Communicating Climate Change across Workplace and Organizational Settings
Summary and Keywords
Addressing climate change requires attention to a variety of communication contexts. While attention has been paid to top-down approaches aimed at individual-level behavior and the beliefs of the public at large, organizations in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors are increasingly recognized as integral players in solving the climate change challenges that we face today. For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) characterize the commercial sector as having the highest potential to reduce emissions by 2020, suggesting that meaningful actions aimed at climate change mitigation must come from within organizations. However, the diverse nature of organizational communication poses challenges toward effective climate change communication. On the one hand, climate change communication can occur within organizations, where members’ individual behaviors and beliefs can have a significant impact on an organization’s energy consumption. On the other hand, organizations can communicate environmental issues directly to stakeholders and the public at large—though communication can be complicated by the fact that some organizations benefit from instilling doubt in the science of climate change. The complex nature of organizational-based climate change communication allows members of the for-profit and nonprofit sectors to play an important role in cultivating divergent views of climate change. Future research can help promulgate climate change-related awareness and action within organizational contexts.
Climate change is considered one of the most pressing global threats that we face, with organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) calling for immediate mobilization (AAAS, 2006; IPPC, 2014a). Recent findings from the IPCC’s 2014 report affirm the broad scientific consensus that the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans have warmed since 1950 and that human activity is a main contributor. These changes contribute to extreme weather events, rising ocean levels, and “increased likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” (IPCC, 2014a, p. 8). While significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions reduce climate change risks, current anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are noted to be the highest in history, thus undermining existing strategies aimed at mitigating climate change risks (IPCC, 2014a). These challenges are further compounded by climate change skepticism. While a majority of global citizens (i.e., 54%) believe that climate change is a very serious problem, key geographic regions, such as China and the United States, harbor less concern about climate change risk (Wike, 2016). Furthermore, recent polling data show that only 53% of Americans believe that human activities contribute to climate change, and about 28% of the American public believe that there is disagreement among scientists about whether or not climate change is happening (Howe, Mildenberger, Marlon, & Leiserowitz, 2015; Howe, Mildenberger, Marlon, & Leiserowitz, 2016). As a result, there exists a critical need to develop myriad climate change mitigation strategies aimed at addressing many sectors of society.
One area often overlooked by communication scholars is the role of for-profit and nonprofit organizations in climate change communication. As major contributors of greenhouse emissions (IPCC, 2014b; U.S. Department of Energy, 2010), and as influential public communicators, organizations are instrumental players in climate change mitigation. Indeed, many organizations have recognized the importance of energy conservation, not only as a method of combating climate change risks, but also as a way to cut costs and improve productivity and efficiency (Carrico & Riemer, 2011). However, the complexity of organizational interests and the diverse nature of public audiences pose challenges for effective climate change communication.
First, climate change communication can occur within organizations, where members’ individual behaviors and beliefs can positively affect their organization’s energy consumption. However, the effectiveness of persuasive climate change messaging can depend on organizational members’ prior attitudes and beliefs about climate change and environmental sustainability (Hart & Nisbet, 2012). Second, organizations can communicate environmental issues directly to stakeholders and the public at large—though communication can be complicated by the facts that some organizations benefit from instilling doubt about the science of climate change and popular communication strategies aimed at reducing climate change denial are challenged by diverse public audiences. Further, these communication strategies are often not constructed in a vacuum, but rather via interorganizational collaboration, which presents additional elements of complexity to climate change communication. Thus, the complex nature of organizational-based climate change communication allows organizations to play an important—yet sometimes detrimental—role in climate change communication. As an overview of organizational climate change communication, this article explores these issues further, while providing insight into future research.
Intraorganization Energy Conservation Communication
We first consider the role of organizations in communicating environmental action from within and the challenges that are often faced in doing so. As a critical player in climate change mitigation, there has been an increased focus on how organizations affect energy conservation. Top-down structural changes, such as retrofitting buildings with energy-efficient features (Marans & Edelstein, 2010), using energy-efficient materials on new construction (Kats, 2006), and changing workflow procedures and product use for greater productivity and efficiency (Carrico & Riemer, 2011), have been identified as important factors for organization-based climate change mitigation. However, individual actions are instrumental to ensuring that such top-down approaches achieve their desired goal (Dietz, Gardner, Gilligan, Stern, & Vandenbergh, 2009; Lutzenhiser, 1993). As a result, many organizations are encouraging their members to adopt energy conservation behaviors.
