Is Climate Science Communication With The Masses Pointless?

ten-tall-tales-climate-change-skeptics-29-Jun-11A month ago, I blogged about a study that showed that conservatives might be open to climate science if the information is phrased in terms of what has been lost.  The study was based on the following logic:

Their idea is that conservatives tend to take a brighter view of the past than other groups; thus, they might be receptive to arguments regarding global warming couched in more pro-past oriented ways, e.g., “Times were better when you could count on snow for Christmas in northern towns,” or “We planted bulbs in the garden on the same spring day every year.”

But David Roberts at Vox throws cold water on the study — and the larger idea that climate scientists can make inroads among grassroots conservatives.  Instead, he argues that phrasing makes no difference when only “tribal” affiliations really determine our political beliefs:

The vast bulk of our knowledge, we take on faith. Or to put it more charitably, we take on trust. We absorb what we know from trusted peers and authorities. Our trust in them is a kind of heuristic that allows us to navigate a wildly complex and uncertain reality, of which we will directly experience only a tiny fraction.

Having an understanding of the world and your place in it — an understanding shared by your tribe — feels like safety. It feels like control. Questions that unsettle that understanding are instinctively treated with skepticism or outright hostility.

This is the great insight of the work done on “motivated reasoning” by Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale. (I’ve written about that work before, here, and Ezra Klein has written about it here.) For most people, most of the time, social bonds matter far more than any particular bit of knowledge, any fact or belief.

Roberts observes that only institutions can supersede this “tribal” dynamic.  Yet conservatives and their business allies have been systematically undermining the legitimacy of scientific institutions for years, arguing that they are corrupted, ideologically biased, and often wrong.  The efforts seem to have paid off among the conservative masses.

Instead of focusing on grassroots communication, Roberts thinks that only conservative elites have the power to change popular opinion among their tribal followers:

Conservatives will accept the scientific facts of climate change when conservative elites signal that that’s what conservatives do — when they demonstrate trust in the institutions of climate science. When that happens, there will be no particular grassroots resistance, because there’s no particular commitment to climate denialism outside its role in the culture war. Once it is not constitutive of conservative identity, it will be easily shed.

And that change, Roberts suggests, will only happen when the profit motive to combat climate change increases.

It’s a bit of a depressing take on the future of climate science mass communications, but one that does seem based on some solid research.  It’s worth contemplating as advocates try to improve the messaging.  It also points to the need to improve the business case for many of the industries we’ll need to tackle the problem, from renewables to electric vehicles to energy efficiency.

Because if Roberts is right, the profit motive will be much more powerful than the actual data in reaching climate deniers.


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