This week, host Daniel Raimi talks with Nathaniel Geiger, an assistant professor of communication science at Indiana University. Geiger discusses his research on how the public responds to climate change communication and activism. Geiger and Raimi review the recent history of advocacy on climate change; how current movements like the youth-led climate strike might shape public attitudes toward both climate policy and toward the activists themselves; and how climate communicators can effectively reach audiences who otherwise might not engage in the climate change conversation.
Listen to the Podcast
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Dr. Nathaniel Geiger, assistant professor of communication science at Indiana University. Nathan studies, among other things, how the public responds to communication around climate change. We’ll talk about the recent history of advocacy on climate change and how recent movements like the youth-led climate strike might shape public attitudes toward climate policy, along with public attitudes about the activists themselves. I’ll also ask Nathan about communicating with a wide range of audiences about climate issues, and much more. Stay with us.
Okay. Nathan Geiger from Indiana University. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Daniel Raimi: So Nathan, we're going to talk today about climate activism, and particularly about the recent protests and movements that we've seen led by young people and others in the United States and around the world. But before we get into the substance of our conversation, I want to ask you the same question that we ask everyone who comes on the show, which is how did you end up working on these topics, working on environment and climate change?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, I think that's a great question and I've thought about this a lot. What actually motivated me—and I guess my naive answer before I thought about this as much as I had would be just to question why isn't everybody engaged with these things? Because to me it just seems like something that is an important issue that we should all be involved with. But I think, thinking about my life and what was different that motivated me to get engaged with these things in the first place, I think I grew up and became aware of the issue of climate change and environmental issues, and I think I had learned about these things and gained an understanding of them.
So I already had this concern. And then after I graduated from college, I took a year off before I started grad school. And at the time I was thinking about what I wanted to do in grad school and I wasn't really sure. I had this passion for environmental stuff, but there was this odd weather just following me around everywhere in 2011. So, first I was in Texas for the summer and it was the hottest summer on record. It was regularly 105, 110 for days, weeks, months at a time. I think it just completely destroyed the record for number of days above a hundred degrees in Austin.
And then I went over to Thailand to teach English and as I was starting to work on my grad school applications, there's this huge flood there that was the most expensive flood to ever hit an industrialized country. It's one thing to hear about this in the news, but it's another thing to be there and to have the area that you're living in basically underwater for two months, and to have school canceled for two months. And I think, after seeing this stuff, it made me aware on a more visceral level of how crazy it was that we weren't really taking adequate action to address some of these environmental challenges. And what sort of negative effects this is going to have in our society in the future if we didn't step it up.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Okay. So as I mentioned, we are going to talk about climate activism. We're going to talk about the climate strike movement led by Greta Thunberg and other young people around the world, but before this most recent round of activism on climate change, there have been certainly other major efforts in the past to raise the profile of the issue as a political and policy priority. Can you give us a little bit of background on what you see as some of the most important events leading up to today?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, certainly. So I think that there's definitely been increased public mobilization over the past few years with regard to climate change. We saw 10 years ago, there's this passing trade bill working its way through Congress, eventually it didn't end up passing,
Daniel Raimi: Right. This was the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill.
Nathan Geiger: Right, right, exactly. And I think some scholars basically claimed that one of the main limiting factors that might have stopped it from passing was the lack of significant public mobilization around taking action on climate change. And so I think that started to change over the last five years or so. We've seen several large marches in major cities such as in New York City, back in 2014, there was a march there for action on climate change. I saw the figure of number of participants at around 400,000, and then there's similarly another march, same name, People's Climate March, that happened three years later in DC.
And I actually went down there for that because I was living in Pennsylvania at the time. So, there was a bus that was chartered and a bunch of us went down there and we had some July weather in April, which was crazy. But yeah, that was a pretty huge march. And more recently I've seen the Sunrise Movement, seems like they've been putting together some great stuff in terms of putting pressure on politicians and the media to raise the priority of this issue.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Great. That's helpful. And one of the things that I know you've looked at closely is how climate protest movements affect public opinion towards the protesters themselves and towards the climate strikers themselves in the place of the climate strikes. So, why do you think that question is important? Why should we be paying attention to it? And what are some of the things you find about public opinion towards those who take part in these activist events?
