Tag Archives: Center for Research on Environmental Decisions

Climate Change or Public Health: Which Matters More?

(First posted on Aug. 1, 2014, on State of the Planet.)

Political leanings unquestionably influence how many people hear the conversation over climate change. The political polarization of the discussion has made it difficult to reach agreement on changes in environmental policy.

Might more people be persuaded to act if the issue was framed in terms of public health?

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This chart shows the effect of political orientation on selecting health vs. climate as a compelling reason for fossil fuel reduction. Source: N. Petrovic et al., Climatic Change, July 2014

A new study by Earth Institute researchers suggests that talking about the human health impacts of air pollution related to burning fossil fuels might make a more convincing argument for action among conservatives, who are generally more skeptical of the scientific evidence for climate change.

In a series of surveys, the researchers asked people in the United States a series of questions about their beliefs and level of concern about the burning of fossil fuels, as well as air pollution more generally, and their willingness to take action to mitigate the effects. They tried to assess how political orientation – from very liberal to very conservative – affected the outcome.

The researchers found that people who identified themselves as conservative find public health to be a more compelling reason for supporting fossil fuel reduction compared to climate change.

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The American Climate Gap

First published on the Earth Institute website on May 16, 2011

Despite widespread scientific evidence that climate change is underway, and that humans play an important role in it, about half of the American public doesn’t believe it. So what gives?

Maybe it’s just too scary to think about.

Climate change can be hard to grasp, until it hits close to home.

Climate change can be hard to grasp, until it hits close to home.

There’s a growing gap between scientists’ view of climate change and that of the general public, and it has less to do with scientific “illiteracy,” and more to do with the psychology of how people frame their understanding of the world, say the authors of a paper just published in the journal American Psychologist, part of a special issue on psychology and global climate change.

Authors Elke Weber, of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions and the Columbia Psychology Department, and Paul Stern, of the National Research Council, looked at a long list of studies and concluded that the solution to the “climate gap” lies not in simply “educating” the public, but rather in using techniques of behavioral science to reframe the conversation.

Scientists are steeped in an analytical world – trained to question and test hypotheses, and to use systematic methods for collecting, measuring and analyzing data. They check each others’ work. When errors are made, they get called on it. And the evidence is cumulative, built by many people over time.

By contrast, people tend to respond to adversity and uncertainty with emotion – fear, dread, anxiety – as opposed to analysis; evolution has programmed us that way. And, we tend to see issues in light of our world view, for instance, whether we’re more egalitarian or individualistic. Those values and fears play into the political debate about climate change.

The difference between how scientists and non-scientists see the issue was starkly outlined last week: The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences issued a report warning that America needs to act now to begin to deal with climate change. The science is solid, it says, and the risks of inaction are great. In response, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, representing the dominant Republican point of view, said he saw nothing in the report that would change his skeptical mind.

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