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Rebranding Climate Change

How to talk about global warming in today’s political climate

What’s the difference between “climate change” and “climate crisis?” About a 60% greater rise out of your audience…that is, if they’re Democrats. If they’re Republicans, you can expect their emotional response to triple. That’s according to a new neuroscience study by SPARK Neuro that pitted 120 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents against 6 politically-charged terms for the same issue. Some terms, as the brain data showed, were more charged than others.

Background

The last 20 years of environmental advocacy and research have yielded a 15-point increase in the percent of Americans who believe climate change is a serious problemwith roughly two-thirds now believing action is needed, and one-third believing that concerns are as of yet unwarranted, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Any candidate hoping to reach the remaining third of the American public must eventually turn their attention toward the so-far unmovable voters. Especially in today’s political climate, it’s not enough to cater to an already-sympathetic base with incendiary language and risk alienating voters who aren’t yet convinced. At the same time, forging an emotional connection with voters is key, and worn-out words won’t work either.

In its latest study, SPARK Neuro set out to find out if it’s time to rebrand climate change, using down-to-the-millisecond electroencephalography (EEG) and galvanic skin response (GSR) recordings taken as voters of each political affiliation listened to audio recordings of controversial statements. These recordings were then distilled into a quantitative neurological measure of emotional intensityand ultimately compared to a traditional qualitative survey for reference.

The same algorithm successfully predicted the results of the 2016 presidential election by contrasting survey responses from undecided voters with neurological data gathered when they viewed Trump-related content. The data, in the end, didn’t lie, and the underlying emotions came out as clearly through the EEG headsets as they did at the ballot box.

Same Issue, New Terms

“Global warming” and “climate change” are the most-used descriptors of their kind in the political discourse, and yet in our comparison of 6 similar terms, they elicited the two weakest emotional reactions from both Republicans and Democrats. Amongst Democrats, any of the alternative phrases were significantly better than the status quo. Amongst Republicans, two phrases really stood out where “global warming” and “climate change” fell short.

The top two terms, “climate crisis” and “environmental destruction,” evoked nearly identical net intensity across all 120 participants, however the second term’s high average was propped up by a disproportionately strong response from Republicans: a full 55% above that group’s mean for all terms (for comparison, the strongest term for Democrats was only 21% higher than their mean across all 6 terms).

Here's how each term performed:

Urgency and Risky Words

The extreme response we saw among Republicans to the term “environmental destruction” raised a red flag in comparison with terms like “climate crisis,” which performed well across all three political affiliations.

Though we might infer that language with higher emotional intensity is at least potentially more impactful, when it comes to winning over the third of Americans who don’t consider climate change a serious problem, words like destruction may go too far. However, “climate crisis” could strike a bipartisan chord as a more reasonable observation.

Initial data has shown that new and exciting terms have the potential to refresh a stagnant political discourse, and that their impact can be measured precisely with neurological data.

Takeaways

A successful candidate’s aim is to broaden the conversation around an issue with words that spark interest on both ends of the political spectrum…while avoiding overstating the problem. It is tempting to rely on a qualitative assessment of this language, but in investigating what truly works, neurological data will prove invaluable.

For better or for worse, many issues are defined by their terms: but these terms present a unique opportunity. To reframe the issue is to engage unconvinced voters, and from a neurological perspective, SPARK Neuro found that “climate crisis” may hit the sweet spot. Perhaps by combining the familiarity of the word “climate” with the newness and urgency of “crisis,” it evoked a strong reaction across party lines.

Language matters, now more than ever, in the political arena. Issues like gun laws, women’s rights, and immigration policy all hang on the few words we use to start the conversation: and applied neuroscience is poised to find out which ones can change minds.

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