Nathan Geiger: Right. So, I think to start out with talking about why public opinion is important—just to reiterate that this is the perspective looking at the idea that grassroots engagement might be one of the key factors that is going to help determine whether or not significant climate change policies are passed. The extent to which there is this grassroots engagement or not is going to put pressure on politicians to get something done or perhaps not to get something done, depending on the nature of the engagement.
But another thing is, it's also important to look at how these forms of large scale public engagement actually influence other members of the public who aren't engaged themselves. So, does it help motivate them to then themselves get engaged? Or does it turn them off and potentially have the opposite effect, scare them off from the idea of taking action on climate change.
And so that was what we were looking at here, was what are the effects of some of these marches on other people who are not previously necessarily getting engaged. And so in this work we focused on two particular marches which happened on back-to-back weekends in 2017. We focused on the People's Climate March and the March for Science, which happened on back-to-back Saturdays in 2017 in April.
And so basically we did what's called a trend study, which is basically—we looked at a sample of people immediately before the marches, and then we looked at a sample of people drawn from the same population immediately after the marches. And we wanted to look at—in what aspects public opinion might have changed before the marches versus after the marches.
And so what we found: we found some potential changes that seem to have occurred, potentially as a result of the marches, and we found some aspects in which public opinion didn't change. And so to start out with talking about the potential changes, we found that after the marches, climate advocates, climate activists, people who are engaged with climate change, seemed to be perceived less negatively after the marches versus before the marches. And in particular, this seemed to relate to people's perceptions of marchers as being arrogant, dictatorial—all those perceptions decreased after the marches.
The second thing that we found that there was a change in was, we found that after the marches, people were less pessimistic about the ability of large groups of people in society to get together and work together on solving large problems like climate change. And interestingly, the particular subset of the population in which this change was the strongest was actually the opposite of what we'd expected.
So, we had anticipated that people who consumed liberal media might be the people that were most likely to gain a more positive outcome from the marches, right? Because liberal-leaning media might be basically covering the marches more positively. They might be showing the marchers in a more favorable light. But interestingly, what we found was when it came to this pessimism being reduced, it was actually the exact opposite. We found that consumers of liberal media before the marches, they were more optimistic than consumers of conservative-leaning media.
But after the marches, we found that difference had gone away. So, it was actually the people consuming the conservative-leaning media that had improved the most on decreasing their pessimism. And so, there was interestingly this depolarizing effect, suggesting that the marches were able to break through some of these echo chambers and media bubbles and actually connect with a different audience.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's super interesting. And I'm going to ask you later more about that, and communicating to different segments of the public and what might be effective there. But before we go forward, I want to ask you about the results of this research in terms of how it affected people's opinions on the need for collective action or public policies or voting for politicians who see climate change as a priority. So, what did you find in terms of advancing that goal of accomplishing or implementing public strategies to address climate?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting question. And so I should start out by saying that some of these outcomes that I had previously discussed seem to be predictive of potentially later changes in willingness to take collective action or willingness to support policies, and so we anticipated here that we might find some changes on those outcomes in these studies too. And in our particular studies, however, we didn't find any immediate changes in those outcomes, which is sort of interesting.
It's to some extent showing the limitations of these marches. But I think it's also interesting in that we don't really have an accurate sense of the timeframe in which these psychological processes change. And so, this is saying—okay, immediately after the marches, people were not planning necessarily to go out and take more action. But it could very well be that they might not be planning to go out and take action because the opportunities haven't presented themselves yet.
