Climate Communication: Talking Solutions with Evangelicals
“Climate change” can be a trigger term for some Christians and conflict-driven narratives about climate can be a turn-off. How can we reach them?
Is “climate change” a trigger term for some Christians? If so, what does this mean for climate communication? This question hasn’t left me alone since I began working as a science journalist, both within Christian media and mainstream media. The audience shapes how I write, and also the sources that I interview shape how I ask questions and find answers. But it’s never an easy task.
I recently let my journalism instincts guide my quest to answer these questions about climate change and the church. I started by reaching out to Peter Fargo, the founder of Climate Vigil, a global movement to engage the church on climate change. Peter is also a former public affairs officer for the US Forest Service. With the help of a grant from his church, he is currently focused on having climate conversations throughout Eastern Oregon. He recalls how the term “climate crisis” in the title of his book of prayers stopped a church elder in his hometown of Baker City from reading it at all. While the church leadership was open to dialogue, they decided that they couldn’t risk endorsing congregational conversations on climate change.
For some in his community, it’s not so much that they don’t recognize that climate change is happening, but that it’s a safer choice not to talk about it, he told me. One businessman acknowledged the climate risks that he is facing but would not attend a climate vigil due to the potential loss of his politically conservative clientele. Peter’s experiences illustrate some of the complexity. How opinions form and overlay group identity is complicated. Ultimately the pathway toward cooperation is full of twists and turns.
…it’s not so much that they don’t recognize that climate change is happening, but that it’s a safer choice not to talk about it…
What the Research Tells Us
A 2022 Pew Research study on religion and views on the environment found that 92 percent of highly religious Americans completely agree that “God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the Earth.” They are mostly OK with calling the Earth sacred (68 percent). Yet only 42 percent of highly religious Americans are concerned about climate change.
The Yale Program on Climate Communication has identified six different responses to climate change in the US, ranging from alarmed to dismissive. Communication scholar Emma Bloomfield’s insight adds more dimension to the picture: she finds three types of Christians who are skeptical of climate change.
These studies help dispel the idea that there are two ways to think about climate change: you either “believe” it is happening or you don’t. There’s been a media practice of highlighting a conflict between two sides—often without finding more than the two main views. The muscle memory of many journalists can still pull in this direction, yet putting more horsepower behind these practices may only entrench our wheels deeper in the mud.
What Journalists are Saying
A growing number of journalists see it as their job to figure out how to find a way through divisive issues. Journalist Amanda Ripley examined how other professions handle conflict resolution. What she ran into was psychology. “I have overvalued reasoning in myself and others and undervalued pride, fear and the need to belong,” she wrote.
Journalism scholar Renita Coleman also turns to the work of behavioral scientists. “In general, people are more resistant to persuasion if they know that someone or something is attempting to persuade them,” she wrote. This results in feelings of anger and resistance to the message through avoidance, derogation, and counterarguing.”
Traditionally, journalists are taught a fact-finding sort of craft, where what matters is the truth. In general, journalists are still rewarded for this kind of storytelling. Yet, if communicators begin with a truth—climate science is accepted by 97 percent of scientists—rather than the psychology of the group they’re trying to reach, they risk losing part of their audience.
Peter Fargo affirmed that this strategy has not worked well for him. When he ran into a church friend at the grocery store, his friend gave him an earful about Peter’s work on climate change. He had tried speaking of his faith-based calling in the past and even that was dismissed. So, he asked him if he was aware that greenhouse gas concentrations have never been this high in all of human history. That led to a tense, unresolved conversation.
Traditionally, journalists are taught a fact-finding sort of craft, where what matters is the truth…Yet, if communicators begin with a truth…rather than the psychology of the group they’re trying to reach, they risk losing part of their audience.
Reaching Climate Skeptics
Renita Coleman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and her fellow researchers, wanted to compare strategies for climate communication. They recruited 1,200 U.S. adults with varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, political affiliations, and educational levels. About half of the participants were climate skeptics.
