Research Summary

Talking about climate change: How to enhance trust with forestry audiences.

How educators can talk about climate change and maintain their audience’s trust

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Climate-change induced changes in precipitation, disease, pests, and wildfires could harm forests. Rural landowners need to understand how to manage forests in the face of these events. However, they are often more conservative and skeptical of climate change. Because climate change is politically divisive, educators often avoid discussing climate change in order to not lose the trust of their audience. Trust in the speaker is one of the main factors that determines how receptive an audience will be. Thus, in order for educators to effectively share information on climate change, they must understand how to establish and maintain an audience’s trust. In this study, researchers investigated perceptions of trust and views on climate change among participants at forest management workshops.

Investigators recruited attendees at three forest management workshops held in Georgia, Arkansas, and Illinois. The workshops were chosen because they all centered on forests, as well as included different forest-related audiences in different regions and different approaches to teaching climate change issues. The focus of each workshop and how each was promoted varied slightly. The first workshop was promoted as an event aimed at sharing findings on forest management research. This event included speakers from forest associations, the forestry industry, and universities; two university presenters avoided explicitly referencing “climate change” when speaking about future climatic events. This workshop was attended by 100 forest landowners, 21 of whom volunteered to complete the survey. The second workshop offered strategies for forest management in a changing climate, and activities and presentations were led by presenters from universities and forest agencies. There, all 13 attendees—women who were landowners or master naturalists—were surveyed. The third workshop was for facilitators to learn how to teach climate change and forestry topics, in which 14 out of the 15 attendees were surveyed.

All participants in the study were surveyed about their views on climate change and their perceptions of what presenters said or did, and their responses were used to determine what presenter characteristics contributed to trust. Participants from workshops one and two completed a survey that asked about the participant’s trust in the workshop presenter on a scale from 1 (not trustworthy) to 4 (very trustworthy) based on the presenter’s affiliation and the subject they discussed (climate change or forest management). An additional group discussion exercise was done with participants from workshops two and three to determine what workshop characteristics contributed to better participant reception of the information on climate change. Responses were analyzed using statistical analysis. Comments from open-ended survey questions were analyzed to determine best practices for establishing trust between presenters and their audiences.

The study found that the way in which a workshop was promoted influenced the type of audience it attracted. Workshops that included “climate change” in their title were more likely to draw in audiences who saw climate change as a problem and were interested in learning solutions. At the first workshop, aimed at sharing forest management research findings, opinions varied widely: half of the respondents indicated they believed Earth’s temperature had risen, 43% believed it had stayed constant, and 10% did not know. At the second workshop, aimed at sharing forest management techniques for a changing climate, 69% believed the Earth’s temperature had increased. At the third workshop, which included those interested in teaching about forestry and climate change, 79% of participants believed temperatures had increased. The study also found that university researchers were seen as the most trustworthy when speaking about forest management issues, and that both university and Extension educators were more likely than government scientists to be seen as trustworthy by climate-skeptic audiences when speaking about climate change. This suggested that an audience’s trust in a presenter could be influenced by the presenter’s affiliation.

Additional factors that appeared to improve a presenter’s trustworthiness included providing and citing sources of information, not being funded by a particular interest group (which might give the impression of bias), and being honest about not knowing certain information or about not knowing the answer to a question. Investigators also determined that the design of the workshop itself could affect trust by contributing to a more comfortable environment for participants. This result aligned with previous research findings, which found that interactive, learner-driven program designs could put people more at ease and enable them to ask questions.

This study has several limitations. Two workshops had relatively few participants, and the larger workshop had a low number of survey participants. Additionally, the focus of each workshop was different and included different approaches to teaching: some were more interactive and others were traditional presentations. Importantly, participants of the study are not necessarily representative of climate-skeptic forest landowners given two of the three workshops were promoted explicitly as discussions on climate change and one was a workshop for facilitators. The researchers also noted that an area’s current local weather and political events affect the way people perceive climate change. However, they did not consider these factors in their analysis. Another study in a different location or with different workshops may produce different results.

The authors recommend that presenters wishing to educate about climate change should adhere to the following seven guidelines:

1. Be clear about the objective. Provide information useful to managers so they can improve the resilience of ecosystems, without attempting to change their minds about climate change.
2. Increase participant engagement by using hands-on instruction and by giving people time to ask questions and discuss amongst themselves.
3. Listen carefully by restating participant questions to make sure you understood them, being mindful of statements that may reflect belief systems or scientific evidence and keeping an open mind.
4. Create relevant context by using local data from local researchers and provide information on the area’s relevant natural history.
5. Demonstrate you are learning too, and do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “I have to do further research on that.”
6. Get comfortable with speaking about climate change in a neutral way.
7. Be a responsible conveyor of information. Use graphs and graphics, explain how research materials were developed and why hypotheses were accepted or rejected, share information sources, and avoid political commentary.

The Bottom Line

Researchers surveyed attendees from three forest management workshops to determine the factors that impact participants’ trust in presenters. They found that audiences were more likely to trust presenters when they: 1) appeared to have no personal gain from providing information, 2) backed their information with concrete sources, 3) avoided personal opinions, and 4) were honest about not knowing certain information. The authors recommend that educators be transparent about their objectives and their own levels of understanding. They also recommend that workshop facilitators design their workshops in ways that engage participants and allow for a safe exchange of questions, thoughts, and ideas.