Climate change scepticism is about more than just scienceUnited Kingdom
A coalition of leading US climate scientists this week launched a new rapid response website aimed at closing the gap between scientific knowledge and public opinion on climate change. For those who have become exasperated rebutting the endless stream of disinformation that frustratingly still characterizes the climate change debate, it seems like an idea that is long overdue.
Fronted by the embattled Prof John Abraham, the website will provide direct access to climate science expertise through a network of scientists. But the premise underlying the initiative – that climate change scepticism will be reduced through a clearer presentation of the facts – is problematic. Why? Because climate change scepticism is only superficially about science.
The basic question of human impact on the climate is no longer seriously debated in the scientific literature. Science being science, there will always be uncertainties. But if the credibility of a scientific conclusion can be judged from the weight of evidence that supports it, then climate change is a fact. The problem is that seemingly objective facts are surprisingly malleable – especially when they are perceived to have implications for policy or behavior.
Several decades of social psychological research have shown that on any number of topics – from capital punishment, to gun control, to nanotechnologies – people squeeze new evidence through powerful social and cultural filters. Pouring facts into this filter system does not necessarily produce consensus – and it can even cause attitudes to polarize.
So it is no surprise that the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have acted as a lighting rod for disagreement. For an individual who supports coordinated international action to tackle climate change, what could be more compelling than a consensus statement from an international body of independent scientists? For someone inclined to perceive international regulations as a threat to trade and industry, an international report that speaks of consensus is likely to set alarm bells ringing. The facts are the same in both cases: the interpretation very different.
As Mike Hulme showed in his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, many of the arguments that rage around climate science are not really about climate change at all: they are disputes about personal values, regulation, economic growth or the acceptable level of government intervention in our lives. Climate change just happens to cut to the heart of these red hot issues – and so it is used as a vehicle for thrashing out ancient disputes.
The gap between scientific knowledge on climate change and public attitudes is unlikely to be closed by opening up a new front of climate science dissemination. Previous experience with scientific topics such as GM crops suggests that turning up the volume on the science will not necessarily lead to greater public acceptance of climate change. So what is the alternative?
First, we have to accept that climate change scepticism is not primarily about the science. The fact that more than half of the incoming Republican politicians in the US mid-term elections dispute climate change illustrates this perfectly. These people were not driven by their rejection of climate change science to become Republicans – their conservative views have colored their interpretation of the science, which they see as threatening to their ideology.
Second, our methods for engaging the public need to move away from the one-way dissemination of information, and towards more participatory approaches. Providing opportunities for people to deliberate with each other about climate change allows the reasons for disagreement to come to the fore. If these reasons are based on values, cultural world-views or ideology, then it makes sense to get these disagreements out into the open rather than obscuring them by fighting political battles using the language of science.
The rapid response website is an attempt to draw a line under a year marked by accusations and acrimony, and as a channel for climate scientists to provide information to the media and the public it should be welcomed. But while dispelling myths about climate change is a valuable public service to offer, the truth about climate scepticism is that it is not just a dispute over the science. The challenge for scientists and communicators is to find ways of engaging the public where the real reasons for disagreement can take centre stage – only then can the debate move forward.
El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.
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