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Unintended Effects of Emphasizing the Role of
Climate Change in Recent Natural Disasters
Graham Dixon, Olivia Bullock & Dinah Adams
To cite this article: Graham Dixon, Olivia Bullock & Dinah Adams (2018): Unintended Effects
of Emphasizing the Role of Climate Change in Recent Natural Disasters, Environmental
Communication, DOI: 10.1080/17524032.2018.1546202
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2018.1546202
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Published online: 13 Dec 2018.
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Unintended Eﬀects of Emphasizing the Role of Climate Change in
Recent Natural Disasters
Graham Dixon, Olivia Bullock and Dinah Adams
School of Communication, The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA
In 2017, the United States experienced a series of natural hazards
(hurricanes, wildﬁres, and blizzards) that resulted in signiﬁcant loss of life
and property. Emphasizing the role of climate change in these events
might oﬀer an important tool for engagement, particularly with skeptical
audiences. However, in a survey experiment (N= 1504) involving three
diﬀerent natural hazards –hurricanes, wildﬁres, and blizzards –we ﬁnd
that emphasizing the role of climate change in these hazards produced
unintended eﬀects for climate change skeptics. In particular, skeptics
experienced resistance to the news article, which associated with
reduced perceived hazard severity. These backﬁring eﬀects likely serve
as a defensive mechanism used by skeptics to maintain their prior views
of climate change, illustrating the challenges faced in communicating
climate change to skeptical audiences. These ﬁndings oﬀer additional
insight for those attempting to communicate climate-related risk
information to skeptical audiences.
Received 12 February 2018
Accepted 4 November 2018
Motivated reasoning; climate
change; natural disasters; risk
Extreme weather events aﬀected nearly every region of the United States in 2017, leaving record-set-
ting weather conditions, evacuations, and damage in their wake. In March, Winter Storm Stella, a
Category 3 blizzard, slammed the Northeast and Midwest, dumping more than ﬁve feet of snow
in certain areas (Wright & Carr, 2017). Later, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria made headlines
for their intensity and devastation, causing unprecedented ﬂooding and power outages along the
Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico (Fritz, 2017). Further still, rapidly spreading wildﬁres destroyed thou-
sands of homes and killed dozens in California, making 2017 the most destructive year of wildﬁres
in state history (Watkins et al., 2017).
Taken together, the ongoing string of escalating natural hazards has led many to consider the role
of climate change in generating and exacerbating the severity of these threats. Climate scientists have
suggested that warming temperatures, caused by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,
may be enabling longer and more intense cycles of droughts, ﬂoods, and storms, the likes of which
fueled each of the disasters that aﬀected the U.S. in 2017 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, 2014). As a result, many believe that it is increasingly important for public consensus to
coalesce around the existence and inﬂuence of anthropogenic climate change, and have proposed
using the prevalence of extreme weather events as the framework of a persuasive strategy to do so
(Cody, Stephens, Bagrow, Sheridan Dodds, & Danforth, 2017; Rudman, McLean, & Bunzl, 2013).
Although extreme natural disasters seem to be an opportunity to discuss the eﬀects of climate
change, a growing body of research suggests that doing so may have unintended consequences.
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Graham Dixon Dixon.firstname.lastname@example.org School of Communication, The Ohio State University, Derby Hall 3015a,
Columbus, OH 43016, USA
Often, when individuals are met with information contradicting a strongly held belief, they engage in
motivated reasoning strategies via processes such as selective exposure, psychological reactance, and
counter-arguing (Kunda, 1990; Lodge & Taber, 2000; Nisbet, Cooper, & Garrett, 2015). This process
of motivated reasoning, however, can occur with prominent climate change messaging strategies,
such as framing or consensus messaging, resulting in climate skeptics increasing their skepticism,
reducing their support for climate mitigation policies, and exacerbating distrust in scientiﬁc insti-
tutions (Cook & Lewandowsky, 2016; Hart & Nisbet, 2011; Nisbet et al., 2015; Zhou, 2016). Empha-
sizing the role of climate change in natural hazards could produce similar results. Indeed, recent
research has found that framing a natural disaster as the product of climate change results in climate
skeptics forming greater justiﬁcations for not helping the victims of the natural disaster (Chapman &
Lickel, 2016). But in addition to impacting climate change beliefs, policy support, and victim assist-
ance, how might motivated reasoning impact perceptions about the natural hazard itself? In turn,
might those perceptions inﬂuence risk preparedness behaviors?
