Adam Corner argues that social views and cultural beliefs predict climate change denial, and not people’s level of knowledge about climate science. The crux of the climate debate, therefore, lies in untangling the competing visions of how people see the world.
This is the tenth article in a series on climate change and environmental policy being hosted by British Politics and Policy at LSE.
In a Guardian comment piece, Vicky Pope, a senior Met Office scientist, articulated a view that is frequently expressed by scientists: that climate change is a matter of empirical evidence, not belief. But a decade of social science research on public attitudes shows that in fact, scepticism about climate change is not primarily due to a misunderstanding of “the science”.
It is true that most people have only a limited amount of knowledge about climate science (as they do about most specialist subjects). And without doubt, free market and fossil-fuel industry lobbyists have shamelessly acted as “merchants of doubt” , exaggerating the level of uncertainty about climate change, or downplaying its importance.
But in studies that have asked who is sceptical about climate change and why, we find not a story about scientific ignorance, but a link between social attitudes, cultural beliefs and climate change scepticism. The evidence is starkest in the US , but similar patterns are found elsewhere too: older, white, conservative men tend to be more sceptical about climate change.
In a paper just published in the journal Climatic Change, my colleagues and I at Cardiff University asked what would happen when two groups of people – one group sceptical about climate change, the other group not – read the very same information about climate change in the form of newspaper editorials constructed especially for the experiment. We found that these two groups of people evaluated the same information in a very different way, attributing opposing judgments of persuasiveness and reliability to the editorials.
In social psychology, this phenomenon – “biased assimilation” – is well known, and no one is immune from it, so both sceptics and non-sceptics rated the editorials in line with their existing beliefs. The critical difference, of course, is that those who were not climate sceptics had the weight of empirical evidence on their side.
What this experiment illustrates, though, is that “belief” in climate change is very much what matters. Without belief in climate change, scientific evidence simply bounces off. And it is social views and cultural beliefs that predict climate change denial, not people’s level of knowledge about climate science.
In fact, recent work by Dan Kahan and his colleagues has found that the more scientifically literate people are, the more their ideological filters kick in when reading information about climate change. It might seem counterintuitive, but the more confidence people have in their ability to grasp the science, the more able they are to slot it into their existing worldview.
So does that mean that climate change communicators should give up? Absolutely not – but we should not be looking to science to provide us with the answer to a problem that is social in nature. The challenge is to find a way of explaining why climate change matters using language and ideas that don’t alienate people. Simply repeating the scientific case for climate change is – unfortunately – not going to cut it.
In fact, the more we know, the less it seems that climate change scepticism has to do with climate science at all. Climate change provokes such visceral arguments because it allows ancient battles – about personal responsibility, state intervention, the regulation of industry, the distribution of resources and wealth, or the role of technologies in society – to be fought all over again.
It follows that the answer to overcoming climate change scepticism is to stop reiterating the science, and start engaging with what climate change scepticism is really about – competing visions of how people see the world, and what they want the future to be like.
Do you “believe” in climate change might not be the scientifically rational question to ask, but it is the most essential one to address if we are to understand – and ultimately get beyond – climate change scepticism.
This article was originally published by The Guardian on 30 March 2012
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Dr Adam Corner is a Research Associate in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University. his research looks at how people evaluate arguments and evidence, the communication of climate change, and the public understanding of emerging areas of science such as nanotechnologies and geoengineering. Adam is very interested in the application of psychological and social scientific research to practical questions such as the effective communication of climate change, and the psychological barriers to engaging in pro-environmental behaviours.
Debate in this field is full of misinformation and manipulation. Climate change sceptics do not exist: everyone accepts that the climate changes. Scepticism is dismissed in this article as merely as a cultural phenomenon. In fact Scepticism is based on an interpretation of the evidence as is alarmism. It may be true that the Anglo-Saxon world is concerned about this issue more than other ‘worlds’. The same might also be said about Alarmism. The article does not state whether or not Alarmism is culturally driven. Why is Alarmism not studied on the same bais and reported on as Scepticism? Equal analysis of Alarmism is missing from the article.
The article is biased: the author assumes that empirical evidence is on the side of the Alarmists. The study should either deal with the scientific issues or the sociological issues, or not mix the two.
I thought I would share this information with you about climate modeling:
As a teacher, you should know that the science is not wrong. While you blame the environmental community for “applying ideological filters”, the deniers have made constant attempts to discredit climate science and create an illusion that the science is being hotly contested. As a teacher, you should not be saying, “if the science is wrong”. Rather, you can say that regardless of your beliefs, 97% of working climate scientists affirm human-caused climate change. From there you can encourage encourage positive changes.
Teaching in the U.S., discussing climate change is a perilous task, but given the subject I teach, must be mentioned. I agree with Vicky Pope’s comment that some of the fearmongering and poor modelling work has made a rational discussion of climate change issues difficult.
I find myself avoiding the discussion entirely in class – my strategy is to tell students that regardless of your perspective on the issue, there are good economic arguments for energy efficiency. If the science is wrong, you’ve still saved money, but if the science is right you have reduced the impact of climate change and saved money.
Sadly I’ve found that the environmental community has applied its own ideological filters to those who work in the fields of technology and engineering. This is tragic because those with a strong technical background are perhaps most open to the types of technological changes that will be needed to address rising CO2 levels (and the most capable of developing solutions that are transparent to the end user).
Encouraging and applauding small positive changes (even if they are not optimal) is a good way to avoid ideological filters. Publicizing changes that provide real-world economic benefit is a way to get free-marketeers on board. Regulations sometimes crystalize the need for engineers and the public to embrace new technologies. Positive feedback, along with tailored messages and policy that are cognisent of typical ideological filters may be the most effective methodology for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Enjoyed this article a lot. Concise yet informative. The broader implications of “biased assimilation” are intriguing and a good example of the benefits to ‘hard’ science, or even science as a whole, of an understanding of societal influences.