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Climate Change

Published on December 28th, 2017 | by Michael Barnard


Science Tells Us How To Help US Citizens Accept Climate Change

December 28th, 2017 by  

The USA has a climate change acceptance problem. It’s elected a President who is on record claiming it’s a Chinese hoax. One of its two major political parties pretty much has “refusal to accept climate science” as a major platform plank. It’s taking steps to leave the only agreement that literally every other country in the world has ratified — COP21, the agreement to work to limit global warming.

And a lot of American’s just don’t accept how well climate scientists understand the issue and the solutions.

Luckily, there’s hope. Cognitive science is helping us understand how to communicate more effectively with people who don’t currently accept the science behind global warming and climate change. This article isn’t intended for those people, but for the people who want to know how to be more effective in their communication.

Why is the USA this way?

So, what’s going on with the USA that has led to this situation? Knowing the issues and pulling them apart helps us deal with them. And it’s never just one thing. In this case, there are three things we can do something about and a small handful of other factors both positive and negative.

The USA is a more tribal place than less right now. There is a strong plurality of Republican voters who do not accept the science of climate change as much because they are Republican Party supporters as anything else. There are innumerable Evangelical Christians for whom this has become an article of faith. These are “values voters,” not evidence voters. And there are a lot of Republicans who have a more security- and risk-focused perception of the world.

This is not in any way a pejorative description. This is just an accurate description of where they are right now, and it’s completely permissible for them to be this way. I’m certainly not a rational, evidence-based guy all the time, and could provide chapter and verse of examples on that front. I’m also from outside of the USA. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, just an observer. (Frankly, if the Democrats ran in Canada, they’d be the conservatives and might not get my vote, depending on the platform.)

Let’s take these one by one and look at the other factors at the end.


What’s important about tribalism? Well, one of the big things is that members of a tribe tend to only listen to members of their tribe. Change a couple of influential tribe members’ minds and they will influence a lot of their fellow members. But you can’t do that by broadcasting to “skeptics.” You have to identify the influencers within the tribe, find a couple that are amenable to the discussion, and spend a lot of quality time focusing on them individually or in small groups.

And even then there’s a challenge, simply because influencers feed off of their influenced groups as much as the other way around. Frequently, they are just better at expressing the vague consensus of the group. As such, they will frequently not be interested in speaking counter to what they perceive the group to believe.

Values voters

Evangelicals are one of the ultimate tribes in the USA right now and they’ve got the ear of the President. Trump has an Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, not an ecumenical Religious Advisory Council. A lot of these people sincerely believe that Christmas is under attack, that liberals think that they are all intellectually inferior, and a bunch of other things which spring from a combination of tribal identity and their faith. These beliefs are reinforced regularly from the pulpit. Evangelical pastors were one of Donald Trump’s most effective communication vehicles. It’s literally impossible to communicate effectively with most evangelicals about climate change without being one of them, without sharing most of their values, and without being able to break through their barriers of defensiveness about coastal elites and the like.

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is getting through to evangelicals. She’s an evangelical Christian herself, albeit from Toronto originally. Now she’s the Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She spends a lot of time talking with students and evangelicals about climate change. She’s very successful, and it’s how she does it that matters.

“Katharine Hayhoe’s lecture presented climate science information through the lens of an evangelical tradition. In addition to presenting scientific evidence, it included an introduction about the difference between faith and science (faith is based on things that are spiritually discerned, whereas science is based on observation). About six minutes of the 33- to 53-minute lectures were devoted to theology-based ethics.”

She’s not talking down to them, she’s not ignoring their world view, she’s not asking them to think like a non-religious person. Quite the opposite. She spends 10% to 20% of her lectures on reconciling faith and climate change acceptance, and she does it from the inside. If we had a hundred people like her, completely within the various tribes, effective communicators, sympathetic and aligned, the USA could pivot on its axis quite effectively.

Hayhoe successfully has become an influencer within one of her tribes, Evangelicals, and helps them and others bridge the gaps.

Risk and security perspective

A number of cognitive studies have found that liberals and conservatives see the world somewhat differently. Conservatives perceive threats and risks more readily and give them greater weight in their judgments than liberals. This is statistically significant, not universal, of course. Once again, this is just an observation, not a pejorative statement.

Conservatives react more strongly to perceived immediate threats than to longer term threats than liberals, on average. They perceive the threat of terrorism to be greater than the threat of climate change and the threats of crime to be greater than the threat of climate change. They see these things as more directly threatening their families. And they will put more emphasis on things which impact their families and friends than on other people elsewhere. Once again, this is just how they perceive the world, react to it — and is neither right nor wrong.

You can hear this in some of the language that they use around climate change as they deprecate the risks. It’s “only” a degree or two of increase by 2100. It’s “only” a millimeter a decade of sea level rise. “We can just turn up the AC.” Those are all somewhat accurate statements and completely understandable when you accept that they perceive terrorism and crime to be much larger and more immediate threats. We all pick and choose which threats to respond to and we all do it more or less unconsciously.

In this context, there are definitely lines of communication which can help. Personalizing climate change risks to the individuals and their families helps. Pointing out the increase in failed states due to climate change and hence in the increase in likely terrorism can help. Spending a bunch of time pointing out how the American military perceives climate change as a major risk helps.

