Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Ideology and Misperception in Energy and Climate

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I could write a dissertation on this topic and spend the rest of my life researching and publishing on it.  I will have to settle for a short blog post for now, because my own research is in need of my attention.

People posted a number of tweets and articles on how “Political ideology affects energy-efficiency attitudes and choices“, which is the title of a new PNAS article.  The upshot: ideology trumps the free market.  This isn’t a surprise to me anymore – I’ve studied plenty of cases in the past two years that demonstrate this phenomenon.  In this case, peoples’ purchases of energy-efficient light bulbs were most influenced by what the bulb’s labeling stated.  The study made two stickers available: “Protect the Environment” or blank.  In both cases, the researchers made the same bulb benefits (energy use & cost) available to each potential purchaser.  The only difference was the presence of a blank or pro-environment sticker on the packaging.  With the pro-environmental sticker, conservatives were less likely to purchase the CFL bulb.  Without it, conservatives and liberals were equally likely to purchase the CFL bulb.  That’s not rational, which is a significant assumption of modern economic theory.  The result shows, unsurprisingly, that peoples’ behavior depends on their personal ideology and value system.  This has obvious implications for climate change activists: you have to operate in the value system of your targeted audience if you want them to receive your proposals well.  Beating the same drums harder won’t make conservatives care about climate change.

Climate groups are willfully failing elsewhere.  A new Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication poll demonstrates that increasing numbers of Americans are drawing incorrect conclusions from recent weather events to climate change.  The warmest year on record in the US (2012) was made more severe due to global warming, according to 50% of respondents.  A similar number believe the ongoing US drought is worse due to global warming.  The results go on and on.

Here is the rub: these beliefs have no basis in scientific fact.  2012 US temperatures were largely influenced by natural interannual variability.  It was warmer than 1998 by more than 1°F, which is significant.  But identifying a global warming signal in one year’s temperature data for the US is beyond the current capabilities of science.  We can say more robustly that the 2000s were significantly warmer than the 1990s, which were warmer than the 1980s, etc.  2012’s temperatures were extreme and it had implications that are still being felt by human and ecological systems.  The important point there is this: are existing systems capable of handling today’s weather extremes?  If not, we should do something.

The belief in climate change enhanced drought is also unsupported, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  Initial findings from a NOAA-led team were unable to detect a global warming-related signal in either the onset, magnitude, or extent of the extraordinary 2012 drought.  This isn’t particularly surprising when you consider the last two droughts of similar extent and severity occurred in the 1950s and 1930s – prior to much anthropogenic forcing.  Specifically, they found that “The interpretation is of an event resulting largely from internal atmospheric variability having limited long lead predictability.”  Again, this drought is producing effects, but it isn’t directly attributable to climate change.  The question remains: are existing systems capable of handling these types of extreme events?  If they aren’t, we should do something about them, not draw unscientific causal linkages in an effort to build support for change.

The IPCC’s SREX report (Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation), issued just last year, reinforces this message.  There is a detectable global warming signal in a few measurable parameters such as temperature, water vapor, and sea level change.  But the climate system retains a great deal of natural variability which scientists do not fully understand.  Climate conditions will change in the next 90 years, but the likelihood of those changes varies.  Weather conditions may or may not change.  Their inherent transience makes it difficult to ascribe causal factors behind any changes.  Note further that climate projections of the 2090s are not climate conditions of the 2090s or 2010s.  Identifying likely future changes does not translate to detecting those changes today.

Yale and George Mason should digest their poll results along with the latest guidance from scientific peer-reviewed literature to help guide their communication efforts moving forward.  Given the results of this latest poll, they have their work cut out for them.  Framing, whether it is related to selling CFLs to a diverse public or differentiating between weather and climate, is critically important in climate communication.


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