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.

References

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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