Encouraging sustainability, however, can be challenged by barriers present in organizational contexts. These barriers include (a) not having a financial stake in workplace energy consumption; (b) lacking effective feedback information on the progress of the conservation campaign; and (c) having work appliances often used by multiple employees, which may diminish the degree to which employees feel that they can individually affect energy consumption (Carrico & Riemer, 2011). In addition, organizational members who hold negative attitudes and beliefs regarding environmental sustainability and climate change science might be resistant to organizational efforts to change energy behavior and raise awareness of climate change. Given these barriers, to what extent might energy conservation/sustainability campaigns within large organizations encourage energy conservation behaviors among members?
In answering this question, scholars have highlighted the importance of role models, organizational culture, sense of community, organizational facilities and operation, and organizational governance in encouraging pro-environmental behaviors (Andrews & Johnson, 2016; Dixon, Deline, McComas, Chambliss, & Hoffman, 2015a; Higgs & McMillan, 2006). Drawing on these findings, Young et al. (2015) suggest that the factors influencing organizational members’ environmental behavior change involves three broad categories: namely, individual, group, and organizational factors. This employee pro-environmental (e-PEB) framework emphasizes the collective importance of organizational and individual responsibilities in enacting behavior change. At the organizational level, structural initiatives, such as employer-provided bicycle facilities or transportation services (Cairns, Newson, & Davis, 2010; Holland, Aarts, & Langendam, 2006; Vanhouten, Nau, & Merrigan, 1981; Wu, DiGiacomo, & Kingstone, 2013), can act as tools for improved behavioral efficacy such that members feel that they have the capability of performing pro-environmental behaviors. Managerial support for pro-environmental behaviors acts in a similar manner by setting top-down examples of how organizational members should engage in environmental behaviors (Cairns et al., 2010; Higgs & McMillan, 2006).
However, it is recognized that a top-down approach alone is likely not enough for effective behavior change. At the individual and group levels, employee awareness and education of environmental actions (Boiral, 2006), financial incentives (Cairns et al., 2010), and feedback from their participation in pro-environmental behaviors appear just as vital to enacting pro-environmental behavior change as organization-level factors. For example, feedback—where individuals or organizational groups receive information about a performed behavior collected over a period of time—has been reported as an effective method for promoting energy conservation within residential (Abrahamse, Steg, Vlek, & Rothengatter, 2005; Seligman & Darley, 1977) and organizational contexts (Carrico & Riemer, 2011).
However, the type of feedback given might matter in its predictive power. For example, reviews of feedback interventions are mixed, with some finding energy savings ranges of 1.1% to 20%, but others finding no significant effect (Fischer, 2008; Abrahamse et al., 2005). As Fischer (2008) argues, ineffective feedback campaigns could be due to their failure to (a) capture attention and successfully demonstrate a causal link between actions and energy savings, and (b) involve greater motivations that appeal to individuals, like cost savings or competition. Indeed, fostering participation in and directing attention toward climate change/energy sustainability campaigns are challenging within organizational contexts. Recent research, however, suggests that comparative feedback interventions, in which one person’s energy conservation behaviors are compared to another’s, can potentially solve these problems (Dixon, Deline, McComas, Chambliss, & Hoffman, 2015b). Comparative feedback draws on people’s motivation to outperform one another. Specifically, feedback from other groups or individuals can foster competitive feelings among those who access the information, which in turn can influence task performance (Mitchell, Rothman, & Liden, 1985). In fact, even the expectation of having one’s performance compared to the performance of others motivates an improvement in performance (Jackson & Zedeck, 1982; Shalley, Oldhman, & Porac, 1987). Organizational energy research has found that organizational members who have access to feedback information on their own energy consumption and information on the energy consumption of others increase their energy conservation behavior (Dixon et al., 2015b; Siero, Bakker, Dekker, & Marcel, 1996). In one study, organizational members belonging to specific buildings engaged in friendly competition to outperform other buildings in energy conservation (Dixon et al., 2015b). Feedback information was delivered through multiple formats—email, posters, and websites—to maximize exposure. Over the year-long campaign, participating buildings reduced their electrical energy consumption by over 6%, while increasing their self-reported energy conservation behavior. Interestingly, attitudes and intentions toward environmental behaviors did not change as a result of the comparative feedback intervention, suggesting that behavior change can take place without changes to attitudes or intentions, and that comparative feedback might be a desirable intervention for organizational members without strong pro-environmental attitudes and intentions. This is an important finding since it suggests that comparative feedback can motivate individuals with less favorable attitudes or intentions toward performing energy conservation behaviors—a finding consistent with Young et al.’s (2015) review of cross-national organizational behavior interventions.
