Climate change marches effective in swaying public opinion, study finds

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Americans all over the country have been taking to the streets to protest climate change and the lack of action, on both a domestic and global scale, being done to combat the controversial issue. Protest has been a part of the American way for as long as our nation has existed, but just how effective are these marches at raising public awareness and inciting action? According to a study performed at Penn State University, climate change marches are indeed met with a positive response by the general American public.

After the March for Science and the People’s Climate March in the spring of 2017, researchers found that people were more optimistic about the public’s overall ability to work together to address climate change, and generally viewed participants in the marches in a more favorable light.

“Marches serve two functions: to encourage people to join a movement and to enact change,” says Janet Swim, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Penn State, in a university release. “This study is consistent with the idea that people who participate in marches can gain public support, convince people that change can occur, and also normalize the participants themselves.”

Swim and her team noted that protest marches in general are becoming more prevalent in the United States, across a variety of societal issues. They were interested to see if marches really cause more people to become involved in a particular movement.

“There are several measures that predict people engaging and taking action in the future,” Swim explains. “One of those is collective efficacy — the belief that people can work together to enact change. People don’t want to do something if it’s not going to have an effect. We were interested in whether marches increased this sense of efficacy, that once you see other people do something, you might think yes, it’s possible.”

The researchers recruited 587 bystanders; people who didn’t participate in any marches but observed at least one through a media outlet. A total of 302 participants completed a survey one day before the March for Science on April 22, 2017, and 285 other participants completed another survey several days after the People’s Climate March on April 29, 2017.

The surveys asked participants how much they knew about the marches, their thoughts on the people participating in the marches, and whether or not they believed people could actually come together and make a difference regarding climate change.

“Activists are often seen negatively — that they’re arrogant or eccentric or otherwise outside of the norm,” Swim comments. “There’s a fine line between marchers and other activists expressing themselves and raising awareness of their cause, while also not confirming negative stereotypes. So, one of our questions was whether marches increase or decrease people’s negative impressions of marchers.”

The research team was also interested in how media coverage may or may not influence people’s opinions on protest marches, so they asked participants about their preferred news channels and took into account if those sources were more liberal or conservative.

After the People’s Climate March, participants were more optimistic about people’s ability to work together to address climate change. Furthermore, participants also had less negative opinions of marchers following the protest event. So, overall, participants surveyed after a climate change march viewed the entire movement, and the individual marchers, in a more positive light than participants surveyed before a march.

Participants who regularly watched conservative news had more belief in the public’s ability to effect change and were more motivated to take action following the marches. Liberal news watchers, on the other hand, saw participants in the climate change marches in a more positive light, this was even more pronounced among participants who reported knowing about the marches before they took place.

Researchers say they controlled for factors such as political beliefs and allegiances, so they theorize that these observed differences among news watchers were probably caused by how the marches were covered by their preferred news sources both before and after the protests.

“If conservative news sources only talk the march after the fact, that might be why their viewers have more efficacy afterwards, because they didn’t know about it before,” Swim explains. “Additionally, a more liberal news source may portray marchers as more sympathetic, which may be why their viewers had more favorable impressions of marchers.”

In the future, Swim says she would like to conduct further research on how news outlets influence public opinion on climate change. More precisely, what is more influential; the amount of overall news coverage a climate change march attracts or how the marchers and overall event is depicted in the media.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.

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