Understanding climate scepticism: a ‘sceptic’ responds
There is a growing body of academic literature that seeks to understand, explain – and even overcome – climate change scepticism. But is it getting to grips with scepticism, or missing the point? In this unusual exchange (we hope the first of many) between Adam Corner (Talking Climate) and Geoff Chambers – (a regular and prominent commenter at several climate sceptic blogs), they discuss research on the psychology of scepticism.
Comments are very welcome – but please be aware they will be tightly moderated to ensure all comments are on-topic. Is this kind of initiative useful? Should it happen more often? We look forward to hearing your thoughts.
In the last few months, two academic papers that make similar arguments about the nature and origins of climate change scepticism have been published. If there is one simple message to take from these two studies, it is that simply providing more information – or turning up the volume on the science – is unlikely to reduce scepticism about climate change. This is because scepticism about climate change is not primarily caused by a ‘misunderstanding’ of the science but by motivated reasoning processes – rooted in ideological differences – that mean that the ‘same’ evidence is not evaluated in the same way. Would you agree that scepticism about climate change has more to do with political views than an assessment of the science?
Of course not. That would be to admit that my politics was overriding my reasoning capacities! The misunderstanding comes I think from confounding the tiny number of active sceptics, who’ve come to a reasoned conclusion, with the Jeremy Clarkson fans who show up in polls. You’re just not going to catch many of us in a survey of the general population. The “old white conservative male” label is no doubt true for the population at large, and can be easily explained, but it tells you nothing about the nature of reasoned scepticism.
I agree with you that turning up the volume on the science is unlikely to reduce scepticism about climate change, but not for the reason you give. The more people learn about the science, the more they see how dodgy is the climate science responsible for rising energy prices. One of the results of the Kahan study you refer to was that the more scientifically literate tend to be more sceptical.
What Kahan found was that being scientifically literate increased polarisation – that is, it amplified views on either side – but your instant equation of ‘the science’ with ‘rising energy prices’ illustrates an important point: climate science and climate policy get horribly confused. Rising energy prices are caused by political and economic choices: they have little if anything to do with climate science.
But things like rising energy prices, taxes, regulations, and restrictions on people’s behaviour have become synonymous with ‘climate change’. I believe – based on the available research – that this is why many people are sceptical. The answers to the problem of climate change look and feel like ‘left-wing’ solutions, and so the problem itself is downplayed or rejected.
I think we agree about the interpretation of Kahan. Belief / scepticism about climate change is strongly correlated with political views, but scepticism is also correlated with scientific literacy, though less strongly. This is what you’d expect. Conservatives are naturally suspicious of schemes which raise taxes, while environmentalism, sympathy for the third world, and Al Gore have got concern about climate change firmly identified as a left-wing cause.
I agree that “the answers to the problem of climate change look and feel like ‘left-wing’ solutions” – that is to say they look extremely expensive, and are therefore opposed most fervently by those who pay most taxes.
You say: “Rising energy prices are caused by political and economic choices: they have little if anything to do with climate science”. Renewables like wind and solar are more expensive than fossil fuels. If they ever account for a significant proportion of energy supply, they will cause prices to rise. The only reason for renewables is fear of the supposed danger of CO2, which is the central tenet of the climate science consensus.
I share your concerns about things like rising energy prices – although I don’t agree that renewables are to blame. However, your line of reasoning seems to conform what studies of scepticism are showing: your concerns about certain economic and political choices are driving you to question the ‘supposed danger’ of CO2. That suggests to me that if there were other policy options on the table – that didn’t involve rising energy prices – your doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying science would not be as strong. Would you agree?
There is some evidence that when people who are more sceptical about climate change are presented with other policy options – for example ‘geoengineering’ – their perception of the risks that climate change poses increases. Do you think that many sceptics would be less likely to doubt the reality or seriousness of climate change if tackling it had no impact on their lives, or could be shown to be ‘cost-free’?