Organizational Culture and Future Research: Proposal of an Integrated Model
While the factors associated with intraorganizational pro-environmental communication, such as comparative feedback, show a pathway for pro-environmental behavior change, an organization’s culture might also shape how and to what extent members engage in intraorganizational environmental communication (Young et al., 2015). For instance, one critical issue to consider is that it cannot be assumed that organizations always align themselves with a pro-environmental stance. Indeed, organizations that are perceived to be threatened by climate mitigation policies, such as those in the fossil fuel industry, have adopted organizational cultures that promote unfavorable views of climate change science and environmental policy (van den Hove, Menestrel, & Bettignies, 2002). While reviews suggest little evidence that organizational culture affects sustainability behavior (Tudor, Barr, & Gilg, 2008; Young et al., 2015), there is only limited review on organizations whose culture encompasses more hostile views toward climate change science and mitigation efforts. Future research can explore this issue more. Specifically, as comparative feedback interventions suggest that environmental behavior change can be influenced despite influencing attitudes (Dixon et al., 2015b; Siero, Bakker, Dekker, & Marcel, 1996), one could investigate whether such an intervention could successfully affect pro-environmental behaviors within organizations with anti–climate change views.
To encourage greater research in this area, we propose an integrated conceptual model of intraorganizational communication that combines the work by Young et al. (2015) and Tudor et al. (2008) (see Figure 1). Specifically, future research in intraorganizational climate change communication should consider the multilevel factors that directly and indirectly affect organizational members’ environmental behaviors and beliefs.
Organizations and Public Communication Efforts
In addition to intraorganizational climate change communication, it is important to consider the collaborative networks that exist between organizations and how they affect public communication efforts. Two streams of organizations are highlighted here—one involving companies that question the scientific legitimacy of climate change; the other involving organizations that recognize the science and risks posed by climate change. In both streams, these organizations have played a role in communication efforts directed not only to their organizational members, but to the public at large. In the following sections, we synthesize research on these two streams, the nature of their communication, as well as their effects on the general public.
Fossil Fuel Organizations and Front Groups: Shifting Sentiments
Historically, many organizations within the fossil fuel industry have aligned themselves as critics of climate change science and policy (Begley, Conant, Stein, Clift, & Philips, 2007; Gelbspan, 1997; Goodell, 2007; Dunlap & McCright, 2011). Corporations such as ExxonMobil, as well as industry associations such as electric utilities and automotive industries, have done so through active collaboration with think tanks and front groups that actively promote climate change denial. For example, fossil fuel industry leaders, including ExxonMobil, funded the lobbying group Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which actively opposed the 2001 Kyoto Protocol and more generally opposed policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Dunlap & McCright, 2011). The coalition dissolved in 2002 following President George W. Bush’s withdrawal of the United States from the Kyoto process, citing that its mission of opposing mandatory cuts in emissions had been achieved (Dorsey, 2007; Dunlap & McCright, 2011; Pooley, 2010). In a similar manner, the National Coal Association, Western Fuels Association, and Edison Electrical Institute formed the Information Council on the Environment (ICE) to promote doubt surrounding climate change science (Dunlap & McCright, 2011). ICE, like GCC, ran media campaigns aimed at heightening uncertainty around the science of climate change (Pooley, 2010). One print advertisement depicted a flat Earth with the headline, “Some say the Earth is warming. Some also said the Earth was flat” (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009, p. 70). ICE ultimately dissolved following a news leak of its strategic plans (Dunlap & McCright, 2011). However, this hasn’t stopped other organizations from using these strategies. For example, the Cooler Heads Coalition, financed by the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, currently publishes material designed to sow doubt about climate change science. Critics have likened these approaches as similar to the tobacco industry’s concerted effort to dispute scientific findings on tobacco’s link to cancer, such as promoting a false balance between unevenly supported claims (Dorsey, 2007, Oreskes & Conway, 2011).
