Communicating the Risks of Climate Change

How to Get Facts Through the Static of an Emotionally Charged Culture War

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Over the last two years, doubts about climate change have risen in the U.S., while concerns that it is a serious threat have dropped. One survey found the number of Americans “dismissive” of global warming had more than doubled since 2008 to 16%.

Such statistics are likely due to several factors, including the economic downturn, the negative hype surrounding “Climategate,” and the IPCC’s flawed glacier report. But when the overwhelming majority of earth scientists say global warming is occurring, why is scientific evidence still unable to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis to a large portion of the American public?

On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s step back a moment and take stock of the situation.

Is Communicating Science the Problem?

Scientists trying to communicate factual information about climate change have often been criticized for not being effective communicators. They are advised to steer clear of scientific jargon, use more metaphors and reframe questions when making presentations. But is persuading the public that climate change is an urgent concern really their responsibility?

Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist with NASA, believes scientists are responsible for communicating what they know, and that because they have been researching climate change for many years and have an appreciation of its probable costs to the planet, their opinions should be given more weight.

To help people understand why science has credibility, “scientists have to be straight — they should demonstrate who it is doing the science, how they do it, what people are thinking and what the implications are,” said Schmidt. “But scientists should not be expected to weigh in on policy or politics, because that’s not their expertise.”

Many people attribute the controversy over climate change to the notion that the science is too complex and is not being communicated effectively, but if that were the whole story, beliefs about climate change, its risks, and what to do about it would likely correspond to educational levels. They don’t.

Risk Perception and Emotions

A large portion of the American public does not believe climate change is an urgent threat because of how risks are perceived.

“Our human system of risk perception evolved to deal with immediate, obvious, and simple threats,” said David Ropeik, a consultant in risk perception and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. “We are still principally run by affective, instinctive and emotionally charged inputs.”

Of the brain’s two processing systems, the experiential and emotion-driven side of the brain is the stronger motivator for action, but science traditionally presents information about climate change that is geared to the logical and analytic side.

“Scientists want people to understand the science … but first you have to get their attention, then they will deal with the science,” said Sabine Marx, managing director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University.

Because climate change is abstract in time, in scale and in its effects, most people tend to view it as a future problem. Communicators must find ways to make the abstract concrete in order to get people’s attention.

One way to do this is to make connections to immediate experiences, such as, for example, extreme local weather events, while being careful not to directly connect climate change with the weather, since climate models project changes over a much longer time frame. “Whether extreme events are linkable to climate change or not, we can say that with climate change we will experience more events like these, to give people an immediate sense of what it will be like,” said Marx.

Conveying that immediacy is the challenge.

In an experiment showing viewers the effects of climate change on glaciers, CRED compared presentations targeting the analytic side of the brain using graphs and statistics, and the emotional side of the brain using imagery and anecdotes. Presenting the information with personal accounts, time lapse video, news footage and imagery, resulted in viewers more readily identifying with the victims, retaining more information about the issue, and having a greater willingness to take action.

But the downsides of appealing to the emotional side of the brain are that the concern is short-lived, there is a limit to how many issues individuals can worry about at one time (psychologists call it the “finite pool of worry”), and over exposure to threats can lead to emotional numbing. This is why it is important to target both processing systems of the brain, said Marx.

How Worldviews Influence Risk Perception

Another fundamental and equally powerful aspect of risk perception is that it is influenced more by differences in people’s basic values than by any other individual characteristic, including gender, race, education, socioeconomic status and political bent.

The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School found that individuals process factual information about risk in a way that fits into their existing worldview and that of the group with which they identify. Expectations about the policies that will be needed to lessen the risk influence their willingness to believe the information in the first place.

The cultural cognition thesis recognizes two types of cultural outlooks: hierarchical and individualistic, and egalitarian and communitarian. Researchers found that, in general, people who adhere to individualistic and hierarchical values dismiss climate change risks because accepting them would mean it would be necessary to regulate markets and commerce, which would be antithetical to their values. People who hold egalitarian and communitarian values see commerce and industry as self-serving and feel the need to restrict what they see as their dangerous activities.

Several processes explain how people’s values evaluate risk. The most basic is “identity threat” — when people understand that the consequence of a factual claim will have a negative impact on activities they value, they have psychological resistance to the claim. And even when presented with new information, people’s biases cause them to interpret it in a selective way that reinforces their predispositions. For example, an experiment involving information about nanotechnology, which researchers assumed most people knew little about, found that individuals processed the new information according to their preexisting cultural biases about other environmental risks.

