As I write this, world leaders are converging on Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. No doubt they're aware of the scientific research predicting global catastrophe if they don't help the world do anything to change course. But if they really want to avert a global disaster, they'll also need to be aware of the psychological research examining how humans react to those hard scientific findings on climate change.
Consider this: The United Nations Environmental Program recently released a report on climate change that contains some of the most dire forecasts yet. According to the report, even if the world adopted the most aggressive environmental policies currently on the table, the world will warm by 6.3 degree Fahrenheit by 2100, an amount that's twice of what is necessary for a global climate crisis. When confronted with predictions like this, we might expect the human race to immediately address the near-extinction scenario with which it's being presented. Instead, according to a Pew Research Center report from October, the percentage of Americans who see climate change as a very serious problem is actually decreasing, as is the percentage who believe there's solid evidence that the Earth is actually warming. What gives?
Well, a new study by Stanford University researchers has found that learning more about the dangers of climate change doesn't necessarily make people more concerned about it. Instead, their reactions to this information depend largely on their political allegiances and how much they trust the information source.
The researchers looked at two national surveys from 2006 and 2007, as well as a smaller focus group from the late 1990s. Participants in these surveys answered questions about how concerned they were and how much knowledge they had about climate change, as well as their opinions of scientists. They were also asked if they were Democrats, Republicans, or didn't belong to either party.
The results, published earlier this year in the journal Risk Analysis, showed that Democrats, Independents, and those who trust scientists showed more concern about climate change when they had more knowledge on the subject. These groups also expressed more concern when they believed there was greater consensus among scientists. However, among Republicans and those skeptical of climate scientists, there was no association between more knowledge and greater concern.
The authors write that groups trying to raise awareness of climate change often underestimate that "the impact of these efforts will depend upon the predispositions of citizens." In other words, those hoping to make a difference will be ineffective unless they can understand their audience, and they should be more responsive to how and where different groups obtain information. It might seem farfetched to consider Greenpeace partnering with Republican leaders, but if environmental groups want to convince those still skeptical of climate change, it seems they're going to have to enlist sources that those skeptics trust.
For more on the psychology of climate change, check out Lisa Bennett's Greater Good article, "The Hot Spot." For more on the public trust in scientists, check out this Greater Good interview with Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.