Public Resource
Insights from 76 Climate Persuasion Tests
Justin Rolfe-Redding, Climate Advocacy Lab, Jacob Rode, and Caitlin Benedict

Optimize your climate messaging with the surprising results and important guidance gleaned from 76 climate persuasion experiments, presented by the social scientists who collectively analyzed them. Individual studies come out all the time (and the Lab loves to let you know about all of them), but it can be difficult to piece together the big picture from all the data points. That’s why it’s so valuable when researchers occasionally comprehensively review and synthesize a whole body of studies, such as this combined analysis of dozens of separate climate persuasion experiments in the US from the last 10 years. The social scientists will also share insights from their review of research on reducing political polarization on climate.

Some top take-aways 

  • Persuasion works! They found that—on average—climate persuasion experiments moved opinions (whereas studies of persuasion in other contexts find small effects, or in some circumstances NO effect).
  • But you should expect small effects: The average persuasive effect across studies was equivalent to changing the mind of only one out of 43 people seeing a message. So our baseline expectations going into a persuasion campaign should be modest.
  • No silver bullet: No single message strategy was an unambiguous winner in either review. But due to data limitations, they weren’t able to drill down very well to determine if certain message strategies were more effective for many types of audiences. It does seem that the most effective strategies for persuading conservatives may involve ideological and identity alignment (such as free-market policies or conservative leaders as messengers) and making climate change feel more immediate and local.
  • Test. Test. Test. Given that there is no silver bullet strategy, persuasion programs needs to be carefully designed and tested for their specific circumstances and audience. And backfire effects can happen (in which a message persuades in the opposite direction than that intended). So it’s important to test first to check for this (utilizing a “control” condition with no climate message helps to detect backfires).
  • Policy support is hard: Persuasion efforts were more successful at moving beliefs (such as accepting that climate change is happening) than they were at changing policy attitudes (like support for carbon regulation). So make sure to measure what really matters to you (like attitudes) when testing, rather than assuming that changing beliefs leads to changed attitudes.
  • Mostly white data: Due to the effects of systematic bias in the social sciences (the experiments’ participants averaged 74% white) on the data these reviews had access to, their analyses couldn’t discern which strategies may have been most persuasive for people of color, and few of the experiments’ persuasion strategies were oriented towards those of color or focused on climate justice. I’d recommend also checking out the recent message testing with Black and Latine folks conducted by WE ACT for Environmental Justice and GreenLatinos.
  • Men have hard heads: Across persuasion strategies, women were more likely to change their views than men.
  • Still target and tailor: Rarely do we want to blanket persuade all Americans. While there wasn’t enough data to look at differences across audiences very well, there is plenty of other research confirming that targeting persuasion strategies is important. Targeting models on the voter file, for instance, can identify those most lilekly to be persuadable.
  • Target both sides of the aisle: Their review of research found people are equally persuadable across the political spectrum, from Democrats to Republicans.
  • Don’t forget our other tools in the toolbox: The experiments that were combined to produce these averages likely contained some with high quality, well executed messages, as well as some that weren’t so well done. Focusing on quality can matter, and allow you to beat the average. Also, the experiments were all one-off exposures to messages, often text-based in artificial laboratory settings. Repeating messages can increase their impact, as can utilizing more powerful, engaging experiences such as deep canvassrelational conversation, and cultural strategy.
  • Organizing the future: We’ve learned persuasion is hard; other strategies to grow our power include expanding, organizing and activating our base of supporters, and honing movement strategy. We’d love to see the next generation of research syntheses tackle mobilizing, organizing, and strategy interventions, to produce high-level insights on those topics similar to these persuasion reviews.