Education & Belief Systems

Climate change is perhaps the defining issue of our time. As the science becomes clearer and more compelling each year, it is accompanied by the paradoxical increase in climate change denial and apathy. The reasons for this are complex and varied but the political ramifications are very real; this denial is causing dangerous delays in the implementation of necessary policy instruments that can prevent dangerous levels of global warming.

While scientists usually err on the conservative side for most issues, when it comes to climate change, it is the exact opposite. The overwhelming majority of peer reviewed scientists are issuing more and more dire warnings with each passing year. Dr. John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Director of MIT’s System Dynamics Group compares our current situation with climate change to playing Russian Roulette with a gun with 20 chambers, 19 of which are loaded. Who would be willing to play with those odds? Yet, as public data shows, the public is not taking scientists seriously.

Most scientists and environmentalists agree that the problem is not a scientific or technological one as much as it is one of maligned public perception. The gap between the understanding of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists on the one hand and the lay public on the other is frighteningly large. If people do not believe in the facts of science,   there will be no behavioral change and there will be no support for policies that advocate the necessary solutions.

Man-made climate change is the worse fit with our underlying psychology 

On March 15, journalist Bill Moyers interviewed, Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, a geographer by training,  research scientist at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.  Dr. Leiserowitz specializes in human behavior, the psychology of risk perception and decision making — an expert on the public’s perception of climate change and whether people are willing to change their behavior to make a difference.

BILL MOYERS: What did you mean that we almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology? What did you mean by that?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Well, look, as human beings we are exquisitely attuned to what’s happening in our immediately environment and what we can see around us and what literally touches us physically.

If you’re walking through the woods and you hear the crack of a stick behind you, your body immediately goes into a fear response, a fight or flight response. Climate change isn’t that kind of a problem. It’s not an immediate, visceral threat.

And I can say right now, this very day we can look out the window and there’s CO2, carbon dioxide, pouring out of tailpipes, pouring out of buildings, pouring out of smokestacks. And yet we can’t see it, it’s invisible.

The fundamental causes of this global problem are invisible to us. And likewise the impacts are largely invisible to us as well unless you know where to look. So it’s a problem that first of all we can’t see. And secondly it’s a problem that is seemingly faceless. It’s not like terrorists who we can imagine who are coming after us trying to kill us and challenge our fundamental values. It’s a problem that we can’t see, that’s going to have long term impacts that aren’t going to just impact us now, but impact us into the future; impact our children and our grandchildren.

Bill Moyers interviewed, Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz on the reason behind the silence of climate change

Six Different Demographics of climate change in the United States

Many agree that the key to solving the climate change crisis is mass global mobilization. The technology to solve climate change already exists but the more time slips by with no major actions taken, the less effective will be mass mobilization and the more we will need to depend on exotic technologies.

Without doubt, climate change education is going to play a critical role in a rapid mobilization of the public. To deliver the message effectively requires knowing who the listening audience is. In this regard, Leiserowitz’s research is invaluable in revealing that when it comes to climate change, there are 6 different types of people in the US (and probably around the world) who will respond to climate change issue in their own unique way:


Figure 1: Pie graph of six different types of  Americans who respond to climate change in different ways

  1. Alarmed – 16% of the American people who think it’s happening, that it’s human caused, that it’s a serious and urgent problem and are eager to get on with the solution but they don’t know what those solutions are or what they can do individually and don’t know what we can do collectively as a society to deal with it.
  2. Concerned – 30% of the American people that think it’s happening, it’s human caused, it’s serious, but think of it as distant. Distant in time –  the impacts won’t be felt for a generation or more and distant in space – not my community, not my friends and family or the people and places that I care about. So they believe this is a serious problem, but it’s not a priority.
  3. Cautious – 25% of the American people who are still sitting on the fence trying to make up their mind. Is it happening, is it not? Is it human, is it natural? Is it a serious risk or is it kind of overblown?
  4. Disengaged – 8% of the American people who have heard of global warming, but they don’t know anything about it. They don’t know anything about the causes, consequences or the potential solutions.
  5. Doubtful – 13% of the American people who don’t think it’s happening, but if it is, it’s natural, nothing humans had anything to do with and therefore nothing we can do anything about. This group doesn’t pay that much attention and are predisposed to say that it’s not a problem.
  6. Dismissive – 8% of the American people who are firmly convinced it’s not happening, it’s not human caused, it’s not a serious problem and many are  conspiracy theorists. They say it’s a hoax, scientists making up data, a UN plot to take away American sovereignty, etc…They’re a minority but are well mobilized, organized and loud. They tend to dominate the media.
The 8% Dismissive have organized and taken over the public airwave very effectively. When the media talk about a scientific debate, the public does not realize that the debate is between over 99% of the peer reviewed scientists strongly agreeing that there is a major problem and the 1%, many of whom are funded by carbon-based, fossil fuel companies. In Leiserowitz’s opinion, the 16% Alarmed were to truly unite into a broad-based coalition, that would include 40 million Americans and it would be more than enough to cause major political change. The key, then, is to create this broad-based coalition – and in a very short period of time. For more information on this study go here.

 The Disconnect Between Climate Science and the Public’s Perception

Recent US Gallup Polls show the wide gap between climate science facts and public perception of them.

Conclusions Drawn by Gallup

The slight majority of Americans support global warming as valid on a number of measures. And after peaking in 2010, public skepticism about global warming softened slightly in 2011, and remains at the lower level this year. Nevertheless, Americans remain less certain about the accuracy of global warming news coverage, about humankind’s role in causing global warming, and about the scientific consensus on the issue than they were last decade.