Moreover, factual information presented by experts often does not change minds because people come to different conclusions about what scientists are telling them. Since most individuals cannot assess scientific or technical data themselves, they look to experts they trust to weigh the risks.

“When people see a debate between experts, they are more influenced by the experts who have values like their own, even if the values have nothing to do with what the experts are arguing about … and if a spokesperson who is ideologically branded presents information that implies that others are corrupt or venal, it creates tremendous resistance,” said Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School and co-founder of the Cultural Cognition Project.

Kahan’s research also indicates that people more readily remember the experts who take positions that fit their own cultural predisposition. So “what most scientists believe” is just another fact that is processed through the same filter of cultural values.

Is Polarization Getting Worse?

Climate change has become “shorthand” for a whole set of issues — it’s one way of conveying where you stand, according to Kahan. And while many think that polarization around climate change is escalating, he believes environmental matters have always carried this kind of cultural load.

“When things heat up,” he said, “you can expect issues with resonance to become points of contention.”

Ropeik thinks the ferocity of the culture war today indicates that we must feel we are facing a huge threat.

“Since we are social animals, how our tribe is doing matters on a survival level,” he noted. “We feel more threatened today because the media blares alert signals 24/7, constantly throws out potential threats about science and technology, and because more people are competing for limited resources.”

Strategies do exist, however, that can help us lessen the polarization and hopefully make progress towards effecting climate change policies.

Strategies for Effective Communication

People respond in a more open-minded way when information is presented in a manner that affirms their values rather than threatens them, according to The Cultural Cognition Project.

Its research indicates that individualists and hierarchists are more open-minded about factual evidence dealing with climate change when it is presented to them along with solutions that include nuclear power and geoengineering, activities that, to them, represent human resourcefulness. Similarly, it found that egalitarians and communitarians are less likely to reject evidence of the safety of nanotechnology if they are explained the role it could play in protecting the environment.

“If we want people to believe there’s a problem, we had better show them an acceptable solution,” Kahan advised. “Unfortunately the narrative about climate change that has taken root is one about limits, but to insist that that should be the only story makes people suspicious, and it’s not true.

"Not enough attention is given to helping people see that the ways we can deal with climate change are as diverse as people’s ideas of the best life.”

Communication is also more effective when scientific facts are presented by a varied group of experts.

In one experiment, Kahan and his colleagues inverted experts and their messages so that people could not pick up cues about the experts’ positions and found that polarization shrank. In fact, when the experts defended positions that were unexpectedly contrary to their cultural outlooks, people listening actually swapped points of view, too.

Climate scientist Gavin Schmidt is aware of this phenomenon. “I try not to say or use things people have heard before so they don’t pigeonhole me. I’m not changing what I’m saying—I’m just trying to explain it in different ways, because not being what people expect breaks barriers and gets people to pay attention,” he said.

The Cultural Cognition Project’s Geoffrey Cohen also found that when people receive good news that reflects well on them or an affirming message about themselves, they become more open-minded. When subsequently confronted with factual information that’s not shared by their cultural group, they are less threatened. The affirmation provides a kind of “buffer” that helps them resist the rejection of information on a cultural basis. They are actually more thoughtful and deliberate in assessing the information, and more willing to change their minds.

The Way Forward

There are also some hopeful findings in the Global Warming’s Six Americas report released earlier this year by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change — evidence that, beyond polarization, there is actually significant consensus in the U.S.

Majorities in all six groups of Americans, from the “alarmed” to the “dismissive,” believe that developing sources of clean energy should be a priority for the nation and strongly support more funding for research into renewable energy sources and incentives to encourage the use of solar panels and energy efficient vehicles. Majorities of five of the groups (all but the “dismissive”) also support regulating CO2 as a pollutant.

These findings jibe with Kahan’s belief that there is much more convergence in the U.S. than disagreement.

“People want to be healthy, secure and prosperous, and they agree that government should focus on policies to get there … they only disagree on the means,” he said. “So if we can figure out why people accept different facts, we can create policies that bridge the gap.”


See also:

Greenpeace Says Climate Denialism a 20–Year Industry

Skeptics Exaggerating Science Scandal to Derail Copenhagen Climate Talks

Psychologists Delve Into the Paradox of U.S. Concern but Inaction on Climate Change