Ed Maibach on Climate Change Communications: Focus on What We Agree On – Fossil Fuels Are Harming Our Health

An interview with Ed Maibach  director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University

Fifteen years ago, there was very little difference between the way that Democrats and Republicans viewed climate change. About two out of three out of each group saw it as real and human-caused and serious.   Now we’re down to about a third of Republicans.

One of the lines of argumentation that we have tested that is very helpful with conservatives has to do with the scientific consensus around climate change. In our research, we have found that people who believe there isn’t a consensus are the most likely not to believe that human-caused climate change is happening.

Ed Maibach

That is the most widely held myth in America about global warming. In fact, there is an overwhelming scientific consensus — at least 97 percent consensus. And that’s based on surveying climate scientists. If you survey the literature instead of human beings, it actually looks more like 99.9 percent.

What we found is that when you present a message that clearly states the extent of the consensus — a sentence like “Over 99 percent of climate scientists are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening,” when it is represented as coming to them from AAAS [the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences] — it has a powerful impact on resetting people’s understanding. Which then has a secondary benefit of making them a little more likely to believe that climate change is happening. We have found that it is particularly impactful when resetting conservatives’ beliefs.

…Bob Inglis gets in front of conservative audiences all the time. He comes to them from a premise that they respect and understand, which is: “Look. We’re the party of ideas. We shouldn’t be threatened by solutions to this problem. We should actually bring our best thinking from the party of ideas forward to solving this problem. By doing so, we might also solve some of our nation’s other problems, like how messed up our tax system is.”

Bob finds that — and this is very consistent with the social science literature as well — the reason why this issue has become so polarized politically is because conservatives see the solutions that are being proposed by liberals as being worse than the problem itself. If you can approach conservatives with solutions that they find consistent with their worldview, then they are much more willing to engage in a conversation about the problem. They no longer feel the solutions to be inherently off-putting.

Bob advocates for the principle of a revenue-neutral tax. In other words: let’s tax carbon pollution. Even conservative economists understand that dirty fuel has a cost to it. Even aside from climate change, dirty fuel is bad for our health.

Bob’s principle is: “Well, let’s put a tax on carbon pollution that is more or less equivalent to the degree at which it’s harming people and forcing other people to pay for it (usually taxpayers). And in exchange let’s reduce the tax burden on things we want more of. Like jobs. Or income. Or even the corporate income tax.”

It’s called the Pigovian tax. You tax more of what you want less of, you tax less of what you want more of. That’s the principle he’s been advocating, and I think it’s gratifying to see that this is coalescing into a movement. A fringe movement in the Republican party. But it’s got to start somewhere.


In 1968, the FCC — the Federal Communication Commission — ruled that the television networks were obligated, for every seven tobacco ads that they showed, to show one anti-smoking ad, pro bono.

Obviously, the tobacco industry has limitless money to market their product, and the anti-tobacco advocates were working with almost no money. But that ruling changed everything. The anti-tobacco forces were still being outspent seven to one, but there’s been some very solid research that shows that by 1971, the tobacco industry essentially blinked. They said, “We’ve decided to withdraw our ads from television.”

The reason they did this was because their own research showed that even though they were outspending anti-tobacco activists, they were losing. They were spending their own money to essentially enable the opposition to get on air, and so they said, “Let’s just stop advertising on TV.”

So why aren’t we mounting national campaigns to build a national resolve to deal with climate change? I do tend to believe it’s because we don’t have a government that is willing to fund it. Lots of the anti-tobacco work after 1971 was funded by government agencies — local and state governments. Then there were the large agencies — the National Cancer Society, the National Lung Association, and even the American Heart Association.

The same has never been true with climate change. I know that the Sierra Club received $50 million from Michael Bloomberg for the Beyond Coal campaign. My guess is that is the single largest marketing/communication expenditure ever on any issue related to climate change.

