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New Research Shows Importance of Military Personnel Communicating the Risks of Climate Change

Marines gather to listen to Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, speak aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Sept. 19, 2012.

By Dr. Marc Kodack

While senior military leaders, due to their apolitical reputation, can influence skeptical audiences about climate change risks to national security, enlisted personnel can be even more persuasive when they deliver personal messages, according to new research in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Communication. The experimental study examined how to construct a climate change communication strategy using a pro-climate framework, and focused around national security concerns delivered by enlisted military personnel to groups who are more prone to skepticism regarding the scientific consensus on climate change.The bottom line up front from the study is simple: active duty U.S. military personnel are increasingly concerned about climate change, and that evidence-based perspective is influential with conservatives.

For the U.S. military, climate change is a direct threat to national security and has significant implications for both operations and installations. In unpublished research conducted by the authors of the experimental research summarized later in this article, the authors conducted a survey among “US military service members…[and] found that nearly two thirds…believe that climate change will cause military conflict over food and water resources, and more than three-fourths believe climate change will cause damage to US military bases.”

Translating these concerns to skeptical portions of the general public may be possible when individual military members express how climate change will directly affect them as individuals and how climate change will affect broader, U.S. national security interests around the world. When these individual/institutional concerns are joined to the elevated levels of trust many Americans have for the U.S. military, a communication strategy can be crafted to better communicate with members of the public about climate change, particularly ideological conservatives. Conservatives are more receptive to climate change risk messages when they are perceived to be given by a trusted, persuasive source, such as an enlisted military member.

The experimental survey research enlisted 1,702 adults to participate in an online survey. The participants varied by age, sex, race, income and other variables. Each participant read one of four plausible short op-ed columns, known as treatments, that looked like an op-ed in a newspaper.

The first treatment was attributed to a climate scientist writing for Scientific American focusing on facts about climate change, e.g., urban flooding and its environmental effects. It ended by asking readers to express their concerns. The second treatment, also written by a climate scientist, presented facts but emphasized how climate change will affect national security. The third treatment was written for The Military Times by an enlisted soldier who had served 10 years in the U.S. Army. It focused on urban flooding and environmental effects (similar to treatment 1). The fourth treatment was written by a military source but focused on how climate change will affect national security (similar to treatment 2). The military source could be someone on active duty or was a veteran. As a control, a fifth treatment was read by selected participants. It was similar in length and format to the other treatments but presented a story about baseball history. After reading a treatment, each participant was asked “their belief in (and concern about) anthropogenic climate change, their climate policy attitudes, and trust in climate scientists and the military.” Participants were then asked how they would characterize themselves ideologically on a five-point scale with Very Conservative as one endpoint and Very Liberal as the other endpoint.

The results support the researcher’s hypothesis that ideological conservatives are willing to revise their skepticism about climate change when a military service member, e.g., an enlisted member, communicates their concerns about the effects of climate change on national security. Given that a growing number of enlisted members of the U.S. military are legitimately concerned about climate change, this study is good news in terms of connecting the reality of the security threat, as felt by the military, to messages to the public about those threats. Not least as without effective public communications, to all segments of society, risk management and threat reduction on climate change simply can’t be effective.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

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