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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Climate Communication: Case Study

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Climate Communication

What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise?  Is it carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium, or radon?

I’ll give you an opportunity to think about your answer.










60% of 2013 Pew poll respondents answered correctly: carbon dioxide.

What was the political affiliation of those correct responders: Democratic, Unaffiliated, or Republican?








There was no statistically significant difference between the responders’ affiliation, but Republicans were somewhat more likely than Unaffiliateds and Democrats to answer correctly:

 photo PewPoll-CO2andTempbyPoliticalParty_zps96cdd163.png

What a minute.  Does that make sense?  More Democrats than Republicans believe that humans are causing global warming, but they don’t know the most fundamental fact about the topic.  Conversely, more Republicans do not believe the human-global warming relationship, but know that CO2 is a GHG and causes the atmosphere to warm.  Don’t climate activists rail against Republicans for dismissing facts or being uneducated?  They sure do, and I  think it increasingly hurts their cause.

In a nutshell, it’s not about education.  Belief statements about climate change don’t convey science knowledge; they express who people are.

This is a very good piece, which Dan Kahan delivered at Earthday “Climate teach in/out” at Yale University last month.  The  upshot: What you “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what you know; it expresses *who you are*.  This flies in the face of the approach many physical scientists (and academic faculty) take.  According to them, people are stupid and need only be filled with knowledge they possess.  That isn’t the case at all.  Instead, people respond to this and similar questions according to their identification with a cultural group.  As Kahan writes:

It [the result of taking the “wrong” position in relation to a cultural group] could drive a wedge—material, emotional, and psychological—between individual the people whose support are indispensable to his or her well-being.

And note this doesn’t just apply to evangelical Christians, a group many climate activists derogatorily cite.  This applies just as equally to those climate activists – which explains ideological positions entrenchment on the topic of climate change, evolution, the Big Bang, etc.

Kahan continues:

But while that’s the rational way for people to engage information as individuals, given what climate change signifies about their cultural identities, it’s a disaster for them collectively.  Because if everyone does this at the same time, members of a culturally diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on scientific evidence that is crucial to the welfare of all of them.

So there’s more helplessness as a result of climate change?  No, there’s not.  Kahan offers a solution and well stated opinion on where things stand:

If we want to overcome it, then we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.


That means you, as a science communicator, can enable these citizens to converge on the best available evidence on climate change.

But to do it, you must banish from the science communication environment the culturally antagonistic meanings with which positions on that issue have become entangled—so that citizens can think and reason for themselves free of the distorting impact of identity-protective cognition.

If you want to know what that sort of science communication environment looks like, I can tell you where you can see it: in Florida, where all 7 members of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners — 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans — voted unanimously to join Broward County (predominantly Democratic), Monroe County (predominantly Republican), and Miami-Dade County (predominantly Republican) in approving the Southeast Climate Compact Action plan, which, I quote from the Palm Beach County Board summary, “includes 110 adaptation and mitigation strategies for addressing seal-level risk and other climate issues within the region.”

I’ll tell you another thing about what you’ll see if you make this trip: the culturally pluralistic, and effective form of science communication happening in southeast Florida doesn’t look anything  like the culturally assaultive “us-vs-them” YouTube videos and prefabricated internet comments with which Climate Reality and Organizing for America are flooding national discourse.

And if you want to improve public engagement with climate science in the United States, the fact that advocates as high profile and as highly funded as that still haven’t figured out the single most important lesson to be learned from the science of science communication should make you very sad.

Those last two paragraphs convey my sentiments well.  Climate activists rail against skeptics as uneducated and ideologically motivated.  They label them anti-scientific and Luddites.  They try to put themselves on the high ground of the debate landscape by claiming the science flag.  Unfortunately, they focus their attention singularly on physical science and discount social science results.  While they do this, they alienate potentially receptive audiences and ensure the pace of climate action remains glacial.

There are proven ways to better communicate climate risk to a culturally pluralistic population.  Small examples are available for study and emulation.  We need to break old communication habits and adopt new ones.


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