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All This Wrangling Over Climate Change - What's Up With That?

Aug 01, 2011

Why has climate change generated such a bitter controversy? Why do some insist that man-made global warming is "settled science" and a dangerous reality, while others insist it's "junk science" and a hoax?

In picking apart the climate change debate, I see several forces at work shaping public opinion and attitudes:

  • Geographical and societal influences
  • Political ideologies and popular influencers
  • The scientific evidence itself
  • The weather this week

In a previous article, I examined research on public attitudes around climate change (see "Does the Public Really Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?"). Research from Gallup, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Public Affairs shows geographical differences in the public's attitudes about climate change. This suggests culture and economics as influences on beliefs about this issue.

Sad EarthWorldwide, 35 percent blame human activities for global warming, 14 percent blame natural causes, and 13 percent blame both. In developed Asia, 76 percent think global warming is caused by human activities. In Canada and Western Europe, about half blame human activities (54 percent and 49 percent respectively). (Photo: Sad Earth. Credit: John LeGear, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the U.S., though, only 34 percent say that rising temperatures due to climate change are caused by human activities. Moreover, attitudes in the U.S. have been changing since 2008, with more now expressing a skeptical view about man-made global warming.

Which America Do You Live In?

Recently, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication published a report called "Global Warming's Six Americas in May 2011," which analyzes the variation in beliefs about climate change in the United States.

The "Six Americas" are various segments of the U.S. population, grouped according to their beliefs about the question whether global warming is real and man-made. Yale defines its segments as (shown here with their percentages of the U.S. population):

  • Alarmed -- 12 %
  • Concerned -- 27%
  • Cautious -- 25%
  • Disengaged -- 10%
  • Doubtful -- 15%
  • Dismissive -- 10%

Melbourne World Environment Day 2011These segments are listed according to their placement on a scale from highest to lowest: The "Alarmed" respondents are those with the highest belief in global warming and who are the most concerned and most motivated around the issue. "Dismissive" respondents have the lowest belief in global warming and are the least concerned and least motivated. (Photo: Melbourne World Environment Day 2011. Credit: Takver, CC BY-SA 2.0)

How much do the people in these segments really know about the issue of global warming? According to the report's authors,

Of the Six Americas, the Dismissive were the most likely to say they are well-informed about global warming, with 91% saying they were very or fairly well-informed. Among the Alarmed, 85% said they were very or fairly well-informed, followed by two-thirds of the Concerned and the Doubtful.

Most Americans say they have questions about global warming and would like to know more, according to the study's authors.

Is one side in the global warming controversy somehow better informed or educated than the other? Obviously, there are scientists, think-tank researchers, academics, and policy experts who have in-depth knowledge of climate change and its causes. But when it comes to the general populace, researchers at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School ("The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change") recently came to an interesting conclusion:

The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults ... found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.

So those who doubt climate change are not necessarily less informed than those who accept it. However, the researchers write that:

More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.

The Yale researchers believe that, in deciding how to respond to risks such as climate change, people are profoundly influenced by the cultural groups they belong to and the values of those groups. Their mere knowledge of issues is secondary.

Before pursuing that, though, it's worth noting the influence of current weather on people's beliefs about global warming.

Scorchers and Snowpocalypses

I used to think people were kidding when they would say things like, "Oh look how hot it is -- must be global warming," or "Look how much snow we're having -- and they say the world is getting warmer." But apparently it's no joke. The Yale "Six Americas" study says that "Because Americans do not clearly distinguish between weather and climate, they may be inclined to infer whether climate change is occurring from recent weather."

Chicago Blizzard of 2011Among the Cautious and Disengaged, their attitudes seem to swing back and forth from winter to summer. And for many among the Alarmed, Concerned, Doubtful, and Dismissive, the weather tends to confirm their beliefs about global warming either way. The Alarmed see the weather as confirming global warming; the dismissive see the weather as arguing against it. (Photo: Chicago Blizzard of 2011. Credit: seligmanwaite, CC BY 2.0)

How can different people living in the same world, with the same evidence available to them, come to opposite conclusions?

Confirmation Bias and Political Ideology

Consider the phenomenon known as "confirmation bias." The Skeptic's Dictionary defines confirmation bias as "a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs."

So recognizing human-caused climate change might fit the world view of one person, but seeing it as a hoax might fit the world view of the next one.

Grappling on the global-warming battlefield are two parties in a high-stakes political conflict: On the extreme ends of the global warming controversy, believers accuse skeptics of pushing "free-market fundamentalism"; skeptics accuse believers of pushing "eco-socialism."

Al Gore

According to one narrative, market fundamentalists and corporate interests are funding an intentionally-deceptive propaganda campaign against the concept of human-caused global warming to keep business free from regulatory interference. (Photo: Environmental advocate Al Gore. Credit: World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to the opposing narrative, communism has reformulated itself as a leftist environmental movement bent on establishing a world government and destroying free-market capitalism.

In my previous article about public-opinion research, I highlighted a study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which found considerable difference in U.S. attitudes about climate change between Democrats and Republicans. Forty-eight percent of Democrats think climate change is a critical threat, versus 16 percent of Republicans. When it comes to the U.S.'s participating in a new treaty to mitigate climate change through reduction of greenhouse gases, 85 percent of Democrats favor such a move, as opposed to 50 percent of Republicans.

So political persuasion emerges as an important influence on people's attitudes about climate change -- or at least there's a correlation.

"There Is No Controversy" -- Yeah, Right.

True believers are fond of saying that "There is no dispute" about whatever they think should be the official version of the truth. That would work really well if they were in charge of a large society of, say, sheep. But in a human society, even if you claim to have science on your side, a certain percentage of the populace is going to reserve the right to think for itself.

Chris Monckton

As much as researchers and pundits on both sides might hate to acknowledge it, human-induced climate change is a controversial question. Some of the differences between factions might be explained by cultural or political influences, confirmation bias, or mistaken ideas about the weather. I suspect all of these factors, as well as others I haven't yet explored here. (Photo: Global warming skeptic Christopher Monckton. Credit: Don Irvine, CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Alarmed and Dismissive might think they already know everything they need to know about climate change and its causes. But what about you Cautious, Disengaged, or Doubtful? Where can you find clear explanations of the science around climate change -- that is, explanations that don't require a Ph.D. in atmospheric science to understand them? And when you read about climate change, how can you be certain you aren't being taken in by someone with an ideological agenda -- or a couple of screws loose?

The editorial gods do not permit the devotion of further word-count to these questions today, but watch this space in the near future for more food for thinking minds. And in the meantime, please feel free to leave your observations, reflections, commentary, or lunatic ravings in the comment space below.