These questions have become more salient as leading partisan media ﬁgures have argued that
natural disasters are exaggerated by journalists as a means to convince the public of climate change
(Nazarvan, 2017; Palmer, 2018). These pronouncements could shed light on how climate skeptics
respond when climate change’s role in recent natural disasters is emphasized. When climate change
is highlighted as an important factor in the cause and severity of natural hazards, skeptical audiences
could engage in motivated reasoning, and as a defensive mechanism, downplay the risks posed by the
hazard. With more than half of the American public holding skeptical views of climate change (i.e.
not believing that climate change is occurring, or not believing human factors play a role), such an
eﬀect could pose further challenges in encouraging preparedness for severe natural hazards (Funk &
Kennedy, 2016). Therefore, our study explores how emphasizing the role of climate change not only
results in motivated reasoning, but also might attenuate perceived hazard severity for natural
Materials and methods
Participants (N= 1504; Age: M= 45.98, SD = 24.81, Female = 53.1%, White = 78.9%) were randomly
assigned to read a news article on a recent natural hazard that either emphasized the role of climate
change or did not. Our study ran from October 26 to November 3, 2017, coinciding with the 2017
hurricane and wildﬁre seasons. In order to increase generalizability of our ﬁndings, we ran three
separate identical surveys that included a news article discussing either hurricanes, wildﬁres, or
blizzards. Our articles, while edited in places for length, were closely adapted from recently published
news articles in mainstream newspaper outlets. Article length varied from 254 to 279 words. Our
manipulations were also taken from existing news articles that included various scientiﬁc sources
explaining the role of climate change for the respective natural hazard. Our manipulated content
varied from 162 to 267 words (See Supplemental Information for access to stimuli).
Participants were recruited from Qualtrics’general population panel that involved obtaining partici-
pants residing in states where their assigned hazard is common. For example, those in the hurricane
survey resided in one of ten states that experience the most hurricane damage (Matthews, 2015).
Those in the wildﬁre survey resided in one of the ten most wildﬁre prone states (Insurance Infor-
mation Institute, 2017). Finally, those in the blizzard survey resided in states in the Midwest and
Northeast, described by the National Weather Service as the most common places for blizzards to
occur (Leberﬁnger, 2015).
2G. DIXON ET AL.
Before condition exposure, prior climate change beliefs were measured with a six-item composite
scale used in previous research (Cook & Lewandowsky, 2016; Dixon, Hmielowski, & Ma, 2017).
Using Likert agreement (1 = strongly disagree to 6 = strongly agree) items, we measured the extent
to which people believe climate change is occurring and whether human activity plays a role,
M= 4.36, SD = .97, Cronbach’s alpha = .82 (See Supplemental Information for survey items).
Political ideology was measured with a seven-point scale (1 = very conservative to 7 = very liberal),
M= 3.88, SD = 1.61. We also asked participants whether or not they had experienced their assigned
hazard close to their home. We included this item as a control variable in all of our statistical models.
While assessing climate change beliefs and political ideology prior to stimulus exposure may induce
the potential for participants to be primed by the introduction of these topics, the measures were
taken in this order to establish them as moderating variables in subsequent analyses (Frazier, Tix,
& Barron, 2004). We also placed demographic measures and an attention check after exposure to
the moderating variables on separate survey pages and just prior to condition exposure. The atten-
tion check requested respondents to match a number and those who failed the check did not proceed
with the study and were not included as completes. We believe this reduced the potential for priming
eﬀects caused by our political ideology and climate change beliefs measures.
After reading their article, participants answered an eleven-item composite scale measuring message
resistance, M= 2.84, SD = .95, Cronbach’s alpha = .92. Developed by Nisbet et al. (2015) this compo-
site scale included items assessing counter-arguing, psychological reactance, and message credibility
(See SI). Perceived hazard severity was measured with three items developed by Kahan et al. (2012),
asking participants their perception of their hazard’s severity to human health, safety, and prosperity,
M= 4.61, SD = 1.05, Cronbach’s alpha = .88.
We ﬁrst examined the eﬀect of condition (1 = emphasizing climate change’s role versus 0 = not
emphasizing climate change’s role) on message resistance.
We found signiﬁcant main eﬀects of con-
dition, indicating that articles emphasizing climate change’s role in the hazard resulted in signiﬁ-
cantly higher message resistance scores, b= .26, SE = .04, p< .001 (see Table 1, Model 1).
However, we found that the eﬀect of condition on message resistance was moderated by one’s
prior belief in climate change, b=−.2, SE = .06, p< .001 (see Table 1, Model 2). R-square change
due to this interaction was signiﬁcant, albeit small, R-square change = .008, F(1, 1485) = 11.75, p
Table 1. OLS equation predicting message resistance.
