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Friday, 11 April 2014

Climate science: Why the world won't listen - opinion - 26 September 2013 - New Scientist

Climate science: Why the world won't listen - opinion - 26 September 2013 - New Scientist

When it comes to climate change, facts don't speak for themselves. Communicators need to find better ways to connect
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 Truthwas bringing the science to the masses. The economist Nicholas SternMovie Camerahad made the financial case for tackling the problem sooner rather than later. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 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, the eve 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 behaviour 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 (Nature Climate Change, vol 2, p 732).
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 towards the idea that communicating climate change requires more than explaining the science.
The IPCC report, due out on 27 September, will provide 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 backwards 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 responseswhich do not seem to be as threatening to their world view, 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.
Similarly, a recent report from the Understanding Risk group at Cardif University in the UK 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, which 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 when the IPCC report appears, 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 appeared in print under the headline "The world won't listen"

Adam Corner is a research associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, UK, and leads the Talking Climate programme for the Climate Outreach and Information Network

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 Truthwas bringing the science to the masses. The economist Nicholas SternMovie Camerahad made the financial case for tackling the problem sooner rather than later. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 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, the eve 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 behaviour 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 (Nature Climate Change, vol 2, p 732).
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 towards the idea that communicating climate change requires more than explaining the science.
The IPCC report, due out on 27 September, will provide 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 backwards 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 responseswhich do not seem to be as threatening to their world view, 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.
Similarly, a recent report from the Understanding Risk group at Cardif University in the UK 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, which 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 when the IPCC report appears, 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 appeared in print under the headline "The world won't listen"
Adam Corner is a research associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, UK, and leads the Talking Climate programme for the Climate Outreach and Information Network


Gun control: We need a new conversation

THE murder of 12 people at the Naval Yard in Washington DC last week was both very familiar and very strange. Familiar in the sense that mass shootings have become part of life in the US. Strange in the sense that the calls for action that usually follow such events were muted, with President Obama's reiterated support for gun control seeming half-hearted.
It seems the failure to enact any legislation after the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school has emasculated the gun control lobby: if the massacre of 20 young children can't shift the argument, nothing will. As The Washington Post concluded: "The issue, for the foreseeable future, is settled: Gun control is dead."
One oft-stated explanation is that the gun lobby has quashed federal funding for research into firearms violence. President Obama tried to put that rightafter Sandy Hook. But the new funding he ordered is a modest $10 million and it comes with strings: using the findings of any resulting research to advocate gun control would be a crime (see "The doctor treating the US gun epidemic").
Perhaps that will force gun control advocates to think harder about what they would do with such findings. We know that on "culture war" issues, evidence alone won't win over die-hard opponents – climate change being a prime example. Simply laying out anti-gun evidence, however forcefully and eloquently, may not only fail to change gun enthusiasts' minds, but could cause them to dig their heels in further.
Instead, gun control advocates could learn from climate activists who are devising new strategies to win over the hearts and minds of doubters. That means finding ways to convey the issues that don't instantly clash with the cherished values of those they are trying to persuade (see "Climate science: Why the world won't listen").
Rather than make the classic mistake of assuming that evidence alone will carry the day, gun control advocates need clever communication strategies to shift the debate. If they don't develop them, gun control will not only be dead – it will be buried, too.
This article appeared in print under the headline "Gun control is dead but not yet buried"
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