Finding Common Ground in the Heated Debate on Climate Change

Alison Anderson's picture

A timely new Environmental Communication study by Alison Bowers (Virginia Tech), Martha Monroe and Damian Adams (both of University of Florida) analyses the potential for finding common ground in the climate change debate - ‘Climate change communication insights from cooperative Extension professionals in the US Southern states: Finding common ground.’

As the upcoming presidential election in the U.S. highlights major divides on climate change, Alison Bowers reflects on the challenges and possibilities.

The recently-released, annual State of the Climate report, led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, describes a set of record high temperatures. In 2015, greenhouse gases were at their highest levels on record, as were global surface temperatures, sea surface temperatures, and global sea levels. The report also detailed disturbing changes in the Arctic, a large algal bloom in the Pacific Ocean, continued glacial retreat, and above average tropical cyclone activity. Clearly, climate change continues to be a major global issue demanding decisive and immediate action.

In December 2015, at the Paris climate conference (COP21), representatives from over 190 countries created the Paris Agreement. The accord aims to keep the average global temperature rise to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. As part of the agreement, the world’s two top emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States, have suggested cutting emissions by 20% and 18% respectively. Six months after the Paris Agreement was announced, however, only 22 countries have ratified the agreement, falling far short of the number needed to make the agreement legally binding.

Signs of disagreement about climate change abound. In the United States, the upcoming presidential election spotlights the two very different sides of the climate change debate. Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has referred to climate change as a money-making hoax and asserts that he will end any U.S. support of the Paris Agreement and cut all funding for U.S. programs and actions aimed at addressing climate change. On the other hand, Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has made climate change a major part of her campaign, perhaps pushed by her rival in the primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders, who said “this election is about climate change.”

Recent data from the National Survey on Energy and Environment (NSEE), conducted by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College, suggest that while more Americans believe climate change is happening, those who do not are even more confident in their beliefs than they have ever been in the past. Survey results also show increased partisan divide, with Republicans more likely to express doubts about climate change.

The exigency of climate change coupled with its potentially polarizing nature leads to some pretty bleak pictures of the future and it would be easy to separate the world into two camps: those who support efforts to address climate change and those that don’t. This set-up would suggest that the war against climate change is a battle between two sides and will be won by whichever side can marshal more support and resources. However, climate change is a global issue, affecting everyone, regardless of whether or not a person thinks climate change is occurring or agrees on its causes. The consequences of doing nothing to address climate change are profound. Perhaps, rather than dividing the world into those believe in climate change and those who don’t, more might be accomplished by finding common environmental ground among all global citizens and using these areas of agreement to build a consensus around the best way to protect the earth.

Is there common ground among people with such seemingly divergent views on climate change? My recent article in Environmental Communication, “Climate change communication insights from cooperative Extension professionals in the US Southern states: Finding common ground,” was written with Dr. Martha Monroe and Dr. Damian Adams of the University of Florida to explore this potentially fertile question. We looked at comments made by cooperative Extension professionals as part of a survey assessing their perceptions of climate change. We qualitatively analyzed the comments to uncover emergent themes and discovered that even among people who report very different views on climate change, there are indeed areas of agreement.

The initial survey of Extension professionals in eight southeastern states in the U.S. included questions based on the “Global Warming’s Six Americas” framework developed by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The survey research team used responses to these questions to classify the Extension professionals as Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, or Dismissive. The comments from the survey, written in a Comment Box designed to solicit respondent feedback about the survey and the issue of climate change in general, provided confirmation of the assignment of these categories, e.g., Alarmed respondents expressed support for and worry about climate change, whereas Dismissive respondents demonstrated a lack of belief in anthropogenic climate change. Surprisingly though, the comments also showed support across all or most of the categories around five themes: (1) confusion and mistrust abound, (2) educators face barriers to climate change education, (3) economic aspects of climate change are important, (4) we should be good stewards of Earth, and (5) adaptation is an agreeable strategy.

The first two themes, “confusion and mistrust abound” and “educators face barriers to climate change education,” suggest education about climate change could benefit everyone, regardless of their belief in climate change, and that those providing climate change education need support to address such a challenging problem. We had expected to see signs of confusion and mistrust among those questioning climate change, but were surprised that even those indicating strong beliefs in climate change and actions to address it were also experiencing some confusion and mistrust. This suggests that climate change educators face a difficult task as they interact with audiences who harbor misconceptions and may not know what sources of information to trust. The job of educating about climate change is further complicated by other barriers such as concern over audience reception to the subject, lack of time and resources, and problems with evaluating program success.

The other three themes uncovered in our data suggest possible ways to frame messages about climate change. Survey respondents often talked about the economic issues associated with climate change, indicating that making a link between addressing climate change and the potential economic benefits of doing so may be helpful. Several comments from respondents talked about adaptation to climate change and, again, developing education and communication materials that focus on adaptation may be a way to speak to different audiences about climate change. Finally, a theme present throughout many of the comments had to do with the idea that we all need to take care of our planet. Regardless of whether or not they agree with climate scientists, respondents clearly felt compelled to be good stewards. Tapping into this attitude can help promote strategies to mitigate climate change, as many such actions are good for the environment in general, not just to address climate change.

Climate change will continue to be a major global issue, and one that encounters resistance both from governments and individuals. Our research indicates potential areas of agreement even among people who believe very different things about climate change. Future research can explore if these areas of agreement can in fact be used to unite disparate audiences around a set of common beliefs.


Alison W. Bowers is a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech.