Jimmy Kimmel, Expert Climate Communicator -- Who Knew?!

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 29:  TV personality Jimmy Kimmel speaks during Variety Studio Actors on Actors presented by Autograph
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 29: TV personality Jimmy Kimmel speaks during Variety Studio Actors on Actors presented by Autograph Collection Hotels on March 29, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Variety)

Communicating climate change is hard. Debunking climate myths is even harder.

Take it from me, I've spent the last decade researching climate communication and the psychology of misinformation. So let me express my expert opinion on a Jimmy Kimmel comedy segment on climate change.

It's one of the better pieces of climate communication I've encountered.

Not everyone agrees. Scientist/filmmaker Randy Olsen has criticised Kimmel for giving free attention to climate denialist Marc Morano. Olsen does have a point. Morano scores a win by getting mainstream TV attention. But there's a bigger picture here. The main winner on the night is public perception of scientific consensus.

The average person has no idea just how strong the scientific agreement on climate change is. Multiple studies have found 97% agreement among climate scientists that humans are causing global warming. In contrast, only 12% of Americans are aware that the consensus is over 90%.

Why the huge gap between public perception of consensus and the 97% reality? Part of the answer goes back nearly two decades. In the late 1990s, a Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote a now infamous memo, advising Republicans to maintain doubt about the level of scientific agreement on climate change. Luntz's market research had identified that what people thought about expert opinion affected other views on climate change.


It turns out Luntz was ahead of his time in identifying the psychological importance of perceived consensus. Scientific studies from 2011, 2013 and 2015 have identified perceived consensus as a "gateway belief", influencing a range of attitudes about climate change including support for climate policy.

As a result, social scientists have urged climate scientists to set the record straight on scientific consensus. As far as climate communication messages go, this one is relatively straightforward. You don't need to explain the mechanism of the greenhouse effect or the nuances of the carbon cycle (although those are good to explain if you get the opportunity). To effectively communicate the reality of climate change, you just need to mention that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming.

So Kimmel nails it. His approach is entirely consistent with the advice of communication experts. My guess is this is probably due to his instincts as a professional comedian rather than a thorough familiarity with the psychological literature on consensus messaging.

Either way, along with President Obama, John Oliver, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Bernie Sanders, Kimmel has provided another valuable contribution to closing the consensus gap.