Model 1 Model 2
Variable b (SE) b (SE)
Constant 4.85(.17)*** 4.47(.2)***
Ideology (liberal coded high) −.06(.02)*** −.07(.02)**
Prior belief in climate change −.43(.03)*** −.34(.04)***
Condition .26(.04)*** 1.03(.22)***
Condition x ideology –.02(.03)
Condition x prior belief –−.2(.06)***
F test F(9,1487) = 57.42*** F(11,1485) = 52.18***
% variance explained (Total R
NOTE: Unstandardized coeﬃcients and heteroscedasticity consistent standard error reported (HC3). Results are controlling for age,
sex, race, previous experience with assigned hazard, and dummy codes for hazard type (blizzard and wildﬁre with hurricane as
*p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001
ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNICATION 3
= .001. Probing this interaction revealed that exposure to the articles emphasizing climate change
elicited message resistance, but only for those with skeptical views of climate change (see Figures
1and 2). Furthermore, political ideology did not signiﬁcantly interact with condition in its eﬀect
on message resistance, b=−.02, SE = .03, p= .43.
We next turn to perceived hazard severity. The main eﬀect of condition on perceived hazard
severity was not signiﬁcant, b= .04, SE = .05, p= .38 (see Table 2, Model 1). However, we report a
signiﬁcant interaction eﬀect between condition and prior climate change beliefs, b= .16, SE = .07,
p=.041 (see Table 2, Model 2). R-square change due to this interaction was very small, yet signiﬁcant,
R-square change = .004, F(1, 1486) = 6.04, p= .014. Probing this interaction revealed that exposure to
the articles emphasizing climate change elicited greater perceived hazard severity, but only for those
who already believed in climate change, suggesting the possibility that this intervention could polar-
ize perceived hazard severity among climate change believers and skeptics. Political ideology did not
signiﬁcantly interact with condition in its eﬀect on perceived hazard severity, b=−.08, SE = .04, p
= .05 (see Figure 3).
Finally, we explored the indirect eﬀect of condition on perceived hazard severity via message resist-
ance, and whether the indirect eﬀect is moderated by political ideology and/or prior belief in climate
change. Speciﬁcally, we considered how emphasizing climate change’s role in natural hazards induces
message resistance, which in turn associates with lower perceived hazard severity. Using PROCESS
macro model 10 (Hayes, 2013;Hayes,2018), we found that message resistance mediated the eﬀect
of condition on perceived hazard severity (see Table 2, Model 3). However, prior climate change belief,
but not political ideology, moderated this indirect eﬀect. In particular, the index of partial moderated
mediation for political ideology was non-signiﬁcant, b=−.005, 95% CI [−.02, .01]. Independent of any
Figure 1. Johnson Neyman graph of the conditional eﬀect of exposure to the climate change messages on message resistance by
prior belief in climate change. The Y axis represents eﬀect of condition (1 = emphasizing climate change’s role; 0 = not emphasizing
climate change’s role) on message resistance. The X axis represents prior climate change belief scores (believers coded high). Those
with skeptical beliefs experienced strong message resistance, whereas those with favorable beliefs experienced no message resist-
ance. Probed from Table 1, Model 2 using PROCESS macro.
4G. DIXON ET AL.
moderation of the indirect eﬀect of condition by prior climate change belief, the evidence does not sup-
port a claim that the indirect eﬀect diﬀers by values of political ideology. On the other hand, the index
of partial moderated mediation for prior climate change beliefs indicated moderated mediation, b=.04,
95% CI [.02, .07]. Independent of any moderation of the indirect eﬀect of condition by political ideol-
ogy, prior climate change belief moderated this indirect eﬀect. Probing this ﬁnding further, we found
signiﬁcant negative indirect eﬀects for climate change skeptics (–1SD from prior climate change belief
mean) regardless of their political ideology (see Table 3). No signiﬁcant indirect eﬀects were observed
for those already believing in climate change (+1SD from prior climate change belief mean). Based on
these ﬁndings, emphasizing climate change’s role in recent natural hazards elicits message resistance
from climate skeptics, which is associated with attenuated perceived risk severity. Although these
Table 2. OLS equation predicting perceived hazard severity.
