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World - Science Alone Won’t Change Climate Opinions, But It Matters
Ben Newell of UNSW discusses the importance of scientific knowledge in
the climate debate.
Does scientific knowledge matter
in the climate debate? Recent research suggests that it is not “what you know”
but “who you are” that counts in making up your mind about climate change.
What are the implications for the
climate debate? Does it mean that initiatives to educate the public are
fundamentally flawed and destined to fail? Not necessarily.
World views and scientific literacy
Dan Kahan and colleagues reported a small negative correlation between
scientific literacy and concern about climate change – but not for everyone in
their sample. Specifically, those participants identified as “hierarchical
individualists” (HI) showed the negative trend, but those who were “egalitarian
communitarian” (EC) showed the opposite pattern – more literate, more concern.
Put crudely, HIs are opposed to
government intervention and restrictions on industry, whereas ECs favor
intervention and are suspicious of industry and commerce. The argument then is
that each group adopts a position on the scientific information that fits with
their personal view and interests. It is not the knowledge per se that is
important but how it is incorporated into the way you see the world.
HIs see the societal upheavals
necessitated by climate change as threatening their values and thus while
“understanding” the science downplay the concern. ECs see action on climate
change as important. The more they understand the science the more concerned they
So does this mean we should be
abandoning attempts to communicate the science? If scientific understanding
only “works” for the ECs, then are we just preaching to the choir?
This question is particularly
pertinent for bodies like the Australian Climate Commission. Additional
research shows Australia also has its share of HIs and ECs and that
their respective beliefs about climate change follow the predicted pattern.
Communitarians are four times more likely than their individualists cousins to
believe that climate change is already happening.
Ditching the science?
Commentators have been quick to
point out that there are serious risks in getting carried away with a “ditch
the science” argument. Babies and bathwater spring to mind.
One important point is that
Kahan et al. did not measure scientific knowledge about
climate change, but rather some basic scientific concepts (for example, is an
electron smaller than an atom?). This information may or may not correlate with
an understanding of how and why human activities affect the climate.
As noted by another commentator on the Kahan study, the Yale Six Americas Study found that 97 percent of
respondents who identified themselves as “alarmed” about climate change
received a “pass” on a test of climate knowledge compared to only 56 percent of
those who were “dismissive”.
Others have argued strongly for
the importance of getting
the “mental model” right before people will be willing to adopt
policies or agitate for legislation that will address global warming. For example,
if your understanding of global warming leads you to think that stabilizing
(rather than reducing) CO2 emissions is sufficient for
stabilising the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere – (as
many people do) – then you might be less willing to support carbon
These studies all suggest that
knowledge of the science can help. Indeed, one recent study found that just
reading a simple 400-word description of the mechanism of global warming led to increased acceptance that climate change is
real and happening.
So where does this leave us?
Scientific knowledge certainly isn’t irrelevant to the debate – and it is clear
that this was not the intended message of Kahan’s study (despite that spin
being taken up by some in the media. But equally knowledge alone is not
The Six Americas study mentioned
above found that although the “alarmed” outscored the “dismissives” overall on
tests of climate knowledge, for some questions performance levels reversed.
For example, only 66 percent of
the “alarmed” correctly understood that the greenhouse effect refers to gases
in the atmosphere that trap heat, compared to 79 percent of the “dismissives.”
Despite this knowledge difference, the “alarmed” were much more likely to
(correctly) say that switching from fossil fuels to renewables would do a lot
to reduce global warming (89 percent alarmists vs 7 percent dismissives).
Finding the middle ground
The picture that emerges from
these various findings is that at one end of the spectrum there is a section of
the public who will be “on board” with action on climate change almost
regardless of how much science they know. At the other end there is a group who
will never be on board, again regardless of how much or how little they know.
For these groups, perhaps, the science doesn’t really matter.
But by definition there are lots
of people in the middle of the spectrum. By far the largest group in the Six
Americas study comprise the “concerned and cautious” (54 percent of the sample)
– those who are neither rampant “alarmists” (or ECs) nor head-in-the-sand
“dismissives” (or HIs).
Scientific knowledge is not a
panacea. Science alone will not eliminate the debate between the polarised ends of the
spectrum, but along with many other factors – (not least personal experience) – it can help swing the pendulum of
public opinion towards supporting policy that will slow the quickening pace of