But to draw this back to the first two points, you can’t do this by broadcasting at them from the outside. You have to do this from the inside or by convincing influencers on the inside so that they can do the communicating.

The three points above are a big part of why I don’t try to communicate to conservatives on climate change personally. I’m bad at being individually persuasive with them. I’m obviously a “coastal liberal.” I’m obviously not religious at all. I’m obviously not part of any of their tribes, whether it’s college sports, NASCAR, country and western music, or the Chicago School of Economics or Ayn Rand. I’m far too far removed to be effective communicating with most people from tribes that tend to reject the science of climate change.

That doesn’t mean I can’t observe and understand, but part of that understanding is understanding my weaknesses and limitations.

We’ve looked at three big chunks and what it tells us about what we can do to communicate better. But what else is going on that’s worth understanding?

Extreme weather events are ‘helpful’

On reddit in 2016, a survey was done of people who indicated that they had been climate change “deniers.” They were asked what had changed their minds. The results were published on the Yale Climate blog. This isn’t a peer-reviewed study, but it is informative. What did people say had changed their minds?

The important one for this answer is that 21% said that they had changed their minds in large part because extreme weather events and major seasonal weather pattern changes had made it impossible for them to believe that nothing was happening. While weather isn’t climate, patterns in spring and winter onset and major weather disasters have a way of cutting through the fog.

2017’s unprecedented string of high-severity hurricanes will help some people over the perceptual bridge. More conservatives in Florida and Texas will be more open to messages about climate change after Irma and Harvey. Similarly, the unprecedented scope and severity of wildfires in the western USA will be making a lot more western conservatives amenable to discussions of what man’s impact on the climate has to do with it.

This has come at an awful cost in terms of destruction. Thankfully, weather forecasting in part due to investments in climate research has become much better at predicting what hurricanes will actually do, so there were a lot fewer deaths than there might have been. And Florida building code changes helped a lot too. But the devastation is still there. Millions of people were evacuated in Florida. That’s unsettling.

Katrina and New Orleans have some lessons in this regard too. 20% of people from New Orleans left after Katrina and never went back. A similar pattern is observed in every major weather disaster zone. People’s perception of risk is sharply heightened after experiencing a major hurricane or wildfire.

So, a lot of conservatives will be less strident and more open in 2018. It will be possible to get to more influencers and have useful conversations. And when they speak, a lot of the people who listen to them will be more open to hearing. And many conservatives will no longer be surrounded day to day by their normal peer groups, but will be exposed to different points of view.

Almost 50% accept the science today

While the climate scientist acceptance of human-caused climate change is very high, between 97% and 99% depending on the method, that hasn’t translated into equivalent acceptance among the general populace. But according to a Pew Research survey of US beliefs in 2016, 48% of Americans do accept that humans are the primary cause of climate change. Further, another 31% accepted that the climate was changing but ascribed it to dominantly natural causes. Only 20% thought that the evidence wasn’t strong — before the wildfires and hurricanes of 2017 — that the climate was changing at all.

This suggests a clear opportunity for discussions regarding climate change. Start with what the large majority of people accept — that the climate is changing, regardless of cause — and work on what could be done about it. Build the bridge on areas of agreement, then move on to acceptance that humans are the cause and that reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is critical. Do a two-step, not a one step.

The same study does show the political divide that has to be worked through. The moderate and liberal Republicans are obviously more amenable to the conversation. But the moderate and conservative Democrats are still 37% likely to not believe that humans are causing the change or that the change isn’t occurring. There’s work to be done there too.

Fossil-fuel political funding is a problem

While the points above suggest paths to effective movement of the dial on acceptance of climate science, there’s the elephant in the room worth mentioning. One of the major reasons why Republicans are tribally locked to not accepting the science of climate change is because fossil-fuel funding overwhelmingly flows to Republicans. Funding during the last US federal election saw only one Democrat in the top 20 oil-and-gas funded list. Nineteen Republicans received the vast majority of fossil fuel funding.

Unsurprisingly, oil and gas concerns don’t want action on climate change. They like their profits. And they have lots of them. It’s changing now, but they are still inordinately influential in US politics and that means that a lot of political influencers on the Republican side won’t be coming out for human-caused climate change anytime soon.

But as the political chart above shows, Republican politicians are not well aligned with the beliefs of their constituents, who show a majority of acceptance that the climate is changing.

The dissonance is increasing. Conservatives in the USA are seeing that regardless of cause, their families are threatened by the changing climate. And politicians all rule at the will of the people.

So, there’s hope. Find influencers and convince them. Play up the “climate is changing” angle and play down the “humans are causing it angle.” Find people inside the tribe who can be effective influencers. Talk about the hurricanes and wildfires. Don’t broadcast and expect to be effective.

And accept that just because conservatives see the world differently does not make the way they see the world wrong or inferior. They may see the world differently, but we all live in the same world regardless.

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About the Author

Mike works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth in the transforming low-carbon economy. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, with some of his work included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He's available for consultation, speaking engagements and Board positions.

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