Why are people still sceptical about climate change?

Why are People Still Sceptical About Climate Change Download PDF

Why are some people still scep­tical about the reality and ser­i­ous­ness of cli­mate change when the sci­entific evid­ence is so overwhelming?

This is the ques­tion that motiv­ates a great deal of cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion. How can cli­mate scep­ti­cism be countered?

It is nat­ural to assume that if people do not accept the sci­ence of cli­mate change, it is because they do not under­stand it, or per­haps need to know more about it. Certainly it is true that someone who knows very little about cli­mate change is unlikely to care a great deal about its con­sequences. So it is important that the facts about cli­mate change are widely known and readily available.

Several com­pre­hensive sum­maries of the key facts and fig­ures of cli­mate change are avail­able, including the web­site Skeptical Science, which describes itself as “Explaining cli­mate change sci­ence & rebut­ting global warming mis­in­form­a­tion”. The British news­paper The Guardian offers a very read­able series of answers to ‘fre­quently asked ques­tions’ about cli­mate change. And the web­site Real Climate (run by working cli­mate sci­ent­ists) con­tains a great deal of (some­times very tech­nical) inform­a­tion about the sci­ence of cli­mate change.

But while dis­pelling myths about cli­mate change is a valu­able public ser­vice to offer, the truth about cli­mate scep­ti­cism is that it is not just a dis­pute over the sci­ence. Accurate fac­tual inform­a­tion has been avail­able for anyone who has wanted to find it for a long time. And still some people say they are uncon­vinced that cli­mate change is actu­ally hap­pening – or express more uncer­tainty than sci­ent­ists do about the ser­i­ous­ness of the problem.

Climate change is not the first example of a topic where politi­cians or cam­paigners have expressed frus­tra­tion or sur­prise that mem­bers of the public don’t seem to ‘get’ the sci­ence. Public opinion often turns against a new tech­no­logy or devel­op­ment even if the sci­ence behind it is sound. Researchers who study public atti­tudes to sci­ence used to think that providing more facts and fig­ures – increasing know­ledge – was the way to improve public engage­ment with sci­ence. This approach is known as the ‘deficit model’ of sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion – it was assumed that oppos­i­tion to a par­tic­ular sci­entific devel­op­ment was based on a deficit of know­ledge (Irwin & Wynne, 1996).

However, it soon became clear that many of the argu­ments about ‘sci­entific’ con­tro­ver­sies (e.g. dis­putes over GM crops) were not really about ‘sci­ence’ at all, and cli­mate change is no exception.

Social sci­ent­ists have started building up a pic­ture of the sort of people who are likely to be cli­mate scep­tics. People who are scep­tical about cli­mate change are likely to be older, male and polit­ic­ally con­ser­vative (McCright & Dunlap, 2011). The fact that more than half of the incoming Republican politi­cians in the 2010 US mid-term elec­tions dis­pute cli­mate change illus­trates this per­fectly. These people were not driven by their rejec­tion of cli­mate change sci­ence to become Republicans – their con­ser­vative views have col­oured their inter­pret­a­tion of the sci­ence, which they see as threat­ening to their ideology.

Dan Kahan and his col­leagues at Yale University have shown that people’s pos­i­tions about sci­entific topics tend to be driven by their polit­ical ideo­lo­gies and world­views (Kahan et al, 2010). So it is no sur­prise that appar­ently neutral, uncon­tro­ver­sial sci­entific reports (like those pub­lished by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have acted as a light­ning rod for dis­agree­ment. For an indi­vidual who sup­ports co-ordinated inter­na­tional action to tackle cli­mate change, what could be more com­pel­ling than a con­sensus state­ment from an inter­na­tional body of inde­pendent sci­ent­ists? For someone inclined to per­ceive inter­na­tional reg­u­la­tions as a threat to trade and industry, an inter­na­tional report that speaks of con­sensus is likely to set alarm bells ringing. The facts are the same in both cases: the inter­pret­a­tion very different.

Research by aca­demics at Cardiff University (Corner, Whitmarsh & Xenias, in press) has estab­lished that when people with opposing atti­tudes towards cli­mate change are given news reports about cli­mate change to read, they eval­uate the evid­ence in a very dif­ferent way. Those who accept the sci­ence of cli­mate change rate the pro-climate change report as con­vin­cing and reli­able, whereas cli­mate scep­tics see the very same report as uncon­vin­cing and unre­li­able. This is know as the ‘biased assim­il­a­tion’ of inform­a­tion, and sev­eral dec­ades of social psy­cho­lo­gical research have shown that on any number of topics – from cap­ital pun­ish­ment, to gun con­trol, to nan­o­tech­no­lo­gies – people squeeze new evid­ence through powerful social and cul­tural fil­ters. Pouring facts into this filter system does not neces­sarily pro­duce con­sensus – and it can even cause atti­tudes to polarise.

The source of a cli­mate change mes­sage is also very important – if the audi­ence trust the com­mu­nic­ator, they are more likely to trust their argu­ments. For an indi­vidual who believes that industry should be left to reg­u­late itself, a mes­sage about envir­on­mental reg­u­la­tions from a cam­paigner who lob­bies for stricter rules for industry is likely to fall on deaf ears.

So what can cli­mate change com­mu­nic­ators do to over­come the fact that cli­mate scep­tics say they oppose the sci­ence, when in fact they object to what are seen as its implications?

Understanding that cli­mate change scep­ti­cism will not be over­come by a more forceful present­a­tion of the sci­ence is a crit­ical first step. A lot of valu­able com­mu­nic­a­tion time will con­tinue to be wasted on explaining the sci­ence of cli­mate change over and over again to a group of people who have already heard everything they need to hear. Of course people need to know about the sci­ence of cli­mate change – but once they know about it and choose to reject it, explaining it to them louder is unlikely to do much good.

Instead, com­mu­nic­ators need to bring the real cause of dis­agree­ment out into the open, sep­arate the sci­ence from the politics (Hulme, 2009), and make clear that although the sci­ence tells us that cli­mate change is hap­pening, and what is causing it, the sci­ence doesn’t tell us which way to respond.

Society could do nothing. Society could build new tech­no­lo­gies. Society could raise taxes. Society could change its beha­viour. Society could reg­u­late industry. But these are decisions to make as cit­izens – and so they should be the sub­ject of debate. Providing oppor­tun­ities for people to delib­erate with each other about cli­mate change allows the reasons for dis­agree­ment to come to the fore. If these reasons are based on values, cul­tural world-views or ideo­logy, then it makes sense to get these dis­agree­ments out into the open rather than obscuring them by fighting polit­ical battles using the lan­guage of science.


Corner, A., Whitmarsh, L. & Xenias, D. (in press). Uncertainty, scep­ti­cism and atti­tudes towards cli­mate change: biased assim­il­a­tion and atti­tude polarisation.

Hulme, M. (2009). Why we dis­agree about cli­mate change: Understanding con­tro­versy, inac­tion and oppor­tunity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Irwin, A. & Wynne, B. (1996). (Eds). Misunderstanding sci­ence? The public recon­struc­tion of sci­ence and tech­no­logy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Kahan, D., Braman, D. & Jenkins-Smith, H. (2010). Cultural cog­ni­tion of sci­entific con­sensus. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 77

McCright, A.M. & Dunlap, R.E. (2011). Cool dudes: The denial of cli­mate change among con­ser­vative white males in the United States. Global Environmental Change 21 (4) 1163–1172.

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