Efforts by these organizations to cast doubt on an area where science largely agrees can have broad impact on public perception of science. For instance, experimental studies report that presenting dissent about an area of scientific certainty, like climate change or vaccination, can increase scientific uncertainty among readers by creating the impression that scientists are divided when in fact that is not the case (Dixon & Clarke, 2013). While fossil fuel industries and front groups have relied on false balance messaging as a strategic ploy for increasing uncertainty, these findings are particularly problematic given the proliferation of balanced reporting of climate change science among mainstream news media (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004).
However, despite involvement in manufacturing climate change doubt, shifting sentiment toward climate change has been noted among fossil fuel industry leaders. Most notably, ExxonMobil has publically acknowledged that “the risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” suggesting a change in its public relations strategy toward climate change communication (http://corporate.exxonmobil.com/en/current-issues/climate-policy/climate-perspectives/our-position). This about face on climate change communication policies might reflect new disapproval from public relations firms that have recently announced their unwillingness to do business with organizations aiming to spread doubt on the science of climate change (The Guardian, 2014). It could also be reflected in changes in investment opportunities and consumer demand.
Indeed, ExxonMobil’s new strategy might reflect its awareness of the benefits that so-called green marketing can have for its company’s interests. In fact, many organizations have begun treating climate change as an opportunity for their business through investments in renewable energy (Ihlen, 2009). Sharma and Vredenburg (1998) provide empirical evidence that a proactive environmental strategy may financially benefit companies, both in terms of potential investors and the public as a whole. For example, the increasing popularity of socially responsible investing (SRI) indicates that environmental performance has been an important indicator to investors, along with financial performance, when making their decisions. That is, disclosing pro-environmental performance can attract investors’ attention (Monks, Miller, & Cook, 2004). On the other hand, however, researchers also found immediate negative responses from the market toward corporations’ carbon disclosures, with an implication that investors perceived the high cost of coping with climate change (Lee, Park, & Klassen, 2015). As increasing numbers of corporations are taking responsibility for adaptation to climate change, and more regulations are issued to demand companies to disclose their environmental performance, periodic disclosure may help to neutralize the negative responses from the market (Lee et al., 2015; Stanny & Ely, 2008; Tagesson, Blank, Broberg, & Collin, 2009).
Impacts on Public Opinion and Decision Making
An organization’s commitment to environmental sustainability can also affect consumer perceptions and decision-making (Boiral, 2006). For instance, research finds that cultivating a green image can help increase the level of trust toward a company (Hoffman, 2001). As Bonini and Oppenheim (2008) suggested from a global survey, consumers’ trust of a company and willingness to purchase its products are affected by the company’s role in addressing climate change or environmental issues. Furthermore, research points to the sheer power of green marketing strategies, demonstrating that simply including the color green in products can prime one to consider natural, environmental, or healthy thoughts, which in turn can affect a person’s perception of the product. For example, Schuldt (2013) reported in an experiment that candy bars bearing green nutrition labels resulted in higher perceived healthfulness when compared to identical candy bars with different colored labels. Therefore, green marketing strategies not only enhance the image of a company, but they also affect consumer’s judgment and decision-making.
In this sense, climate change can be viewed as more of a business opportunity than the sincere concern about environmental sustainability often demonstrated by environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs). On the other hand, general for-profit companies can attempt sincerity in their environmental sustainability advocacy by encouraging government action, such as developing legislation or amending regulations including government-sponsored research and design, as well as tax exemption for environmental technology. However, such maneuvers are typically done with reputation management and company interests in mind. As Boiral (2006) suggested, social-political actions, including efforts that affect political, economic, and regulations on climate change, aim at enhancing organizations’ image, legitimacy, and political gains. These companies, notably GE, can pressure the government to develop more stringent climate policies or strengthen regulations on issues that might benefit their organization. Doing so can further strengthen their identity as being a committed member of the green movement—a trait that many consumers view as key to developing trust in a company.
