Keep talking about the environmental crisis, or risk losing support

The battle for hearts and minds continues when it comes to climate change. A new study shows that scientifically-based articles highlighting the emergency quickly fade from memory, and skeptical coverage quickly erodes trust in facts even faster. 

Researchers from Ohio State University have identified an alarming trend among the American public. Specifically, a tendency for accurate reports on the environmental crisis, grounded in evidence, to fade from memory at a rapid rate. 

white printer paper on brown wooden table

Furthermore, exposure to climate-skeptical coverage increases the speed at which people are prone to forget scientific reporting on the issue. If nothing else, this highlights the importance of ensuring that quality journalism in this field continues, and the need for local authorities and governments to press on and ramp up environmentally-focused public information campaigns. 

The results come from a study involving 2,898 online participants, who participated in four stages of an experiment during autumn 2020. The first part of this involved reading authentic articles in popular media reflecting scientific consensus on climate change. For the following two stages, participants were given either another scientific article, a climate-skeptic opinion piece, an article about the partisan nature of the climate debate, or an unrelated piece of writing.

The final step in the experiment was to ask all those that took part what their beliefs were about climate science and policy. At the end of each stage participants were also asked if they believed that climate change is happening and has a human cause. Attitudes were measured in terms of whether they favoured government action and renewable energy. 

Overall, accurate reporting did have an effect on everyone involved, and even caused a shift in political attitudes to favour parties, leaders and movements that want to act to protect the environment. However, these results were short-lived and largely disappeared by the end of the study. Among those who read climate-skeptical writing in the second stage, any gains made in the first step were reversed. Those who were given articles about the partisan debate exhibited no measurable change.

‘It was striking to us how amenable the subjects in our study were to what they read about climate change in our study. But what they learned faded very quickly,’ said Thomas Wood, Associate Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University. ‘What we found suggests that people need to hear the same accurate messages about climate change again and again. If they only hear it once, it recedes very quickly. The news media isn’t designed to act that way.

‘It is not the case that the American public does not respond to scientifically informed reporting when they are exposed to it. But even factually accurate science reporting recedes from people’s frame of reference very quickly,’ he continued. ‘Not only did science reporting change people’s factual understanding, it also moved their political preferences. It made them think that climate change was a pressing government concern that government should do more about.’

In 2020, Environment Journal published a feature on the discourse of climate denial, including how to recognise arguments looking to delay action on the crisis.




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