I’d like to think that most human brains can accept data and facts that may not comport with their individual, subjective experience. But that would probably require denying reality, in its own ironic way.
People who live in areas where high temperature records are broken are more likely to believe in global warming than those who do not. In areas that experienced record lows, people were less inclined to believe in the mainstream climate science that shows human activity is warming the Earth.
And hence we have a U.S. Senator throwing a snowball on the senate floor as evidence that global warming is a hoax.
As with previous Pew Research Center surveys, there are wide differences among political party and ideology groups on whether or not human activity is responsible for warming temperatures. A large majority of liberal Democrats (79%) believe the Earth is warming mostly because of human activity. In contrast, only about one-in-six conservative Republicans (15%) say this, a difference of 64 percentage points. A much larger share of conservative Republicans say there is no solid evidence the Earth is warming (36%) or that warming stems from natural causes (48%).
Yet while Americans distrust the science, they seem to like some of the major solutions needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On energy:
Fully 89% of Americans favor more solar panel farms, just 9% oppose. A similarly large share supports more wind turbine farms (83% favor, 14% oppose).
By comparison, the public is more divided over expanding the production of nuclear and fossil fuel energy sources. Specifically, 45% favor more offshore oil and gas drilling, while 52% oppose. Similar shares support and oppose expanding hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for oil and gas (42% favor and 53% oppose). Some 41% favor more coal mining, while a 57% majority opposes this.
On rooftop solar:
Some 55% of homeowners under age 50 say they have given serious thought to installing or have already installed solar panels at home. Fewer homeowners ages 50 and older say the same (36%).
The key reasons people cite for considering solar are financial followed by concern for the environment. Among all who have installed or given serious thought to installing solar panels, large majorities say their reasons include cost savings on utilities (92%) or helping the environment (87%). Smaller shares of this group, though still majorities, say improved health (67%) or a solar tax investment credit (59%) are reasons they have or would install home solar panels.
And on restricting emissions:
Americans are largely optimistic that restrictions on power plant emissions (51%) and international agreements to limit carbon emissions (49%) can make a big difference to address climate change.
So it’s an odd story, but a reminder that climate advocates should focus on solutions in their messaging on this issue. Not only do solutions make people feel empowered, particularly if they’re centered on “local action,” but they help reframe the debate away from depressing and polarizing scientific findings.
William Hayes is a defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, and he unwittingly just offered one of the great examples of the flawed mental processes that contribute to climate science denial.
Hayes was videotaped by HBO’s NFL show “Hard Knocks” for an episode on the Rams training camp. The cameras followed him to a museum about dinosaurs. The hitch? Hayes adamantly refuses to believe they ever existed, as ESPN reported last year:
“No, I don’t believe dinosaurs existed,” Hayes said last month. “Not even a little bit. With these bones, it’s crazy because man has never seen a dinosaur, we can agree on that, right? But we know exactly how to put these bones together? I believe there is more of a chance you will find a mermaid than you will a dinosaur because we find different species in the water all the time.
“I don’t understand how [Long] just believes in dinosaurs. That’s just crazy to me. We know they died. We know what a T-Rex eats? That don’t sound crazy to you? We have never seen a dinosaur before but we know exactly where every single rib [was] and which rib goes where. That’s crazy to me.”
For many people (at least those who accept the fossil record), it was presented as comic relief to see him at the dinosaur museum. HBO hasn’t released the full clip but you can see an edited version with some highlights here:
What does this have to do with denying climate science? Well, the same flawed mental processes are at work:
- First, the gut reaction: this scientific explanation just doesn’t sound right. It’s privileging a gut, subjective feeling over objective evidence.
- Second, a complete rejection of any facts or data that contradict this belief. You can watch him simply stare in disbelief and reject out of hand anything the tour guide said, as climate deniers reject data on warming.
- Finally, although it wasn’t shown in the clip, an ability to turn the most contradictory fact into an argument for your belief (i.e. this fossil is so ridiculous that it clearly must be a fake). He even photographed some of the fossils to send to a friend as a way to bolster his case. Similarly, “smart idiots” are great at spinning away climate facts that contradict their beliefs.
Of course, this flawed mental processing isn’t just limited to fossil and climate science denial. Beliefs trump facts in many instances (pun possibly intended), despite the human brain’s generally good track record at making accurate snap decisions. If not, we wouldn’t be such a dominant species.
But unless we make more progress unraveling climate science denial, the other areas of flawed thinking won’t matter much.
To trigger the right emotions, [behavioral psychologist Renee] Lertzman and her colleagues developed a script where they circled around environmentalism without explicitly labeling it as such.
The script discussed nature and the merits of the outdoors. It gave a nod to “creation care,” an idea in Christianity that humans are responsible for this planet. It acknowledged that people might dislike former Vice President Al Gore and policies that seek to expand government. It is possible to address the challenge on “our own terms” through sustainable energy solutions, the script stated.
To judge whether the message resonated with conservatives, Lertzman and her colleagues gave a test audience a dial that they could turn up high if they liked what they were hearing. As the scientists went through the script, both moderate and staunch conservatives cranked up the dial.
