Why People Resist the Notion of Climate Change

by Shannon Hall on February 10, 2014

Image Credit: NASA

Arctic sea ice loss is one of the most dramatic signs of climate change. Image Credit: NASA

One of the most striking features of the climate change ‘debate’ is that it’s no longer a debate. Climate scientists around the world agree that climate change is very real — the Earth is warming up and we are the cause.

Yet while there is consensus even among the most reserved climate scientists, a portion of the public persistently disagrees. A recent Pew Research Center — an organization that provides information on demographic trends across the U.S. and the world — survey found that roughly four-in-ten Americans see climate change as a global threat. Climate scientists are racking their brains in an attempt to find out why.

Yale law professor Dan Kahan has done extensive research which reveals how our deep-rooted cultural dispositions might interfere with our perceptions of reality.

Why We Resist Climate Change

In 2010 Kahan led a study, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus,” which found that individuals tend to weigh evidence and credit experts differently based on cultural considerations. Psychological mechanisms allow individuals to selectively credit or dismiss evidence and experts, depending on whether the views presented match the dominant view of their group.

“There is an interdependence between people’s prior beliefs about risk and their exposure to and understanding of information,” Kahan told Universe Today. “People are motivated to search out information in a biased way. They look more for information that is consistent with their views than for information that is going to refute their views.”

Kahan’s study was administered online to 1,500 U.S. adults. Preliminary analyses wanted to determine if the public thought there was a scientific consensus regarding climate change and if there was a scientific consensus regarding human activity as the cause.

A majority — 55 percent — of the subjects reported their opinion that most scientists agree that global temperatures are rising, 12 percent believed most scientists do not find that global temperatures are rising, and 33 percent believed that scientists are divided on the topic. On whether or not human activity is the cause, 45 percent believed scientists agree that human activity is the cause, 15 percent believed scientists don’t think human activity is the cause, and 40 percent believed scientists are divided on the topic.

The public is generally not in a position to investigate the data for themselves or even read a scientific paper full of unfamiliar acronyms, plots and equations. Instead they turn to experts for assistance. Often times in determining who is credible, individuals will trust those who share similar world views and personal values. They tend to seek information congenial to their cultural predispositions.

For Kahan’s first experiment, the subjects read the biographical information of an expert scientist. They had to decide whether he was credible, having earned a Ph.D. from an elite university and now serving as a faculty member of another elite university. Those who listed themselves as hierarchical — believing in stratified social roles (generally conservatives) —  were more likely to find the expert scientist credible, while those who listed themselves as communitarian — expecting individuals to secure their own well-being (generally liberals) — were more likely to find the expert scientist not credible.

These fictional individuals were identified as credible or not based on their biographies only.

These fictional individuals were identified as credible or not based on their biographies only. Credit: Kahan et al. 2010

However, a second experiment showed the subjects not only the resume of the expert scientist but his position as well. Half the subjects were shown evidence that the expert believed in climate change, placing us at a high risk, while the other half of the subjects were shown evidence that the expert didn’t believe in climate change, placing us at a low risk.

The position imputed by the expert scientist dramatically affected the responses of the subjects. When the expert scientist supported a high risk position, 23 percent of the hierarchs and 88 percent of the communitarians found him credible. In contrast, when the expert scientist supported a low risk position, 86 percent of the hierarchs and 47 percent of the communitarians found him credible.

Whether the expert scientist was considered credible was highly associated with whether he took the position dominant in the subject’s cultural group. The subjects “have dispositions that are connected to their values that then will affect how they make sense of information,” Kahan said.

Image Credit: Kahan et al. 2010

The percentage of subjects who found the author credible depending on whether he supported a high risk (climate change is real) or low risk (climate change is not real) position. Credit: Kahan et al. 2010

At the end of the day the conclusion is simple: we’re human.  And this leads us to take the path of least resistance: we choose to believe in what those around us believe.

So it’s not that people aren’t sufficiently rational. “They’re too rational,” Kahan said. “They’re too good at extracting from the information you’re giving them, which sends the message that tells them what position they should take given the kind of person they are.”

Moving Forward

Kahan’s study shows that scientific consensus alone will not sway the public. The public will remain polarized despite efforts to increase trust in scientists or simply awareness of scientific research. Instead the key is to use science communication strategies, which reduce the likelihood the public will find climate change threatening.

In a more recent study, published in Nature, Kahan analyzed two techniques of science communication that may help break the connection between cultural predispositions and the evaluation of information.

The first technique is to frame the information in a manner that doesn’t threaten people’s values. In this study, Kahan and his colleagues asked participants to once again assess the credibility of climate change. But before doing so the subjects had to read an article.

One article was a study suggesting that carbon dissipates from the atmosphere much slower than scientists had previously thought. As a result, if we stopped producing carbon today, there would still be catastrophic effects: rising sea level, drought, hurricanes, etc. Another article (shown to a different group) gave information on geo-engineering or nuclear power — potential technological advances that may help reduce the effects of climate change. A final control group read an unrelated article on traffic lights.

Logically all of these articles had nothing to do with whether climate change is valid. But psychologically these articles did determine the meaning that people attached to the evidence of climate change. In all cases the hierarchs were less likely than the communitarians to say climate change is valid. But the gap was 29 percent smaller among the group that was first exposed to geo-engineering than the group that was exposed to regulating carbon.

“The evidence of whether there is a problem doesn’t depend on what you’re going to do about it,” Kahan said. “But psychologically it can make a difference.”

People tend to resist scientific evidence that may lead to restrictions on their personal activities, or evidence that threatens them as individuals  But if they are presented with information in a way that upholds their identities, they react with an open mind.

The second technique is to ensure that climate change is vouched for by a diverse set of experts. If a particular group is able to identify with that expert, then that group will be more open-minded in addressing the study. This will help reduce the initial polarization between hierarchs and communitarians.

Kahan argues that science “needs better marketing.” It needs to combine climate change with meanings that are affirming rather than threatening to people. When groups can identify with the expert, or are presented with possible solutions to climate change, the individuals in that group will stop attaching the issues to identity.

According to Kahan, in order to move forward, science communication needs to change the narrative. It needs to mitigate the connection between climate change and the individual. In order for there to be a public consensus on climate change it has to be presented in a less threatening manner.

This doesn’t mean that science communication has to avoid the nasty truth about climate change in order to finally reach a public consensus. Instead it has to spin climate change in a positive way — a way that is less threatening to the individual.

Science communication has to focus the public’s attention on what so many individuals value: efficiency, not being wasteful, innovation and moving forward. Only then will the public reach a consensus where there is now only polarization.


Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program.

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