verba et al., 1995). These barriers may differ by the type of participation—for example, online participation is often seen as less costly in terms of time and effort, but incurs digital divides in terms of access and skills (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2014; Yu, 2006). Distrust between the public and policymakers can also limit participatory activities, as the policymakers may be skeptical of the ability of the public to weigh in meaningfully on the issue, while the public may doubt the responsiveness of policymakers to their concerns (e.g., Few, Brown, & Tompkins, 2007; Lorenzoni et al., 2007). Therefore, efforts to encourage participation among the public needs to take into account the inequality of whose voices get represented and heard by policymakers.
Ultimately, the question of how to define and motivate political participation on the issue of climate change is one that will continue to puzzle scholars and issue advocates for years to come. Political participation is an ever-moving target, as new generations come to define what is meant by “participation,” and new technologies create novel pathways for individuals to engage with political and scientific issues—or to avoid them altogether. For the issue of climate change, understanding the wide diversity of means by which individuals can get involved, crafting new messages to reach changing populations, and stimulating broader participation—both in terms of modes of participation and individuals—will be particularly important as citizens and governments look to mitigate the worst effects of climate change on our environment and our society.
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