The testing proved the script was successful, Lertzman said. She and her colleagues have shared the dial test results with select audiences, including to pro-climate GOP members of Congress who would like to discuss climate with their conservative constituencies.
I’m not going to be comfortable labeling climate mitigation efforts “creation care,” but I do like the idea of discussing climate action as something that local communities can and should do “on their own terms.”
This type of message can resonate in two ways: one, it can address conservatives’ fears that belief in climate science will trigger massive government overreach in regulating our economy. Two, it underscores the need for decentralized action on climate change, which I believe will be a necessity even with a strong federal role in supporting clean technology and putting a price on carbon.
Why local action? Well, two more reasons there. First, the impacts of climate change will be unique to each community. Federal and state government can help with the process, but it will ultimately be a local issue. Coastal cities will have to deal with sea level rise and figure out how to pay for sea walls or abandon some development, while inland areas will have to deal with droughts, fires, twisters, hurricanes, and the litany of other cataclysmic weather that scientists tell us will get worse.
Second, to reduce emissions, each community will need to determine the right mix of strategies and harness the energy generation potential of their geographical area. That means local solutions to reduce driving and encourage walking and biking and more localized energy production, depending on local resources. Those resources could be wave/tidal, geothermal, wind, sun or who knows what else we may invent and harness in the coming years.
I also like the idea of local innovation, to create and test ideas and policies that can spread throughout the world. So unlocking this kind of experimentation is also good for broader policy development.
Hopefully this phrase “our on our terms” can be useful for other climate researchers looking to have more productive discussions about policy options with climate science doubters. It’s going to take much more than just one phrase, but maybe it can get us started on a more productive path. Meanwhile, I look forward to learning more about what scientists can tell us — both on climate change and how to communicate about it.
Climate change has become one of the most ideological issues of the day, with beliefs hardened according to political attitudes. But Pope Francis appears to be pulling off the miracle of actually changing people’s minds, per the Christian Science Monitor:
In 2015, on the eve of the release of Pope Francis’s encyclical [on climate change], research showed that Catholics in the United States were divided over global warming. Their differences mirrored the partisan divide found among much of the population, with around 80 percent of Catholic Democrats claiming there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming, and only half of Catholic Republicans claiming the same. Meanwhile, around 60 percent of Catholic Democrats said that global warming is a serious, man-made problem, while just a quarter of Catholic Republicans agreed.
But over the past year, perceptions began to shift. Just 6 months after the release of Laudato Si, the percentage of American Catholics who thought climate change is a moral issue jumped from 34 percent to 42 percent, according to a study conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Meanwhile, a study released by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America found that Catholic Republicans who read Laudato Si were 10 percent more likely to agree that human activities are responsible for climate change.
So we can add that to the arsenal of strategies for overcoming resistance to the science: get more religious authorities to speak out on climate change.
The issue is rightly framed as a moral one, given how vulnerable communities will be most likely to face the worst impacts of extreme weather wrought by a warming planet.
Climate science denial may finally be waning on the right, but there’s still a long way to go. The Guardian assesses the roots of this denial, dispelling the myth that anti-vaccination ideology is a mirror on the left of climate science rejection on the right:
A 2013 paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues investigated the links between ideology and science denial. The study similarly found no evidence of symmetrical science denial between liberals and conservatives on different issues. The authors concluded that conspiratorial thinking and free market support – both prevalent on the political right – were most strongly related to science denial:
Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested.
Notably, left-wing anti-vaccination beliefs are more motivated by distrust of the pharmaceutical industry rather than broad-based rejection of science (although I imagine there’s some overlap).
Meanwhile, the pervasive phenomenon of smart, stubborn science-deniers continues:
This rising distrust of science is particularly high among higher-educated conservatives, in what’s been coined the “smart idiot” effect. Essentially, on complicated scientific subjects like climate change, more highly-educated ideologically-biased individuals possess more tools to fool themselves into denying the science and rejecting the conclusions of experts.
The article does note that “smart idiot” demographic change will take its toll:
However, there is good news. For one, climate denial is largely limited to a small and dwindling group of old, white, male conservatives; hence, it’s not a tenable long-term position for the Republican Party. Like opposition to gay marriage, science denial is a position that will increasingly alienate young voters in particular, who will bear the brunt of the consequences of climate inaction.
It’s a shame it has to come to that, rather than having the overwhelming evidence and weight of scientific consensus change attitudes. But perhaps in that respect, attitudes about climate change science are no different than our country’s polarized attitudes about a host of political issues.
Esquire reports on the deepening pessimism that many climate scientists are experiencing:
Among climate activists, gloom is building. Jim Driscoll of the National Institute for Peer Support just finished a study of a group of longtime activists whose most frequently reported feeling was sadness, followed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this “pretraumatic” stress. “So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder—the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.” Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her “climate trauma,” as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,” in which she suggests compartmentalization: “Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.”