Some shift in Americans’ global warming views might have been expected this year, given the near-record warm temperatures experienced this winter across much of the country — Gallup finds 79% of Americans reporting that the weather in their area was warmer than usual, though less than half of these attributed this to global warming.

However, the fact that belief in global warming did not increase markedly suggests Americans are basing their perceptions more on the debates over scientific evidence than on the weather outside their front door.

Study shows that Climate Change Skepticism is not due to Low Science Literacy of the Public

Climate Change due to anthropogenic global warming has sparked a mostly politically motivated Climate Change Denial movement. The power of this movement has caught scientists, who predominantly support climate change as being caused by anthropogenic global warming off guard.

The dismal pace of  interventions recommended by scientists to prevent large scale and harmful environmental changes is, to a large part due to the lobbying and media campaign of the Climate Change Denial movement. This in turn is predominantly financed by right wing political groups, often with ties to the fossil fuel industry. The success of misinformation campaigns has stalled meaningful action on climate change, jeapordizing the health of the earth’s planetary ecosystem.

A largely scientifically unliterate public has been cited as the main reason why a significant percentage of the population have bought into the climate change denial movement claims. However, a study published in the May 2012 edition of  Nature Climate Changeby authors Dan M. Kahan, Ellen Peters, Maggie Wittlin, Paul Slovic, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, Donald Braman & Gregory Mandel entitled  The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks  disproves this and suggests another mechanism. Given the critical importance of policies for the future of humanity, it is important to understand the reasons behind the failure of scientists to educate the public on climate change.

The study collected data on the climate-change risk perceptions of a large representative sample of US adults (N=1,540). Measures were selected to permit assessment of two competing accounts of public opinion on climate change:

  1. The science comprehension thesis (SCT) – as members of the public do not know what scientists know, or think the way scientists think, they predictably fail to take climate change as seriously as scientists believe they should
  2. The cultural cognition thesis (CCT) – CCT posits that individuals, as a result of a complex of psychological mechanisms, tend to form perceptions of societal risks that cohere with values characteristic of groups with which they identify

While SCT suggests a conflict between scientists and the public as the problem, CCT points to the power of groups which individuals belong to. Members are motivated to fit their interpretations of scientific evidence to the cultural philosophies adhered to by their group. SCT makes two claims:

  1. Ordinary members of the public underestimate the seriousness of climate change because of the difficulty of  understanding scientific evidence If this is true, concern should increase as people become more science literate.
  2. SCT attributes low concern with climate change to limits on the ability of ordinary members of the public to engage in technical reasoning

Recent research in psychology suggests there are two discrete forms of information processing:

  1. system 1 -rapid visceral judgments that manifest themselves in various decision-making heuristics
  2. system 2 – requires conscious reflection and calculation

The study goes on to say that most members of the public, according to this research, typically employ system 1 reasoning without resorting to more difficult system 2 processing:

“Although system 1 works well for most daily contingencies, ordinary citizens’ predominant reliance on heuristic rather than analytic modes of reasoning is viewed as leading them to underestimate climate change risks, which are remote and abstract compared with a host of more emotionally charged risks (for example, terrorism) that the public is thought to overestimate”

SCT Prediction and Results

The observations show trends that are opposite to those predicted by the SCT hypothesis:


With increasing science literacy, fewer people actual think climate change poses a risk.

CCT Predictions and Results

CCT also generates a testable prediction. CCT posits two broad categories of people:

Hierarchical World View – Those who subscribe to a hierarchical, individualistic world-view—one that ties authority to conspicuous social rankings and eschews collective interference with the decisions of individuals possessing such authority—tend to be sceptical of environmental risks. Such people intuitively perceive that widespread acceptance of such risks would license restrictions on commerce and industry, forms of behaviour that hierarchical individualists value.

Egalitarian World View – Those who subscribe to this view favour less regimented forms of social organization and greater collective attention to individual needs—tend to be morally suspicious of commerce and industry, to which they attribute social inequity. They therefore find it congenial to believe those forms of behaviour are dangerous and worthy of restriction.

One would expect egalitarian communitarians to be more concerned than hierarchical individualists with climate change risks.

As the contribution that culture makes to disagreement grows as science literacy and numeracy increase, it is not plausible to view cultural cognition as a heuristic substitute for the knowledge or capacities that SCT views the public as lacking.


The researchers conclude that even if cultural cognition serves the personal interests of individuals, this form of reasoning can have a highly negative impact on collective decision making.

What guides individual risk perception, on this account, is not the truth of those beliefs but rather their congruence with individuals’ cultural commitments. As a result, if beliefs about a societal risk such as climate change come to bear meanings congenial to some cultural outlooks but hostile to others, individuals motivated to adopt culturally congruent risk perceptions will fail to converge, or at least fail to converge as rapidly as they should, on scientific information essential to their common interests in health and prosperity. Although it is effectively costless for any individual to form a perception of climate-change risk that is wrong but culturally congenial, it is very harmful to collective welfare for individuals in aggregate to form beliefs this way.

One of the objectives of scientific communications should be to dispel this tragedy of the risk-perception commons. The study concludes that a communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information is unlikely to do that. As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.

The study suggests alternative approaches to science communication strategies:

  • As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values
  • plan effective strategies which include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility
  • employ information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups

A new science of science communication is urgently needed to accelerate global adoption of policies that can stem the business-as-usual that can lead to runaway global warming.

(Source: Nature Climate Change, May 2012)