Each participant was randomly assigned to read a news article about climate change and then answer a series of questions. The article either emphasized adaptations needed to address climate change but only used the term “weather” or it underscored the man-made causation of climate change, providing average temperatures and sea levels and using the terms “climate change” and “global warming.”
Skeptics reported more agreement when stories removed the causes of climate change. They were also more likely to support efforts to take action and search for or share related news. “Removing any references to what causes climate change reduced perceptions that the news stories were trying to manipulate or persuade readers,” the authors wrote. People responded more positively.
For a scientist or even a science journalist, perhaps this is frustrating. Andrew Freedman, climate and energy reporter at Axios, tweeted: “This is an, um, interesting set of suggestions for how journalists can ‘reach’ climate skeptics. Leave out ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ and sub in ‘weather?’ Don’t mention causation?” Let’s take a step back. How can a climate communicator even do their job if avoiding certain terms? Renita Coleman says that it’s not about always removing certain words but about using them less.
In my own experience, with certain audiences, I’ve found it more effective to focus on common values and do less explaining of the causes of climate change. This doesn’t mean the articles I write or counsel others to write (as an editor) never include certain words. It means, I consider my audience and decide at times to describe climate impact without necessarily naming global warming or moving the words “climate change” toward the end of the article.
Skeptics reported more agreement when stories removed the causes of climate change. They were also more likely to support efforts to take action and search for or share related news.
From Conflict Narratives to Solution Stories
Peter Fargo said that while not all people in Eastern Oregon acknowledge that climate change is happening, anyone who’s lived there a few decades will say that the summers are hotter than they used to be. Fire risk and smoke exposure are also up. In early 2020, a rapid snowmelt in February flooded I-84 and caused landslides, leading to dozens of home evacuations and the death of one woman. The weather is different, he said, and on that people can agree.
Plus, many people in the region work the land—ranchers need forage for cattle to graze and farmers need irrigation water for crops. “There are anecdotes of springs running dry that have always been there,” said Peter. “People who are working the land are definitely seeing the difference.” Peter sees these observations as a place to start a conversation.
His faith gets him even further. The friend from the grocery store manages a forest and is concerned about maintaining a cool, clean water supply from a local watershed. He sees it as creation stewardship, yet not climate stewardship. While the store conversation was a tense moment, Peter Fargo recognizes that his friend has an important role to play in the region and has shifted to thinking of how to agree on what actions to take.
In my work, I find reporting about solutions is harder than reporting a conflict… It’s not a fact-sharing mission. It’s a dialogue that includes seeking to understand motivations, listening to the perspectives of others, weighing pros and cons, scalability, and considering unintended consequences…
This aligns with the work of Renita Coleman, who encourages journalists to shift from a conflict narrative and reframe climate stories as solutions stories. Along with her colleagues, she makes the case that writing about solutions needed to adapt to a changing climate and perhaps even literally using the word “adapt” itself gives people a stronger sense of control. “This increased sense of self control further contributes to lowering skeptics’ defensive mechanisms regarding their beliefs,” they write.
In my work, I find reporting about solutions is harder than reporting a conflict. But thinking of communication this way provides another goal for the journalist or science communicator. It’s not a fact-sharing mission. It’s a dialogue that includes seeking to understand motivations, listening to the perspectives of others, weighing pros and cons, scalability, and considering unintended consequences, etc. By the time that all is said and done, the so-called “trigger words” may naturally appear less frequently, and maybe when they show up, people’s defenses will be lowered.
It certainly doesn’t mean never saying “climate change.” Peter Fargo pointed out that his organization still settled on the name “Climate Vigil” because sometimes you just need to be clear even as you open yourself to engagement with the complexities of community views. Yet as communicators we can reset our goal from changing people’s minds to helping people find solutions. Afterall, it’s together that we seek health and safety, even flourishing, amid the realities of climate change.
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