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New Study Highlights Military Leadership Impact on Climate Change Perceptions

PACOM commander visits MCAS Miramar

By Marc Kodack

The divisions that exist over perceptions of climate change are affected by how the information is framed – the words and statements that are used as well as the imagery that accompanies those statements. In particular, a persuasive and trusted source of information is critical for ensuring that the information is deemed credible by audiences. Recent research published in Science Communication examined how different sources, including military leaders, can affect an audience’s perceptions about climate change while keeping the message content constant. A critical finding in the research relevant to our work is that military leaders had, on average, the strongest affect on respondent beliefs about climate change, especially when communicating about its implications for U.S. national security.

The research draws on models and theories in social science, such as which groups an individual will affiliate with – particularly those groups that appear to share the individual’s values and worldviews.

The data for the research was based on an online survey of 1,850 people in the United States who were asked about the effects of climate change on the environment or U.S. national security, e.g., the frames.  Multiple statements were presented to a respondent who then scored their agreement or disagreement with that statement. The respondents were then separated into five groups to determine how the source of the information affected the group’s beliefs about climate change. The sources included (1) a baseline with no source attached to information, (2) climate scientists, (3) Republican Party leaders, (4) Democratic Party leaders, or (5) military leaders.

The results show “that Republican Party leaders, and military leaders, had the strongest effect, on average, at enhancing the framed messages suggesting that source credibility may increase when an “unconventional” position is taken by group leaders.” For example, “the presence of military leaders as a source of a proclimate appeal can significantly strengthen its persuasive impact, especially in the case of an appeal emphasizing the effects of climate change on U.S. national security.” In contrast, “when climate scientists were linked with the national security message, it significantly reduced respondents’ perceptions about the threat of climate change to national security…”

Overall, the results show that trusted sources who speak about the effects of climate change have the ability to persuade audiences that might otherwise be skeptical.

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