Most of the dozens of scientists and activists I spoke to date the rise of the melancholy mood to the failure of the 2009 climate conference and the gradual shift from hope of prevention to plans for adaptation: Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth is a manual for survival on an earth so different he doesn’t think we should even spell it the same, and James Lovelock delivers the same message in A Rough Ride to the Future. In Australia, Clive Hamilton writes articles and books with titles like Requiem for a Species. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the melancholy Jonathan Franzen argued that, since earth now “resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy,” we should stop trying to avoid the inevitable and spend our money on new nature preserves, where birds can go extinct a little more slowly.
While my expertise is on the law and policy side and not on the science, I can relate to some extent. You see enough studies and data about the inevitable and largely negative change that this planet will continue experiencing, and it makes for a nagging feeling of despair.
Maybe for that reason I actually enjoy working on the mitigation side of tackling climate change, as opposed to the adaptation or “preparation” side. With mitigation, we can focus on the technology solutions and the policies that enable them, offering some hope that we can manage the decline of our environment in a way that will still allow civilization to flourish.
And perhaps at some level, it’s important to have humility and perspective: Earth will still survive these climate changes, as the history of the planet has been one of great upheaval followed by rapid changes in evolution and redeployment of life. Some species out there now (maybe even some humans) will greatly benefit from these climate changes, and their descendants will probably repopulate the Earth like our mammalian ancestors did following the end of the dinosaur age.
But in the meantime, there’s not much else most of us can do other than trying to reduce carbon pollution through our policies and purchases.
According to NASA satellite data:
The agency says that we’ve seen 3 inches of global sea level increase since the year 1992 — with large regional variation — and a further rise of three feet has likely been “locked in” by warming that has already occurred. Other scientists have recently suggested that we may be about to unleash considerably more than that.
“The data shows that sea level is rising faster than it was 50 years ago, and it’s very likely to get worse in the future,” Steve Nerem, who leads NASA’s new Sea Level Change Team, said in a press call Wednesday.
The Greenland ice sheets alone could raise sea levels 20 feet, if they melt completely.
I’m sure climate deniers will try to attack the messengers here, arguing that the satellite data is untrustworthy or that NASA scientists wills somehow personally profit from skewing these results.
Instead, I’d rather they read a recent peer-reviewed study showing that the lone 3% of scientific reports casting doubt on climate science appear to have significant flaws, like cherry-picked data and conclusions that can’t be replicated. Not that facts matter of course.
So say a few researchers, pointing out that the climate change threat in the fantasy show (and films like “Snowpiercer”) offers a way to communicate the real-life dangers of climate change in the real world:
Elizabeth Trobaugh, who teaches a class on climate fiction in popular culture at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, believes they [popular depictions of climate change] help the cause.
“For many movie-goers, these climate fiction films might just be action films, but for many they are raising awareness and interest in the air,” she said.
But Ted Howell, who teaches a climate fiction class at Temple University in Philadelphia, said film-goers may be getting the wrong idea about what climate change looks like.
“Some people think (climate change) is going to be this massive tidal wave or giant snowstorm, but it’s actually slower than that,” he said.
As a fan of both the books and the show, I’ll be tuning in for the Season 5 premiere on Sunday. But maybe now I can also feel good that the show might be helping to advance discussions around climate science.
A new study from researchers at Princeton, Yale, and George Mason University finds that repeatedly communicating the “97% scientific consensus” that human actions are warming the planet may help breakdown climate denier resistance to accepting the science:
After being presented with the consensus message, people on average increased their estimate of the percentage of scientists who agree about climate change by 12.8 percent. And the paper further found that when people up their estimate of the percentage of scientists who accept that global warming is caused by humans, they also increase their own belief in the science, and their own worry about it, becoming more likely to want the world to take climate action.
But Yale public opinion researcher Dan Kahan is skeptical of the report findings:
If this is the strongest case that can be made for “97% consensus messaging,” there should no longer be any doubt in the minds of practical people–ones making decisions about how to actually do constructive things in the real world– that it’s time to try something else.
Kahan argues instead that discussions of geoengineering are actually better at getting climate deniers to start thinking constructively about how to solve climate change, mainly because geoengineering as a solution doesn’t involve government intervention into the economy through taxes or regulations on fossil fuels. And it’s the fear of this solution or policy response that seems to motivate climate deniers to reject the underlying science that could justify them.
My feeling is it can’t hurt to try both approaches, provided there’s no evidence that either message could actually backfire. In fact, I found it reassuring that the 97% message didn’t cause a backfire, knowing how people with false beliefs can really get their backs up when others cite science that disagrees with them.
Ultimately though it will take a big cultural shift to truly kill off the anti-science beliefs, the same way the American South came around (largely anyway, or at least publicly) to reject legal segregation based on race. Some of that requires changing of the generations, but a lot of it requires changing events (like more extreme weather) and the relentless dialogue and discussions of the subject, even in the face of obstinate attitudes that seem impossible to change. Whether we start with geoengineering or the 97% message, the conversations just need to keep going, and the tide will keep turning.