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Statements about climate researchers’ carbon footprints affect their credibility and the impact of their advice


Would you follow advice about personal energy conservation from a climate specialist with a large carbon footprint? Many climate researchers report anecdotes in which their sincerity was challenged based on their alleged failure to reduce carbon emissions. Here, we report the results of two large online surveys that measure the perceived credibility of a climate researcher who provides advice on how to reduce energy use (by flying less, conserving home energy, and taking public transportation), as a function of that researcher’s personal carbon footprint description. Across the two studies, we randomly assigned participants to one of 18 vignettes about a climate scientist. We show that alleged large carbon footprints can greatly reduce the researcher’s credibility compared to low footprints. We also show that these differences in perceived credibility strongly affect participants’ reported intentions to change personal energy consumption. These effects are large, both for participants who believe climate change is important and for those who do not. Participants’ politics do affect their attitudes toward researchers, and have an extra effect on reported intentions to use public transportation (but not on intentions to fly less or conserve home energy). Credibility effects are similar for male and female climate scientists.

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Funding was provided by the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. We thank Matthew Sisco for technical support, Andrew Barnes, Jared Eichmiller, Nicholas Posawatz, and Robin Saywitz for research support, and Colin Allen, Jonathan Baron, David Good, Helen Greatrex, Marybeth Shinn, and Michael Vandenbergh for comments.

Author contributions

S.Z.A., D.H.K., and E.U.W. designed research; S.Z.A. collected the data; S.Z.A. and D.H.K. analyzed data; and S.Z.A., D.H.K., and E.U.W. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Shahzeen Z. Attari.

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This research was approved by Indiana University’s Internal Review Board at the Office of Research Administration and informed consent was received from all participants.

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The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Attari, S.Z., Krantz, D.H. & Weber, E.U. Statements about climate researchers’ carbon footprints affect their credibility and the impact of their advice. Climatic Change 138, 325–338 (2016).

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  • Persuasion
  • Advocacy
  • Credibility
  • Carbon footprint
  • ad hominem attacks
  • Energy conservation