And that’s only $50 million. That’s a quarter of what a commercial marketing budget would be for a really small commercial product. Pick a third-tier pizza brand and they’re spending more than $200 million a year on advertising. So it means that we’ve never tried. Nobody has ever had the money to try a sustained national marketing campaign to build our national will or our resolve to actually put in place a solution to climate change.


If the White House took up Sen. [Sheldon] Whitehouse’s suggestion to wage a full investigation into the fossil fuel industry for all of their collusion and stonewalling to confuse the public about the harm of fossil fuels; and if a RICO suit were successful; and if there was a settlement between the government and the fossil fuel industry — there is no question in my mind that a good portion of that money should be spent on a national campaign to educate people on the risks of climate change, and build their resolve to work towards solutions. If this were treated as a public health problem, that is exactly what would be done.

But so far, despite President Obama’s efforts over the last few months to raise the public health implications of climate change, we are still not dealing with climate change as a public health problem. We’re dealing with it as an environmental problem.

Lead in people’s homes is treated as a public health issue. And the reason that we use unleaded gasoline in our cars is because of the passage of the Clean Air Act. And the passage of the Clean Air Act happened because of research showing that lead was literally depressing our national IQ. It was seen as an environmental health threat, and we dealt with it as such.


Even the group of Americans that we call the “Alarmed” — from our Six Americas study — currently about 13 percent. Of that 13 percent, only about a quarter of them — do the math, about 3 percent of Americans — tell us that they are engaged with contacting their elected officials about how they would like to see climate change dealt with. But virtually 100 percent of them are changing what they buy and who they buy it from. I find that depressing as an American that we see ourselves more as consumers than citizens.

When I interviewed Anthony Leiserowitz, I was surprised when he said that talking about climate change as a public health issue was a way to get through to conservatives.

Yes. That’s research that Tony and I have done together. Even though they tend not to believe climate change is real, they do accept the fact that fossil fuel is dirty fuel and that dirty fuel harms our health and pollutes our air and water.

Conservatives aren’t really for fossil fuels, and conversely, they are wildly for clean renewables. It’s just that they don’t believe that we have the ability, either economically or technologically, to pivot quickly away from fossil fuels. But they do totally get the fact that fossil fuels are harming our health.

And so, when exposed to messages about climate and health and the impact of climate change on health, it tends not to make them angry, in the way that other messages about climate change tend to. Because at some level, even if they don’t believe that the climate is changing, they do accept that fossil fuels are bad for our health and that at some point they would like to transition away from them and towards renewable energy. It makes as much sense to them as it does to liberals.

Interviewing conservatives – offered some $50 to sit down and do an in-depth interview…We took them into the Sculpture Garden at the Hirshhorn Museum, a lovely, quiet place. At the culmination of the interview, we gave them a one-page essay that talked about how climate change is bad for our health in the following ways, and how dealing with it and responding to it is good for our health in the following ways. And we gave them a pair of highlighting pens — a red one and a green one — and asked them to mark down anything in green that they find to be helpful information, and anything in red that they find to be unhelpful or untrue.

The Dismissive types would take their markers and highlight the entire essay in red except for three sentences about the benefits of cleaning up our fuel supply. And so I would say, “I can’t help but see that you’ve marked everything in red except for those three sentences. What in those three sentences struck you as helpful?” I personally interviewed half a dozen Dismissives, and they said the exact same thing to me: “Look, I’ve told you already that climate change isn’t real. But I’m not an idiot. I get that fossil fuel pollutes our air and our water, and that’s bad for our health, and I totally get that moving towards renewables is the right thing to do, and will help out my kid with asthma or my father-in-law with chronic obstructive lung disease.”

They even highlighted in green the part about changing our city streets for active transportation options and reclaim them from cars. They would say things like, “I don’t feel comfortable not being able to let my kid out on the street any more. I would feel better if I could ride a bike with my kid in city streets.” Or “It would be better for my elderly mother if she felt comfortable walking on the city streets and didn’t worry that cars were moving too fast for her.”

We’re not going to convince them that the climate is changing. But we are going to convince them that some of the responses to climate change are in their best interest.