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.
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.