So, it could be that if we had gone out and asked these people, collected another survey three or four months down the road, that we might see some changes. It's really hard to say. So, I think this speaks to the need that we need to do more research to look at the timeframe in which people get motivated to take action, what motivates them, and might these changes that we saw lead to action maybe down the road.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And one quick technical question that I should have asked you up front and I'm just realizing now that I omitted. The survey that you carried out, was it a nationally representative sample or was it a convenient sample? Can you talk just briefly about the sample group?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, that's a great question. I think this is really important to think about. So, what we did here was we used a common survey collection software that's commonly used in the social sciences called Amazon's Mechanical Turk. And so this is not a fully nationally representative sample. The sample respondents tend to be on average, a little bit more liberal than the general public and a little bit younger than the general public.
But what's helpful about using this sample is that we sort of know this up front, but we can control for these factors, we can control for the fact that the sample might be biased in certain ways and importantly, although we might have a slight under representation of conservatives and of older people, we do have quite a few political conservatives and quite a few older people in our sample as well. So by being aware of the limitations of this sample, we're able to look at how is this influencing people across the political spectrum or across the range of ages, educations, et cetera.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Yeah, that's really helpful. Thanks. So let's move on now and talk about the most recent in the news climate movement, which is, I think it's safe to say, the climate strike movement, at least internationally. The climate strike movement has been quite large,growing rapidly in the last year or so. Greta Thunberg, the teenager from Sweden, is the most prominent leader of that movement.
Do you have any intuition as to how a youth-led movement might be received differently by the public than previous efforts who were led by adults? You know, folks like Al Gore or other prominent leaders who are of a different generation. So, how might that generational factor affect things?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, I think that is a really interesting question and I would love to see more empirical data on this, which I imagine will potentially be coming out. Just sort of off the top of my head, one thing that I find to be really interesting with regard to the youth-led movement is how people portray climate advocates and how it varies based on who is getting involved.
And so I think what you often see is that people will portray those who want to take action on climate change. So, if you're somebody who's trying to discourage taking action on climate change, one way that you might have to demobilize action would be to say, "Oh, these people who are promoting action are bad, nefarious people and they're doing this for bad reasons." And I think that really falls apart when you're seeing teenagers, young people being the people that are the standard bearers for this stuff. It just doesn't work to call them bad people or saying that they're manipulative.
And so what we're seeing instead, and what you might expect to see is that if you're going to portray them negatively, you would fall back on calling them naive or saying, "Yeah, these people are well meaning, but they just don't really know what they're talking about." And so that's an interesting transition in how the marchers or advocates might be portrayed negatively, and potentially calling them naive might actually not be quite as effective as saying that they are manipulative, arrogant, or people that want to control you in some way.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting. So one of the things that I saw coming out from critics of Thunberg and other young people was the idea that somehow their parents might be manipulating them, in some way, and it's also worth pointing out that the logical explanation that you just gave, which makes a lot of sense, doesn't necessarily stop people from being cruel on places like social media.
So, there were lots of really quite gross things said about Greta Thunberg and some other activists on Twitter. Of course, Twitter is a place where gross things tend to happen more often than they should. But, yeah, that was one thing that I observed in the public reaction to her and to the climate strikes.
Nathan Geiger: Yeah. I think it's always a little bit disappointing to get into some of these dark corners of the internet. But I see it as inevitable, unfortunately, that whenever anybody's pushing for positive change in society, that there will be people that are trying to find a way to criticize them. So, I think it's important to recognize that's going to happen up front and figure out—if you are the person trying to promote that positive change, how can you defuse that criticism the best you can?
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, for sure. So another thing that I observed ... So here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live, there was a climate strike a couple months ago and I went down to check it out, and I was really heartened by the amount of attention that the topic was getting from young people. It's cool to see so much interest in such an important topic. One of the things that I noticed and was a little surprised and slightly concerned by was the direness of some of the messages that were conveyed.
So there were actually a couple young people who were holding signs that said things to the effect of, "You will die of old age." Talking to me, an old person. "And I will die of climate change." So, that type of dire messaging, it's not necessarily supported by the research that's out there, but it is quite motivating, I would imagine. So what's your sense of how those dire messages would be received by a broad audience and what their effect might be?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. It seems that with some of the rhetoric around climate change, that we're starting to see this emerging rhetoric that's talking about generational equity, intergenerational justice—as one of the democratic candidates for president, Mayor Pete, as we call them here in Indiana, he talks about intergenerational justice. And I think we're starting to see this discussion emerge a little bit more about having this potential generational gap in terms of values or outcomes. And I'm not really sure the extent to which that's something that people see as a main factor in society.
