New Scientist

Why the World Won’t Listen

Climate change is real. Why has science failed to convince people?

An elderly man exercises in the morning as he faces chimneys emitting smoke behind buildings across the Songhua river in Jilin.
An elderly man exercises near the Songhua river in Jilin, Jilin province, on Feb. 24, 2013. Are pictures like this enough to change a climate skeptic’s mind?

Photo by Stringer/Reuters

When scholars of the future write the history of climate change, they may look to early 2008 as a pivotal moment. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was bringing the science to the masses. The economist Nicholas Stern had made the financial case for tackling the problem sooner rather than later. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just issued its most unequivocal report yet on the link between human activity and climatic change.

The scientific and economic cases were made. Surely with all those facts on the table, soaring public interest and ambitious political action were inevitable?

The exact opposite happened. Fast-forward to today, with the release of the IPCC’s latest report on the state of climate science, and it is clear that public concern and political enthusiasm have not kept up with the science. Apathy, lack of interest, and even outright denial are more widespread than they were in 2008.

How did the rational arguments of science and economics fail to win the day? There are many reasons, but an important one concerns human nature.

Through a growing body of psychological research, we know that scaring or shaming people into sustainable behavior is likely to backfire. We know that it is difficult to overcome the psychological distance between the concept of climate change—not here, not now—and people’s everyday lives. We know that beliefs about the climate are influenced by extreme and even daily weather.

One of the most striking findings is that concern about climate change is not only, or even mostly, a product of how much people know about science. Increased knowledge tends to harden existing opinions.

These findings and many more are increasingly available to campaigners and science communicators, but it is not clear that lessons are being learned. In particular there is a great deal of resistance toward the idea that communicating climate change requires more than explaining the science.

An ice cave at the leading edge of the Pastoruri glacier is seen in Huaraz, September 19, 2013. The Pastoruri glacier is one of the fastest receding glaciers.
An ice cave at the leading edge of the Pastoruri glacier is seen in Huaraz, Peru. The Pastoruri glacier is one of the fastest-receding glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, according to a paper by the University of Texas and the Huascaran National Park.

Photo by Mariana Bazo/Reuters

The IPCC report, out on Sept. 27, provides communicators with plenty of factual ammunition. It will inevitably be attacked by climate deniers. In response, rebuttals, debunkings, and counter-arguments will pour forth, as fighting denial has become a cottage industry in itself.

None of it will make any real difference. This is for the simple reason that the argument is not really about the science; it is about politics and values.

Consider, for example, the finding that people with politically conservative beliefs are more likely to doubt the reality or seriousness of climate change. Accurate information about climate change is no less readily available to these people than anybody else. But climate policies such as the regulation of industrial emissions often seem to clash with conservative political views. And people work backward from their values, filtering the facts according to their pre-existing beliefs.

Research has shown that people who endorse free-market economic principles become less hostile when they are presented with policy responses that do not seem to be as threatening to their worldview, such as geoengineering. Climate change communicators must understand that debates about the science are often simply a proxy for these more fundamental disagreements.

Some will argue that climate change discourse has become so polluted by politics that we can’t see the scientific woods for the political trees. Why should science communicators get their hands dirty with politics? But the solution is not to scream ever louder at people that the woods are there if only they would look properly. A much better, and more empirically supported, answer is to start with those trees. The way to engage the public on climate change is to find ways of making it resonate more effectively with the values that people hold.

My colleagues and I argued in a recent report for the Climate Outreach and Information Network that there is no inherent contradiction between conservative values and engaging with climate change science. But hostility has grown because climate change has become associated with left-wing ideas and language.

If communicators were to start with ideas that resonated more powerfully with the right—the beauty of the local environment, or the need to enhance energy security—the conversation about climate change would likely flow much more easily.

A dry slope is seen near the Shiyang river on the outskirts of Wuwei, Gansu province September 21, 2013. Beijing blames climate change for wreaking havoc on scarce water resources, but critics say the country's headlong drive to build its industrial prowess and huge hydro projects are just as responsible.
A dry slope is seen near the Shiyang river on the outskirts of Wuwei, Gansu province Sept. 21, 2013. Beijing blames climate change for wreaking havoc on scarce water resources, but critics say the country’s headlong drive to build its industrial prowess and huge hydro projects is just as responsible.

Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Similarly, a recent report from the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University in the U.K. showed there are some core values that underpin views about the country’s energy system. Whether wind farms or nuclear power, the public judges energy technologies by a set of underlying values—including fairness, avoiding wastefulness, and affordability. If a technology is seen as embodying these, it is likely to be approved of. Again, it is human values, more than science and technology, that shape public perceptions.

Accepting this is a challenge for those seeking to communicate climate science. Too often, they assume that the facts will speak for themselves—ignoring the research that reveals how real people respond. That is a pretty unscientific way of going about science communication.

The challenge now that the IPCC report has appeared, then, is not to simply crank up the volume on the facts. Instead, we must use the report as the beginning of a series of conversations about climate change—conversations that start from people’s values and work back from there to the science.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.