We’ve heard it a million times: Talk about local climate impacts and local solutions to help shrink the sometimes overwhelming issue of climate change to actionable proportions. In the same vein, I know I sound like a broken record when I say: Stop talking about polar bears and “future generations!” To win hearts and not just minds, climate change needs to be understood in the here and now.

Well, now there’s more research to show that this is good practice.

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  • Have you heard of the boomerang effect? It’s when a message has the exact opposite result it’s intended to. Previous studies showed that fear tactics on global warming—your so-called ‘gloom and doom’ stuff—actually triggered more denial of the science and/or decreased concern among some audiences.

    A new study (forthcoming) by Sol Hart, School of Communication at American University and Erik Nisbet, a professor at Ohio State University (and Matthew Nisbet’s brother) warns of a similar boomerang effect when we focus on climate risks to people far away from us instead of risks to those who are nearby geographically and seem culturally “like us.” (The study participants were 240 upstate New Yorkers.)

    Climate change is already (bizarrely, uniquely) a highly partisan issue for many in the US. That polarization seems to increase when climate change messages are about far away people being impacted:

    Climate change campaigns in the United States that focus on the risks to people in foreign countries or even other regions of the U.S. are likely to inadvertently increase polarization among Americans rather than build consensus and support for policy action.

    The good news and the promising finding for crafting better messages around climate and energy is that, by contrast, “locally focused campaigns that highlight the risks to fellow residents of a state or a city are less likely to activate strong partisan differences.”

    Turns out that what communications researchers call “motivated reasoning“—something all of us do unconsciously all the time, that is, “selectively seeking out and interpreting information across issues in a way that reinforces existing political views” and in line with our existing ideologies—plus our “natural tendency to rely on social closeness or sameness as a short cut in making sense of a policy problem,” means that those who understand climate science and already report concern about the issue were more likely to identify with “victims” even if they were far away. Partisan affiliation played into this too. These folks tended to identify as Democrats. “In contrast, both Republicans and Independents indicated low social identification with the farmers as portrayed in the…socially distant condition.”

    On the flip side, Republicans presented with information about the risks to geographically distant farmers were more likely to oppose policy action than their Republican counterparts in the control condition or in the local condition. In other words, “locally focused campaigns that highlight the risks to fellow residents of a state or a city are less likely to activate strong partisan differences.”

    Also notable: “after controls, neither knowledge specific to climate change or general science literacy was significantly related to support for policy action.”

    The study is a powerful reinforcement for our recommendations to “make it local.” The only weakness I saw was the researchers’ choice to use France as one of the locations for distant victims of climate impacts. What’s wrong with France? Well, as I wrote once upon a time in grad school, there’s a certain anti-French sentiment among American conservatives that could have resulted in an unintentional bias that, say, Germany might not have. But these are whip smart researchers, so I’m not worried. Hart and Nisbet likely balanced this out by using Georgia as well as France as distant locations in their experiment.

    In any case, the takeaways are clear. Talking about climate impacts on “socially distant groups” (and probably polar bears too!) is likely to amplify polarization about the issue, whereas participants’ identification with victims influenced policy support.

    Matthew Nisbet puts this new research in the context of other climate communications recommendations based in other research: “When information about the risks of climate change are localized, connected closely to values such as public health, and communicated in terms of co-benefits to the community, these campaign efforts are likely to be more successful at transcending ideological differences and building support for action.”