Public Perception of Climate Change Not Always Based on Fact

A recent study out of the Cultural Cognition Project looks at the disconnect between climate change science and public perception. Although scientific evidence of AGW (anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming) becomes less refutable each year, polls show Americans' beliefs in the reality and threats of climate change are actually waning. The chart below, from a study by the Pew Research Center, displays the results of a 1500-person, nation-wide poll conducted in the fall of 2009.

Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, Donald Braman of George Washington Law School, and Hank Jenkins-Smith of the University of Oklahoma co-wrote the Cultural Cognition Project paper, looking at how cultural values shape public priorities and beliefs, as well as political movements and policy decisions.

Overwhelmingly, the study finds that people tend to accept information that best fits within their preconceived world view, regardless of any number of sound scientific studies that could shift their beliefs.

For example, the study found many people initially downplayed the connection between fossil-fuel industry and global warming. But when nuclear power was suggested as an alternative option, as an energy and economic "filler," many who originally diminished the threat of global warming changed their tunes.

The paper also explores the "messenger effect." It turns out that most people are more willing to accept information from the "messenger" who is most like them. Those who already lean toward the skeptic's side of the global warming spectrum are more likely to change their views on the science if it is delivered from someone considered to be already in their camp.

"If you have people who are skeptical of the data on climate change, you can bet that Al Gore is not going to convince them at this point," said Don Braman.

Last week's Kansas City Star ran a story on religion and environmentalism, giving hope that communities traditionally critical of environmentalists might come around -- largely because the message of environmental stewardship is now being delivered by their pastors, people they already trust and identify with.

"The world doesn't listen to just scientists. Although science tells us the facts, the solutions are moral solutions. And people don't look to science for morality. They look to religion," said Carl Safina, an environmental scientist quoted in the article.

The environmental movement's next big challenge may not be finding the best renewable fuel or the best climate model. The movement ahead is shaping up to be one of communication and perception.