On Friday, Climate Central ran a Q&A style article on several of the communication implications of the Climate Shift report. Launched in 2008, Climate Central is a digital news community pairing journalists and scientists to produce independent coverage and resources that Americans can use to more effectively participate on the challenge of climate change.

In a discussion with Alyson Kenward, we focused on the significant impact the economy has likely had on public concern and engagement on climate change. The continued adverse economic conditions make localized engagement efforts on climate change that much more important. Excerpt below:

Q: If the economy has such a strong influence on what people are concerned about, does that mean people aren’t likely to change their opinions about climate change until the economy improves, which could be a few years from now?

Nisbet: The economy poses a major communication challenge for climate change. It is a far greater communication challenge that what the conservatives have put forth in terms of questioning the science. In fact, in recent years, conservatives haven’t really had to even speak out against the scientific consensus. They can just say, “even if climate change is a problem, we can’t afford to take action against it,” and that might be enough to stall any and all action. The same strategy has been used by Democrats from agricultural and industrially-focused states. To make people pay attention to climate change, we’ll need to find ways to show them why it matters to them now, how it is affecting them now, and how actions can lead to benefits rather than costs.

Q: What are some of the ways in which climate change can be communicated in a way that matters to people?

Nisbet: With another researcher, Edward Maibach, who is the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, we’re looking at how you can frame climate change in a way that is more personal to people. For example, we’re looking at, to what degree, you can communicate about climate change as a public health concern. If we can engage people in a conversation about the link between long-term chronic health concerns, like allergies, and climate change, then they will understand what the impact will be for them. They may begin to care about climate change because it is going to make their condition worse in the future. [Read first study from this research.]

The same can be said for communicating to people about actions that are local and regional, like increasing accessibility to public transportation, making communities safer and easier to walk in, or making fruits and vegetables more affordable, which could reduce meat consumption. These are the kinds of things people will want to invest in, not because they offer a long-term climate change benefit but because they improve the community and quality of life in general.

Only after you connect with people this way, at the personal and local level, can you then get people participating in a dialogue about bigger policy efforts. And that’s rarely been done before now. We’ve never really connected at a local and personal level about climate change.

Q: You’ve also recently written about the politicization of climate change and how that has influenced the public. How can the science be politicized and what does this mean for how to improve climate change communication?

Nisbet: You don’t communicate about climate science in a vacuum; of course you have to consider the political context. The Cultural Cognition project at Yale shows that when people interpret scientific advice they hear, in connection to the proposed policy solutions, as threatening to their personal values or their world view, the first thing they do is argue against the science. Similarly, pollsters found that in 2009 and 2010, just as cap and trade became more politically viable, there was a simultaneous increase in skepticism amongst Republicans. These polling experts argue that this means that when you ask Republicans and Conservatives about the science of climate change, you shouldn’t interpret their answers fully as knowledge, but rather as indirect opinions about the policies being posed. The perceptions of science, it seems, are policy dependent.

What this means is, if we’re trying to make strategic decisions about where to invest in communication activities, we have a choice. Do we double-down and invest even more money and resources in trying to counter the work of Republicans and conservatives? Or, do we invest more resources in alternative strategies and consider a broader range of policies, perhaps smaller in scope and across several levels of government. I argue that if we take a different approach, like working at the local and regional level and try to facilitate public participation directly in the discussion, then people are more likely to come together, start talking about climate change, plan, connect, and find common ground.