Interorganizational Network and Collaboration
Another important element in organizational climate change communication involves interorganizational collaboration. As commercial organizations continue to adopt more favorable stances on climate change and mitigation policy, there are also greater opportunities for interorganizational collaboration, similar to the collaborative efforts employed for climate change denialism. While governmental organizations have offered collaborative risk management plans, integrated legislation, and funding to deal with risks brought by climate change (Howes et al., 2015; Brummel, Nelson, & Jakes, 2012), there is limited research on the existing collaborations among commercial organizations, such as those in the energy sector. Companies like ConocoPhillips hold the idea that national and international regulation can help companies achieve meaningful carbon reduction (Ihlen, 2009). However, few companies have collaborated to push for regulation development. Collaborations among corporations can enhance their ability to adapt to current environmental change (Tompkins & Adger, 2004). Greater density of relationships among organizations may lead to larger collective action (Diani & McAdam, 2003). Therefore, more close collaborations among companies should be encouraged to address climate change. However, to do so, more research, particularly examining potential barriers to effective cross-organizational collaboration, should be explored.
In addition to general for-profit organizations, like those in the energy industry, ENGOs play a leading role in communicating about climate change to the public (Börzel & Buzogány, 2010). Specifically, pro-environmental organizations, whose messages broadly conform to the scientific consensus surrounding climate change, often engage in communication campaigns aimed at raising the public’s climate change awareness, changing environmental attitudes, and encouraging pro-environmental behaviors. For example, a 2013 article in The Guardian selected 10 climate campaigns that stood out from all climate change campaigns—all of them are developed and launched by ENGOs. However, there exist many challenges to communicating with diverse audiences. In the next sections, we highlight approaches used by ENGOs, taking note of the challenges that prominent communication strategies face when attempting to shape public opinion on climate change and how future research could help solve these issues.
Targeting the Public: The Complexities of Organization-Based Campaigns
ENGOs often use mass media campaigns in an effort to inform the public about environmental sustainability or change minds about climate change. Many ENGOs have noted the large gap between scientists and the public regarding climate change acceptance. Current polls, for example, show a stark difference in what scientists and the lay public believe about climate change, with nearly half of the U.S. public believing that climate change is not human caused, and about a third of the public erroneously believing that anthropogenic climate change is openly debated within the scientific community (Howe, Mildenberger, Marlon, & Leiserowitz, 2015; Howe, Mildenberger, Marlon, & Leiserowitz, 2016). Many ENGOs have positioned themselves as important communicators tasked with reducing this gap between scientists and the lay public.
ENGOs have used a variety of strategies in communicating to the public. They often use framing strategies, fear appeals, humor, or other emotional arguments. Such messaging strategies can be effective at garnering attention, as well as affecting attitudes. For instance, Spence & Pidgeon (2010) indicated people perceive climate change as more severe and their attitude toward climate change mitigation is more positive after exposure to messages emphasizing the gains produced through climate change mitigation. Their findings also shed light on the value of loss-framed messages that emphasize the losses of not mitigating climate change, and suggest such messaging could be more memorable to readers due to their elicitation of fear. In this vein, some ENGOs employ message framing by highlighting environmental catastrophes as a way of raising public awareness of environmental risks. For example, environmental groups’ attention to oil spill incidents such as that of the Sea Empress (1996) and the MV Braer (1993) helped raise public awareness of the risks to sea life from the spilled oil (Scott & Parsons, 2005). Other strategies involve using images to illustrate the long-term consequences of climate change inaction. These messages tend to address the urgency and the severity of climate change. As claimed by Nisbet (2009), framing is likely to drive public engagement, and ultimately, action that changes policy.
However, it should be recognized that prominent message strategies used by ENGOs can sometimes be ineffective, or even backfire with key audiences. One concern with climate change messaging is that people often rely on their political or cultural predispositions when processing new information. As a result, new information that disconfirms strongly held beliefs is often processed in a biased manner, such that it reinforces people’s predispositions, resulting in motivated reasoning (Lodge & Taber, 2013). Indeed, climate change, particularly in the United States, has become a highly politicized issue, such that those with conservative political leanings are more likely to be skeptical of climate science (Funk & Rainie, 2015). Furthermore, opposition to climate change science has in many respects become an identity-expressive value for conservatives, whereby it functions as an extension of their political ideology (Kahan, 2013). As a result, persuasive attempts made to correct these beliefs could be met with resistance by those who feel that such messages challenge their value or political predispositions, which in turn could render a messaging campaign ineffective, as already noted. For example, Hart and Nisbet (2012) notably explored framing’s effect on climate change polarization, finding that high social distance–framed climate change messages backfire with political conservatives. Specifically, messages that focused on socially distant victims of climate change, such as individuals affected in areas geographically far from where the participants reside, increased political polarization surrounding support for climate change mitigation policies. Republicans exposed to the high social distance message reported lower support for climate change mitigation policies when compared to Republicans receiving no message at all. Boomerang effects such as this, whereby an effect occurs opposite to the strategic intent of the message (Byrne & Hart, 2009), are common in other contexts, including antismoking messages (Wolburg, 2006), antilittering messages (Reich & Robertson, 1979), and vaccines (Nyhan et al., 2014).