No I don’t think that many sceptics would be less likely to doubt the reality or seriousness of climate change if tackling it had no impact on their lives, or could be shown to be ‘cost-free’
I disagree most strongly that my concerns about certain economic and political choices are driving my climate scepticism. My scepticism is based on the same scientific grounds as that of other commenters on sceptic blogs, many of whom hold political opinions radically different from mine. We don’t deny that global temperatures have been rising irregularly for centuries, and that anthropogenic CO2 may be responsible for some of the recent rise.
Where we disagree with the consensus is on the higher estimates of climate sensitivity endorsed by the IPCC and the catastrophic effects which are supposed inevitably to follow.
However, I would agree that our political and cultural backgrounds strongly affect the way we express our scepticism. There are Tea Party types who think global warming is a commie plot to install global government; nimbys who don’t like windfarms; engineers scornful of the mathematical models used to generate temperature projections; scientists and academics fearful for the reputation of their professions; and Tories who don’t like hippy treehuggers. It takes all sorts.
Here are a couple of examples of culturally determined inputs to my own scepticism:
1) I was very impressed by reports by the institute of Forecasting suggesting that ordinary members of the public are often better at long-term forecasting that experts, since, in their ignorance, they tend to assume that things will go on much as before, whereas experts get carried away with every leap and bound on their graphs into predicting extreme outcomes. This appeals to my left-wing egalitarian instincts – an Orwell-type faith in the common sense of the common man, if you like.
2) My earliest research into the question of climate change was conducted in the pages of the Guardian, and I was shocked to see this once liberal broad-minded paper adopting a Pravda-like policy of news filtering and censorship, with George Monbiot, a journalist I’d admired, conducting petty vindictive campaigns against fellow-journalists and, after being the first journalist to acknowledge the seriousness of Climategate, making a Maoist-style confession of his error. I’m not personally the least interested in the science of climate change. I’m very interested in the existence of a rational left-of-centre press.
Unlike most sceptics, I think your project of exploring the socio-cultural roots of scepticism is a valid and interesting one. But I don’t think you’ll do it by getting members of the public to tick boxes on your batteries of yes/no questions.
So the biggest reasons for your scepticism are that you are disillusioned with the media and have, in your own words, an ‘instinct’ that the common man is often more trustworthy and reliable than the so-called ‘experts’? I share these concerns, although I don’t necessarily see how they detract from the seriousness of the underlying problem of climate change and what – on even conservative estimates – the negative effects are likely to be. But your explanation of your scepticism suggests that if proponents of climate change science – or policy – want to be taken seriously by sceptics, it will be by addressing social concerns like these, not by shouting the science louder.
So how would you say social scientists might get more enlightening answers about the socio-cultural roots of climate change scepticism? Do you think there is an argument for more direct engagement between sceptics and researchers?
We’re arguing at cross-purposes here. My observations about the common man and forecasting and the Guardian are NOT the reasons I don’t believe in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. I’ve offered them as possible contributory factors to my coming to these conclusions – a bit of auto-sociological analysis, if you like – as an antidote to the more common observations about conservative white males not wanting to pay taxes.
If proponents of climate change science – or policy – want to be taken seriously by informed sceptics, it will not be by addressing any particular socio-political concerns, but by persuading us that their science is right. In this I’m sure I speak for all sceptical bloggers, but, as I pointed out, we’re a tiny minority among the sceptic population at large, and possibly atypical.
You ask how social scientists might get more enlightening answers about the socio-cultural roots of climate change scepticism. Ask the sceptics is the short answer. We reveal an awful lot about ourselves in comments on blogs. Bishop Hill had a self-completion survey once of our demographics (age, sex, educational qualifications and geographical spread). However, I feel such a survey would only be enlightening if it covered activists or engaged participants on both sides of the divide.
Finally, do I think there is an argument for more direct engagement between sceptics and researchers? Certainly. Clearing up the misunderstandings as to the meaning of climate scepticism and the motivation of sceptics is the first necessary step in any dialogue.
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