Political ideology drives perceptions of climate change messages

July 27, 2017

Nicole Lee, Matthew VanDyke, Appalachian State University Rachel Hutman

By Nicole Lee, North Carolina State University, Matthew VanDyke, Appalachian State University, and Rachel Hutman, W2O Group

Political ideology can predict how people perceive messages about polarized scientific issues. We conducted two Page-funded studies that examined the way climate change is framed and the impact of different message frames based on the audience’s political ideology. The results of the studies can help communicators choose effective messaging strategies when discussing issues related to climate change.

Three focus groups were completed with practitioners who communicate about climate change to understand their perceptions of message frames, how they choose which frames to use with different audiences and the ethical considerations associated with various frames. Next, we conducted an online experiment to examine the effectiveness of four prominent message frames and how ethical lay audiences perceive each frame.

The “psychological distance” of climate change—the perception that something will happen far in the future or that it will affect someone else far away—and political polarization have been major challenges in communicating the issue to the public. Message producers have tried many different ways to communicate climate change to motivate support for action.

Our research project sought to understand how practitioners and laypersons who deal with science communication perceive the ethics of such climate change frames.

The frames considered most effective by practitioners were economic and public health frames. Practitioners revealed they often avoid using the term climate change and discuss specific adaptation strategies rather than the causes of climate change or mitigation strategies.

Conversations also revealed that science communicators rarely consider ethical issues beyond being truthful and accurate. However, a few practitioners brought up issues of justice and how not all populations can adapt to climate change. Finally, both strategic decisions and professional constraints influence practitioners’ decision making when it comes to choosing message strategies. According to our results, some participants felt political pressure to communicate in certain ways, whether it was from their organization or audience.

Based on these findings, a survey-experiment was conducted to investigate how political ideology, type of message frame and organization type might influence perceptions of message ethicality, credibility and effectiveness. Results demonstrated that political ideology is indeed a robust predictor of perceptions of climate change messages. As liberalism decreased and conservatism increased, climate change messages—regardless of type of frame—were perceived as less ethical, less credible and less effective.

Although the relationship between ideology and climate change beliefs has been extensively documented, how ideology influences perceived ethics is a new contribution to theory and practice. When controlling for the influence of political ideology, climate change messages produced by a corporation were perceived as significantly more credible than messages produced by a government agency.

The project has practical implications for science communication professionals. For instance, findings suggest that practitioners do not always reflect on ethical considerations beyond the need to be truthful and accurate. Because many science communicators in public relations or outreach roles are former scientists or journalists, some may be adhering to the professional ethics of their former positions and not considering the role of communication in society and its consequences.

As for the experimental findings, there is still work to be done for practitioners communicating about climate change. The research suggests political ideology may override any intended effects message producers may have by discussing climate change from a specific perspective (e.g., as a public health, environmental, economic, or moral issue).

Perhaps discussing “climate change” is too politically loaded, and practitioners and researchers must work to understand, present and discuss climate change and its consequences in new ways that make one’s political ideology a less salient cue.


This project was among six research studies funded by the 2016 Page & Johnson Legacy Scholar Grants. For more information about this work, please email Nicole Lee at nmlee2@ncsu.edu.