Combating Campaign Message Resistance: Highlighting a Consensus?
One strategy to emerge recently in climate change communication is consensus messaging, which has been offered as a remedy to message backfiring. Current estimates suggest about 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring and is human caused (Anderegg et al., 2010). Given the one-sided support among scientists for such a publicly divisive issue, scholars have proposed that highlighting this consensus could help increase public understanding of climate change and reduce the gap between the lay and expert communities (van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, & Maibach, 2015). As a result, ENGOs have increasingly begun using consensus messaging as a tactic for communicating climate change, notably Skeptical Science’s Consensus Project, a nonprofit, volunteer-run science education organization.
Several notable studies have reported evidence supporting the utility of consensus messaging. In one study, Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Vaughan (2013) observed that people’s beliefs about climate change were largely the product of what they thought scientists believed. Participants presented with a short message emphasizing that scientists overwhelmingly agree on climate change science reported a significantly higher acceptance of human-caused climate change than control participants. These findings were significant, in that they show consensus messages to be more resilient toward audiences likely to resist the messages, such as those with strong free-market beliefs. Recent work reports consistency with the finding of Lewandowsky et al. (2013) that consensus messaging not only raises consensus estimates (Myers, Maibach, Peters, & Leiserowitz, 2015, van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, & Maibach, 2014), but can also indirectly affect beliefs, risk perception, and mitigation support (van der Linden et al., 2015). As with Lewandowsky et al. (2013), these studies show simple consensus messages to be particularly effective for audiences who are typically skeptical of climate change, such as political conservatives (Funk & Rainie, 2015). As a result, consensus messaging could be considered more resilient to ideological-based motivated reasoning (Lewandowsky et al., 2013; van der Linden et al., 2015), which would place this messaging tactic as one of the more effective approaches to communicating climate change to skeptical audiences.
Questions on Consensus Messaging and Future Outlook for ENGO Campaigns
While initial findings point to consensus messaging as a viable tactic for ENGOs to use in their climate change communication repertoire, there are still lingering questions on how a simple consensus message can overcome resistance from skeptical audiences (e.g., climate change unbelievers). As previously mentioned, research has shown that individuals’ preexisting values or worldviews often play a role in processing new information (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011). Specifically, people process and accept information consistent with their ideology or belief, while often rejecting information that conflicts with preexisting beliefs to avoid cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957; Lodge & Taber, 2013).
Recent work on consensus messaging might indicate that such resistance could occur with consensus messaging. For example, Deryugina and Shurchkov (2016) report that consensus messaging failed to affect conservatives’ beliefs about anthropogenic climate change or policy support, while also noting that consensus messaging failed to reduce belief gaps between liberals and conservatives. Cook and Lewandowsky’s (2016) recent finding suggests that consensus messaging backfires with Americans who believe strongly in free-market ideology, thus increasing their skeptical views of human-caused climate change. However, this finding differed from their Australian sample, which showed consensus messaging to be most effective for those with strong free-market ideology. While the backfiring effect bolsters critics’ contention that consensus messages might increase polarization (Kahan, 2015), the contradictory finding among Australian samples suggest that consensus messaging’s effects are likely far more nuanced than scholars on both ends of the debate envision. In particular, consensus messaging effects could vary by a number of factors not extensively researched, including country of origin and people’s prior scientific beliefs.
First, Cook and Lewandowsky’s (2016) contradictory findings between American and Australian samples suggest that consensus message effects might be conditioned by an audience’s country of origin. In the United States, conservative skepticism of climate change occurred primarily because of fears that climate mitigation policies would threaten free-market commerce due to increased government oversight and regulations (McCright & Dunlap, 2011). The link between free-market ideology and climate skepticism might be strongest in countries where climate change is a deeply partisan issue, like in the United States, but less so for other countries where the issue is less politically polarized. Thus, a consensus message could prove useful for ENGO’s targeting audiences in countries without strong political polarization of climate change. On the other hand, audiences from countries where climate change is deeply partisan might experience greater resistance to the message.
However, recent findings with U.S. samples do show consensus messaging to be particularly effective for conservatives (Myers, Maibach, Peters, & Leiserowitz, 2015, van der Linden et al., 2014, 2015). However, their findings report the effect of consensus message based on political ideology or party affiliation, but not on one’s prior climate change beliefs. While it is reasonable to state that U.S. conservatives are more likely to be skeptical of climate change science than moderates or liberals, a sizeable number of conservatives do believe that climate change is occurring and human caused (e.g., 29%; Funk & Rainie, 2015). As a result, examining the effect of a consensus message strictly by political ideology might not fully account for the variance of one’s prior beliefs, which might veil an important nuance of consensus message effects. Therefore, by taking both political ideology and prior beliefs into account, a more complete picture of consensus messaging can be observed. Importantly, doing so can determine whether the effects of a consensus message vary based on both political ideology and prior beliefs, such that it might be particularly effective for those across the political spectrum who already believe in climate change science, but backfire for those (particularly conservatives) who deny climate change science. More research in this area could provide direction for ENGOs on the best practices for communicating climate change and environmental sustainability to the public.
Furthermore, consensus messaging could be enhanced with other message features, such as targeted narratives involving a brief story or testimonial from a climate scientist designed to resonate with audiences most likely to resist persuasive attempts. In fact, narratives appear helpful in reducing psychological reactance and counterarguing to persuasive messaging (Moyer-Guse & Nabi, 2010). As a result, a consensus message featuring scientist narratives targeted to a specific audience might reduce potential suppressors like reactance or counterarguing, which in turn allows consensus messaging to influence audiences most likely to engage in resistance, such as climate change skeptics. One method for targeting conservative climate change audiences is to frame messages with conservative moral values, such as purity or sanctity, which has some success at reducing conservative climate change skepticism (Feinberg & Willer, 2013). However, addressing the core factors behind conservative skepticism—perceived threats to the free market—might be the most effective method (Campbell & Kay, 2014; McCright & Dunlap, 2011). Including a scientist narrative that emphasizes free-market solutions to climate change—thus targeting the core factor behind conservative skepticism—might address concerns that conservatives have about climate change mitigation policy, which in turn could reduce their skepticism in the science of climate change and make the consensus message more effective. Therefore, future research should explore if such a messaging approach—one that involves the interaction of a consensus message with a more value consistent narrative—provides direction for ENGOs in their campaigns to enact greater public awareness and support for climate mitigation.
Overall, ENGOs have recognized the importance of climate change communication. While some messaging strategies provide promise for raising public support for climate change mitigation, many are challenged at reaching their desired goal. The limitations and challenges of current messaging campaigns, then, require scholarly critique and commitment to researching remedies. Simply put, research on messaging strategies has yet to find the perfect strategy for raising climate change awareness and mitigation support. Future studies should help identify key factors in reducing motivated reasoning and eliciting greater message effectiveness for the audience segments that are most needed to be reached.
Overall, organizations play a significant, yet dynamic, diverse, and sometimes antagonistic role in climate change communication. On the one hand, communication resources can be used for generating greater sustainability practices and climate change awareness within organizations. On the other hand, communication can occur from organizations to the public, where strategic messages can be designed to elicit greater climate change acceptance or, conversely, skepticism. The complex nature of organizations, then, makes climate change communication a difficult endeavor, challenged further by the diverse nature of public audiences.
Addressing this complexity requires new avenues for research. In intraorganizational contexts, future research can explore further how interventions can positively affect diverse organizations and their members. In considering the role of organizations’ public communication efforts, the conflicting findings in communication research on popular organizational campaigns, like consensus messaging, should encourage further inquiry, with an emphasis on improved measurement and instrumentation, consideration for external validity, and exploration of motivated reasoning among different audience segments. Doing so not only provides greater understanding of how organizations can positively influence public perception of climate change science and environmental sustainability, but also informs on best practices for countering messages produced by climate change skeptics and their organizations.
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