On Climate Change, It’s a Matter of Trust

Who do Americans trust for information about climate change – scientists and political leaders, or their neighbors, doctors, and religious leaders?

Who do Americans trust for information about climate change – scientists and political leaders, or their neighbors, doctors, and religious leaders?

A newly published article co-authored by ecoAmerica President Bob Perkowitz, ecoAmerica’s Chief Engagement Officer Meighen Speiser, and Social Psychologist Dr. David Sleeth-Keppler examines that question in depth. The paper, titled It’s a Matter of Trust: American Judgments of the Credibility of Informal Communicators on Solutions to Climate Change, is featured in the latest issue of Environmental Communication. (Click here for a free download of the article.)

Extensive research has been done on who people trust for information on many topics, including on climate change. The paper first reviews this research and highlights the following conclusions:

  • There’s a profound and continuing lack of engagement among Americans on climate change, despite some polls that indicate majority concern.
  • Many Americans, with good reason, distrust official channels of communications, such as the mainstream media and politicians.
  • Trust in science and scientists is held by many climate communicators to be a central requirement to engage Americans on climate action. However, Americans who lack scientific knowledge place less trust in scientists.
  • Americas do rely on others with whom they share important values as credible sources for information on climate change. They follow their social group norms. In other words, “the process of coming to know what one knows is inseparable from the groups one is a member of.”
  • Social variables, including political party affiliation and level of religiosity, are strong predictors of climate change attitudes.

For these reasons, relying predominantly on communicating climate change science to typical Americans does not work well. Rather, a values-based approach to climate change engagement has been found to be an effective means to partially depoliticize climate messages. So, climate solutions advocates need to rethink both “the messenger” and “the messages” if they seek to be effective in changing awareness and attitudes.

To determine who’s an effective communicator to whom on climate, the research project examined selected groups of informal communicators. Specifically, we asked 1,737 respondents, “Which of the following people or groups of people would you trust for guidance about solutions to climate change?” We then compared that information to self-reported demographic information about the respondents to determine levels and qualities of trust. The full set of predictor variables for these models included scientists, President Obama, political affiliation, political ideology, age, gender, income, education, religiosity, religious affiliation, employment status, race, and self-reported population density.

Following are some highlights:

  • Trust in family members on climate change declines significantly as respondents age. Also, people who identify as Democratic Party members and those who reside in rural areas tend to trust their family members less.
  • Trust in neighbors declines significantly with education and increasing age. More religious people place greater trust in their neighbors.
  • The more religious and the more conservative you are, the more you trust religious leaders – and this is uniform across various faiths. However, Christians tend to not trust fellow congregants.
  • Rural residents place more trust in farmers on climate change, while more educated people trust them less.
  • The research found no correlation between party or religious affiliation and trust in health professionals, yet religiosity positively predicts trust in them on climate change.

The general takeaway from all this is, the more religious and rural you are, the more you trust informal communicators, such as doctors, neighbors, and religious leaders, for information on climate change. The more educated you are, the more you trust scientists and President Obama – yet within that, there are important nuances grounded in other demographic factors. So, climate advocacy from scientists and politicians fails to reach many Americans who distrust these groups.

As such, advocates wishing to convince Americans that climate change is a problem worthy of their attention and action should mobilize their informal (non-scientist, non-politician) leaders. Training and supporting these leaders can help bridge the gap between skepticism and reality that hampers much of the action on climate change in America today.

This analysis was based on ecoAmerica’s research report, American Climate Values 2014: Psychographic and Demographic Insights.

For further analysis of American climate opinions, along with guides that can help informal leaders engage Americans on climate solutions, visit our research page.

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