But I think certainly that having these sorts of messages saying, "Oh, if you're from the older generation, you're not going to be affected by this. I'm going to be affected by this as a member of the younger generation." I think that this is something that might exacerbate this divide or make this generational identity more salient. And so I think that it could potentially have a number of different effects.
It could on the one hand be really motivating to young people. If you see yourself as part of this group that is being under siege by this other group, that's something that, in general, the research shows tends to have an effect. But it's also an interesting question because everybody who is young in our society right now all have parents, and most people who are older in our society have children or grandchildren who are younger, and so it's interesting, as people are concerned about their children or grandchildren—would this messaging promote their concern or would they perceive it as too confrontational, and maybe it would turn them off? Which I think is an interesting question. It could be thought about a little more and maybe some data could be collected on that.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that leads right into the next thing that I wanted to ask, and maybe the answer is the same, which is that we don't know yet and we need more data. But the thing that I was wondering about is—I think a lot of people are wrestling with how to walk the very fine line between communicating that climate change is a big challenge, it's a big problem, but also not being overly apocalyptic and perhaps turning people off in a couple of different ways. The apocalyptic messaging could maybe inflame some who are inclined to not want to take action on climate change, but they could also give the idea that that we're doomed and there's nothing that can be done, and it's all over if we don't cut emissions to zero by the year 2030 or 2040 or whatever year you want to choose.
So, how do you think, as a communications expert, how do you think about striking that balance between communicating the importance of the issue, but also not scaring people off or making them turn away?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, I think that's a great question, and I think I should start out by saying that there is some disagreement among communication experts about what the best way is to handle this. I think that some people's opinion is that we shouldn't be truthful with the public because the public can't handle the truth, that it would be too scary and turn people off. And I disagree with that. I do think it's important to be honest with people and tell them this is a dire situation. This is something that is important.
But I also think it's important to balance that message with a particular sort of positive message, in the sense of actually talking about how people like them can get engaged and actually make a difference. And so I think one of the biggest issues with climate change is that it's seen as this huge issue, that it’s this global issue, and a lot of people feel powerless to be able to do anything meaningful about it.
And so, one of the things that we've focused on in some of my research with some of my collaborators is, we've looked at talking about how people can get engaged with groups in their community or in their neighborhood to work together and make a difference. And so we found that talking about these sort of community-level action attempts, where people are getting together as a group—whether it's installing community solar panels on buildings in a small town, or whether it's working together as part of a neighborhood group to encourage local politicians to take more action on climate change. These are things, actions at a level that can be inspiring to people.
And also along that note, hearing about the process of previous success stories seems like it has potential to be really powerful. So often we hear about how problems in the past got solved. But we don't hear so much about the process by which it got solved. We don't hear so much about people actually going out and doing things and taking this hard work. And sometimes when we do, it's framed as, "Oh, this is just the government solving this problem." But often it's local grassroots efforts that are also making an important difference. And so my perspective would be that it's really important to talk about those grassroots efforts in the past and the positive effects they've had so that people feel like they can go out and also get engaged with these sorts of things.
Daniel Raimi: That's really interesting. So, last question before we go to our final question, which we call Top of the Stack. So this question I alluded to earlier, is about communicating to different audiences. So, how do you think about different communication strategies for communicating with different segments of the public? We've talked a little bit about intergenerational differences. What do you think about the importance of communicating to other important groups that differ along maybe political or sociological lines, on the importance of climate change as a policy priority?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that any good communication efforts starts with knowing one's audience. And importantly, thinking about—a lot of us, when we're having these conversations with people that disagree with us, politically or otherwise, our first inclination is to think about what motivates us and try to persuade the other person based on what motivates us. And obviously from a communication strategy we should be focusing on not what motivates us as people who are deeply passionate about the environment, but we should be focusing on what motivates our audience.
