Discussing Global Warming Leads to Greater Acceptance of Climate Science
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Climate change is an urgent global issue, with demands for personal, collective, and governmental action. Although a large body of research has investigated the influence of communication on public engagement with climate change, few studies have investigated the role of interpersonal discussion. Here we use panel data with 2 time points to investigate the role of climate conversations in shaping beliefs and feelings about global warming. We find evidence of reciprocal causality. That is, discussing global warming with friends and family leads people to learn influential facts, such as the scientific consensus that human-caused global warming is happening. In turn, stronger perceptions of scientific agreement increase beliefs that climate change is happening and human-caused, as well as worry about climate change. When assessing the reverse causal direction, we find that knowing the scientific consensus further leads to increases in global warming discussion. These findings suggest that climate conversations with friends and family enter people into a proclimate social feedback loop.
Climate change is a global issue, requiring personal, collective, and governmental action (1). Most prior research on how to motivate action has focused on understanding individual differences, for example, considering the role of education, religion, and ideology in driving climate change belief polarization (2⇓–4). Other research has focused on how top-down communications, for example, from scientists, influence public beliefs (5). Importantly, however, little research has focused on understanding how interpersonal conversations shape beliefs and worry about climate change. This is surprising, considering the importance of the messenger in communication (2, 3), and the fact that friends and family are one of the most trusted sources of climate change information (6). Although people seldom discuss climate change with friends and family (7), discussion with others in one’s close social network can be an important route by which people may learn key facts about an issue, such as the scientific consensus on climate change. As such, it is important to investigate the influence of people’s climate conversations with their own friends and family.
Moreover, while a rapidly growing body of research has examined the influence of messages on climate change public engagement, few studies have investigated the role of interpersonal discussion (but see ref. 8). In this study, we use nationally representative panel data to examine the influence of discussion about climate change on public climate change beliefs over time.
One fact that influences people’s climate beliefs is the degree to which people perceive a scientific consensus about human-caused climate change (9, 10). Do people learn about the scientific consensus on climate change through discussion with family and friends? If so, does this have downstream effects on beliefs and worry about climate change? Answers to these questions may suggest that encouraging people engaged with climate change to discuss it with their less-engaged friends and family members could be an effective strategy to increase public engagement through social network activation.
Next, we investigate the possibility of reciprocal causation. That is, are people who perceive higher scientific agreement more likely to discuss climate change with friends and family, which reinforces their own beliefs and worry about climate change?
A nationally representative probability sample of US adults (n = 1,263) was surveyed at 2 time points about 7 mo apart. We used the SEM module in STATA (version 15) to conduct a cross-lagged panel analysis investigating 1) changes in perceptions of scientific consensus as a result of discussion with family and friends, 2) changes in climate change discussion as a result of perceptions of the scientific consensus, and 3) the indirect effects of discussion and consensus beliefs on cognitive and affective judgments about climate change.
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