PULLMAN, Wash. – A short science lesson can help sway public opinion on climate change, research from Washington State University indicates.

After learning about the greenhouse gas effect, previously skeptical survey respondents were 20 to 25% more likely to agree that global warming is real and human activity is the major contributor to climate change, according to the research published in Public Opinion Quarterly. The journal article is based on three studies conducted by WSU, California Polytechnic State University and Deakin University in Australia.

Understanding how global warming occurs is a critical step toward believing it’s real, the researchers concluded.

The greenhouse gas effect describes how greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane – act like a blanket, absorbing energy from the sun and trapping warm air in the earth’s atmosphere. Despite scientists’ overwhelming consensus that burning fossil fuels warms the planet by increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, many Americans don’t believe in climate change or its tie to human activity.

“Our studies found a significant portion of individuals whose attitudes about global warming changed through education,” said Andrew Perkins, an associate professor of marketing and international business at the WSU Carson College of Business. “After learning about the mechanism by which climate change is occurring, they had the facts to understand it.”

Researchers also found that short tutorials on the greenhouse gas effect did more to change people’s opinions than fear-based messages about the consequences of global warming.

However, people’s political views influenced whether their opinions changed, said T.J. Weber, assistant professor of marketing at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business, who worked on the research while he was a WSU doctoral student.

“We see the greatest shift among people who identified as conservative, did not previously believe in global warming, and who also scored lower than their peers on a test measuring knowledge of scientific processes,” Weber said.

People who identified as liberal were more likely to believe in human-caused climate change, even if they weren’t familiar with the greenhouse gas effect, researchers said.

Greenhouse effect confused with holes in ozone

The studies grew out of a debate among doctoral students at WSU about why people don’t believe in climate change, Weber said. Researchers devised a pre-test examining 104 people’s basic scientific understanding of global warming.

Regardless of their political orientation, most people taking the pre-test didn’t understand the greenhouse gas effect. In written responses, participants often confused it with holes in the ozone layer.

Researchers followed up with additional studies involving 651 people. Study participants were randomly assigned to either watch an animated explanation of the greenhouse gas effect created by the Australian government for school children, a video about the consequences of climate change, or receive no additional information. Only those who learned about the greenhouse gas effect reported changes in their beliefs.

“A 90-second cartoon on the greenhouse gas effect had more influence on beliefs than a fear-based video on the effects of global warming,” Weber said. “This is significant because climate change messaging often focuses on fear and consequences.”

Implications for climate change education

Researchers said their work could provide breakthroughs in effective messaging around global warming and also spur people to take action.

When survey participants’ views on global warming shifted, a follow-up study revealed that they continued to hold those beliefs 45 days later. They were also more likely to say they took part in activities such as recycling, buying products with a lower carbon footprint and donating money to climate-change action groups.

Media contacts:

  • Andrew Perkins, associate professor of marketing and international business, Carson College of Business, 509-335-0940, a.perkins@wsu.edu
  • Becky Kramer, communications manager, Carson College of Business, 208-661-0197 (cell), becky.kramer@wsu.edu