And so a general communication strategy that I think is really effective—Katharine Hayhoe talks about this a little bit. She's a climate scientist at Texas Tech who communicates with evangelical communities. And one of the things she talks about is that it's really important to start your communication with an attempt to connect with your audience with values that you both share.
So, something that motivates you, that you hold as an important value, that your audience will also hold as an important value. And in general, one value that some of my colleagues' empirical work has shown can be effective at communicating with people across the political spectrum is communicating about responsible management of the environment. That's something that both political liberals and conservatives both tend to agree on, that this is an important thing that we should be doing.
And so starting out by framing a message in that way can be effective at communicating with people. When it comes to more specific audiences, it often may come down to figuring out what motivates them, and a lot of the time communicating with someone, even across the political spectrum that, we may have more in common with them than we think, but we need to sit down and think about what are some shared values that we hold and how can I communicate with them in a way that would convey our shared values.
And so I think I'd recommend definitely to anyone interested in that, checking out Katharine Hayhoe. I think she does a great job in talking about that. She herself is an evangelical, so she has the power to communicate with evangelicals. But she also points out that if you personally are not an evangelical Christian, if you're let's say Jewish or Muslim or atheist, that is not necessarily shared value, but perhaps you have other shared values you can talk about with evangelical Christians in that case. You might not talk about your faith, you might talk about something else that you share in common.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. She's super impressive and really great at that communication stuff. People should really look her up. And that brings us to our final question, which is what else should we look up while we're trying to find new and interesting things to enjoy about the environment or energy or public policies? So this is, what is at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack that you would recommend to our listeners?
And I'll start with a recommendation that's about climate communication. And it was a short article that I read recently by Ted Nordhaus and Alex Trembath at the Breakthrough Institute. It was a piece called "Is Climate Change Like Diabetes Or An Asteroid?" And I like the framing. An asteroid either hits you and it destroys you or it doesn't and you're fine. Diabetes is really different. It can be managed, but it can't really be solved in terms of completely eliminating the problem. Certainly not quickly.
Diabetes is definitely bad. It's definitely a problem and it could be deadly, but there's a big difference between managing it by eating carefully and managing your insulin, versus not being careful about it and maybe losing your eyesight or losing your leg. So, I thought it was a really compelling framing of the way to think about climate change as a public policy problem and I'd definitely recommend people check it out. So how about you, Nathan? What's on the top of your stack?
Nathan Geiger: Yeah, that's a really great recommendation. That seems really interesting actually. What I have been reading over the last couple of weeks is, Naomi Klein just came out with a new book, On Fire, and I've been reading that. It's a combination—she talks a little bit about some of the sort of contemporary political climate right now. And then she also publishes some of her previous essays in this book. And I find Naomi Klein's writing, personally, I find it always thought provoking.
Whether or not you agree with everything she says. I think she does a really good job of getting me to think about things in a different way. And I think she was, at least among North Americans, she was really powerful in getting people to connect climate change with other related issues in a way that most of us in North America weren't previously doing, back 10 years ago, especially.
People were thinking about climate change. They were thinking about polar bears and the Arctic and all this stuff. And Naomi Klein has been saying for years, "No, this is not just about polar bears. This is about politics. This is about immigration. This is about public health. This is about the type of government that we have in our country."
And I just find her writing really inspiring to talk about the way that climate change is connected to everything else. And she has some depressing moments in her book, but then, it's also really powerful that she talks about ways that people are getting involved and making a difference.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Great. Well, thanks for that recommendation. Yeah, I think I'm more on the side of—I don't always agree with her policy prescriptions for what to do about these things, but I totally agree that she's always thought-provoking and definitely brings up important intersections that we should be thinking about.
Well, with that, Nathan Geiger from Indiana University, thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio, talking about climate change, communication, and so many other fascinating issues. Thank you. We really appreciate it.
Nathan Geiger: Yeah. Thank you for having me.
Daniel Raimi: You've been listening to Resources Radio. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.