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Variable b (SE) b (SE) b (SE)
Constant 3.08(.15)*** 3.28(.2)*** 4.22(.24)***
Ideology (liberal coded high) −.01(.02) .03(.03) .01(.03)
Prior belief in climate change .36(.03)*** .28(.05)*** .21(.05)***
Condition .04(.05) −.37(.26) −.15(.26)
Condition x ideology –−.08(.04) −.07(.04)
Condition x prior belief –.16(.07)* .12(.07)
Message resistance ––−.21(.03)***
F Test F(9, 1488) = 35.5*** F(11, 1486) = 30.48*** F(12, 1484) = 32.19***
% variance explained (Total R
).18 .18 .21
NOTE: Unstandardized coeﬃcients and heteroscedasticity consistent standard error reported (HC3). Results are controlling for age,
sex, race, previous experience with assigned hazard, and dummy codes for hazard type (blizzard and wildﬁre with hurricane as
*p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001.
Figure 2. Graph of the estimated means of message resistance scores by condition (1 = emphasizing climate change’s role; 0 = not
emphasizing climate change’s role) and prior belief in climate change (believers coded high). Probed from Table 1, Model 2 using
ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNICATION 5
indirect eﬀects do not represent causal eﬀects, these results shed further light on how climate skeptics
react when natural hazards are connected to climate change.
Overall, our ﬁndings document unintended eﬀects from emphasizing the role of climate change in
recent natural hazards. Although highlighting climate change as an important factor in the cause and
severity of natural hazards might seem compelling for skeptical audiences, our results correspond
with previous ﬁndings that persuasive climate change messaging often backﬁres for skeptical audi-
ences (Chapman & Lickel, 2016; Cook & Lewandowsky, 2016; Hart & Nisbet, 2011; Nisbet et al.,
Figure 3. Johnson Neyman graph of the conditional eﬀect of exposure to the climate change messages on perceived hazard sever-
ity by prior belief in climate change. The Y axis represents the eﬀect of condition (1 = emphasizing climate change’s role; 0 = not
emphasizing climate change’s role) on perceived hazard severity. The X axis represents prior climate change belief scores (believers
coded high). Probed from Table 2, Model 2 using PROCESS macro.
Table 3. Conditional indirect eﬀects on perceived hazard severity via message resistance.
Ideology Prior Belief in Climate Change Indirect Eﬀect 95% CI
Liberals Non believers −.1 −.17, −.06
Believers −.02 −.05, .002
Moderates Non Believers −.1 −.14, −.06
Believers −.01 −.04, .01
Conservatives Non Believers −.09 −.13, −.05
Believers −.006 −.05, .04
NOTE: Unstandardized coeﬃcients reported. 95% bootstrapped conﬁdence intervals employed 5000 samples. Partial index of mod-
erated-mediation for prior belief in climate change, b= .04, 95% CI [.02, .07]. Partial index of moderated-mediation for political
ideology, b=−.005, 95% CI [−.02, .01]. Liberals represent those 1SD above the ideology mean; moderates represent those at the
ideology mean; conservatives represent those 1SD below the ideology mean. Non-believers represent those 1SD below prior
belief mean; believers represent those 1SD above the prior belief mean.
6G. DIXON ET AL.
2015; Zhou, 2016). Our work here extends these previous ﬁndings to a new context, suggesting that
highlighting the role of climate change in natural hazards lead skeptical audiences to engage in
motivated reasoning, which then associates with downplaying the risks of a natural hazard. While
our conditional indirect eﬀects cannot be determined as causal, we believe our ﬁndings prompt
further insight into the unintended eﬀects of climate change messaging. Future research involving
additional experimental manipulation could explore whether the conditional indirect eﬀects
reported in our paper represent causal relationships.
Furthermore, our ﬁndings suggest motivated reasoning occurs for skeptics across the political
spectrum. Although political conservativism has been more aligned with climate change skepticism,
recent polling data from Pew Research shows climate skepticism exists even among twenty-one per-
cent of American self-identiﬁed liberals (Funk & Rainie, 2015). Our ﬁndings indicate that belief in
anthropogenic climate change, rather than political ideology, might be the most predictive variable
in documenting motivated reasoning toward climate change messaging.
Lastly, our results illustrate the challenges in communicating climate change to skeptical audi-
ences. Consistent with a growing body of research, we show that explicitly connecting climate change
to highly visible and destructive natural hazards triggers resistance among climate skeptics. These
ﬁndings, in conjunction with prior research, suggest that highlighting severe outcomes of climate
change without explicitly emphasizing climate change might avoid triggering motivated reasoning
among resistant audiences. In turn, this could promote appropriate responses to natural hazards,
as well as greater pro-environmental attitudes and policy support (Prentice, 2017). For example,
New Jersey residents signiﬁcantly aﬀected by Hurricane Sandy showed greater implicit support
for pro-environmental politicians, leading researchers to suggest that direct experience with extreme
weather could increase pro-environmentalism (Rudman et al., 2013). Another study showed that
temperature anomalies resulting in unseasonably warm weather increased belief of anthropogenic
climate change (Hamilton & Stampone, 2013). Together, these ﬁndings suggest that journalists
and other risk communicators should be careful to avoid polarizing terminology in discussing natu-
ral hazards, which could trigger motivated reasoning and reduce perceived severity, and instead
highlight the eﬀects of climate change that skeptics might experience in their daily lives.
