Climate misperceptions

While there is near-unanimous agreement among climate scientists that Earth’s average surface temperature has increased from pre-industrial levels, and that human activity is a principal cause of global warming, opinion polling carried out by climate change communications specialist Edward Maibach and colleagues shows that a significant proportion of the general public in the United States believe that scientists widely disagree on the issue. This misperception has a negative influence on the public’s view of the importance of climate policy.

The paper, which is well worth a read if you have access to the journal, discusses some of the challenges involved in popular science communication when it comes to politically sensitive issues such as climate change. It also refers to the rhetorical truth that “…repeating the myth only makes it more familiar over time.” In this context, climate change deniers and sceptics can dominate the debate by virtue of their mainstream media presence, and the relative lack of public access to and understanding of the details of climate science.

That being so, there is at the same time an unwillingness on the part of many to accept what they know is likely to be true, as this conflicts with ideological prejudice. The researchers discuss the effect in terms of “motivated reasoning”, contrasting this with the “Elaboration Likelihood Model”, which they say better explains the views of those not so directly involved in the issue.

According to Maibach and his colleagues, motivated reasoning characterises the minority of “highly committed partisans with strongly held views”, but this doesn’t apply to the population as a whole. That may be so, but can either model account for those intelligent and informed policymakers with a technocratic bent who in this time of global economic crisis choose to downplay the importance of climate change, and instead advocate the kind of energy-intensive growth strategies that got us into this mess in the first place?

Further reading

Ding et al., “Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement”, Nature Climate Change 1, 462 (2011)