This research also demonstrates a potentially signiﬁcant connection between climate change
skepticism and risk communication. News coverage of natural disasters has been shown to connect
dangerous weather events to climate change phenomena (Feldman, Hart, & Milosevic, 2015), and
often provides recommendations to the safety of those aﬀected by the weather event. This study
demonstrates that emphasizing climate change’s role in natural hazards induces message resistance
(particularly among climate change skeptics), which in turn associates with reduced perceived
hazard severity. Ultimately, climate change skeptics may be less inclined to heed warnings about
the severity of natural disasters when those warnings include counter-attitudinal information
about climate change. On the other hand, our ﬁndings also suggest that including climate change
in discussions of natural hazards can be an eﬀective strategy for communicating with climate believ-
ers, and could even mobilize them to take further action. The dynamics of this relationship warrant
additional examination, and may have signiﬁcant implications for those communicating about natu-
ral disasters. With this in mind, journalists and practitioners should carefully consider their audience
and intentions before deciding whether to include climate frames in natural hazard communications.
Other research has explored the eﬀectiveness of shaping climate change outreach and engagement
to ﬁt within the values of a target audience (Campbell & Kay, 2014; Dixon et al., 2017; Feinberg &
Willer, 2013; Nisbet, 2009). Scholars have shown that climate change messages which include free-
market solutions to climate change, or which include the morals of purity and sanctity, may more
eﬀectively persuade climate change skeptics (Campbell & Kay, 2014; Dixon et al., 2017; Feinberg
& Willer, 2013). This research emphasizes the necessity of creating targeted messages that reﬂect
the values and ideologies that underlie audiences’skeptical views. Doing so goes beyond simply edu-
cating the public on basic facts of climate change, but rather targets the factors behind climate change
skepticism, such as perceived threats to free market capitalism.
ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNICATION 7
Finally, we recognize several limitations of our study that should be addressed in future research.
First, our stimuli articles were adapted from real-world news stories that used climate change to con-
vey threats related to natural disasters. While this approach enhanced external validity by mirroring
what people often encounter in their daily media consumption, it reduces our ability to concretely
determine what elements of the articles –including climate change frames, tonality, or additional
scientiﬁc information –produced our motivated reasoning eﬀects. Our multi-message design, how-
ever, does lend additional support that our manipulation across diﬀerent message types –emphasis
of climate change’s role in natural hazards –was the causal factor in our experimental eﬀects.
Further, our reliance on a cross-sectional study design enabled us to capture these results among
a heterogeneous sample, but without longitudinal measures, it is unclear how lasting the eﬀects
that we found might be. Monitoring these eﬀects over time would provide an interesting direction
for future research. Additional concerns could be made with our decision to measure our moderating
variables (i.e. climate change beliefs; political ideology) pre-test, which could have primed individ-
uals to engage more strongly in motivated reasoning. However, measuring moderators –particularly,
one’s prior belief in climate change –post message exposure could introduce additional bias.
Measuring these variables pretest provides an important baseline measure used for examining con-
ditional eﬀects. Furthermore, participants were exposed to demographic measures and an attention
check after exposure to the moderating variables on separate survey pages and just prior to condition
exposure. We believe this reduced the likelihood of priming eﬀects.
While solving the challenges of climate change communication appear diﬃcult, if not impossible, we
believe our study provides further insight into the unintended eﬀects of climate change communi-
cation and points to more eﬀective practices in reaching skeptical audiences. Using extreme out-
comes of climate change, such as salient natural disasters, might serve as important tools for
engaging with skeptical audiences. However, care should be taken in avoiding polarizing terminology
that triggers motivated reasoning and might ultimately attenuate the perceived severity of the risk at
1. We collapsed our hazard types together and examined condition (emphasizing the role of climate change versus
not emphasizing the role of climate change) as our independent variable. In all analyses, we controlled for
hazard type along with age, sex, race, and previous experience with assigned hazard. Additionally, we found
that hazard type did not signiﬁcantly interact with any of our ﬁndings, justifying collapsing them together
and focusing on our main variable of interest: emphasizing the role of climate change.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
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ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNICATION 9