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Scientists are figuring out the keys to convincing people about global warming

Posted on 4 May 2016 by dana1981

The latest survey data from Yale and George Mason universities underscores thepartisan divide on climate science denial – 73% of Americans realize that global warming is happening, including 71% of liberal/moderate Republicans, but the average is dragged down by the mere 47% of conservative Republicans who answer this question correctly. On the bright side, this is a big improvement from the 28% of conservative Republicans who realized global warming was happening just two years ago.

Similarly, 56% of Americans realize global warming is mostly caused by humans, including 49% of liberal/moderate Republicans, but the number is again dragged down by the 26% of conservative Republicans correctly answering this question.

yale gmu

Poll results on the cause of global warming, broken down by American political party. Illustration: Yale and George Mason universities, Politics & Global warming, Spring 2016.

The numbers and demographics expressing concern about global warming are almost identical to those accepting human-caused global warming. That particular correlation lends support to a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, led by Jing Shi.

Can facts convince people about global warming?

Social scientist Dan Kahan has argued that ideological and cultural identity can be so strong that scientific evidence, facts, and information can’t break through it. Kahan thinks that on certain issues like climate change, ideological biases make many conservatives immune to facts. 

In fact, conservatives with higher education and general scientific knowledge are often more wrong about climate change, in what’s been coined the “smart idiot” effect. This has led Kahan to conclude that on climate change, facts and knowledge can’t sway people. However, other research has found that climate-specific knowledge does correlate with acceptance of climate science.

In the new study led by Jing Shi, the authors surveyed a total of 2,495 people in Canada, China, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. They asked questions to evaluate the participants’ specific knowledge about the physical characteristics of climate change and understanding of its causes and consequences.

Critically, they found that knowledge about the causes of climate change was correlated with higher concern about climate change in all countries, and knowledge about the consequences was linked to higher concern in most countries.

respondents from Germany and Switzerland had significantly higher scores on knowledge about physical aspects of climate change than participants from Canada and the US. Chinese respondents knew significantly more about the causes of climate change than the respondents from the other countries. German and Swiss respondents were most knowledgeable about the consequences of climate change. In contrast, participants from the US had the lowest level of knowledge about climate change among the six countries we surveyed, independent of the type of knowledge.

In short, as illustrated in the Yale/George Mason poll numbers, people who realize that humans are causing global warming are more likely to be concerned about the problem.

In Shi’s survey, the Chinese respondents had the most knowledge about the causes of global warming, with the German and Swiss participants most accurately answering the questions about its consequences. These nationalities also expressed the greatest concern about climate change. Americans showed the least climate knowledge and the least concern.

concern v knowledge

Concern about climate change (0-6 point scale) vs. average correct score on questions relevant to its causes in six countries. Illustration: Dana Nuccitelli, data from Shi et al. (2016).

The Chinese and Swiss participants were also the most altruistic (caring about the welfare of others), and the most concerned about environmental health. Americans cared least about the welfare of others and the environment.

public education and risk communication efforts regarding climate change may not be the lost cause that some researchers (and some policymakers) assume they are. The emphasis on the causes (versus the physical and consequential dimensions) of climate change should be encouraged in risk education and communication

The keys to convincing people on climate change

Social scientists have identified several key pieces of knowledge that might convince people – even conservatives – about the need to tackle global warming.

  • Shi’s team showed that when people realize humans are causing global warming, they’re more likely to be concerned about the problem.
  • Research by teams led by Lewandowsky has shown that when people are aware of the 90–100% expert consensus on human-caused global warming, they’re more likely to accept that reality, and to support climate policies. Meanwhile, only 16% of Americans, including just 4% of Republicans, realize the expert consensus is so high.

This social science research shows that teaching people about the expert consensus and how the greenhouse effect works can increase their likelihood of accepting the reality human-caused global warming and potentially increase their support of policies to solve the problem.

It may be the case that ideology acts as a mental block preventing conservative Republicans from accepting facts like the 90–100% expert consensus on human-caused global warming. However, while there’s certainly a group who are unreachable due to ideologically-based science denial, they are a relatively small and dwindling segment of the population. For the vast majority of people who underestimate the expert consensus and don’t understand the mechanics of the greenhouse effect, this knowledge can make a difference.

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Comments 1 to 18:

  1. The Shi et al. study may have finally gotten to the root points that need to be communicated to and understood by the average person/voter for them to appreciate the need for serious action on climate change. What we need now are specific sentence(s) that can be repeated ad nauseum until finally they are heard by the average person for the first time.

    I'd like to propose that SkS run a contest to solicit the most effective 1-, 2-, and 3-sentence standard message intended to get the whole picture across in a relatively simple and clear soundbite aimed at the average (or better yet, below-average) person. Maybe some social scientist(s) would be interested in evaluating the submissions (who knows, there might be a paper or two in it!).

    My pet peeve about point #1 is that the human cause is usually stated as, "Climate change is caused by human activities". This has got to be about the dumbest and least effective sentence possible. If you're already in the know, then you know this mainly means burning fossil fuels, but also things like land use changes and agricultural practices. If you're not in the know, like most people, this is a say-nothing sentence (WHAT human activities?). It would be much better to be less all-encompassing or general in unstated inference and just communicate the most important cause: "Climate change is mainly caused by humans burning fossil fuels for energy, which puts heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air". Many people don't get the connection between "human activities" and "carbon dioxide", and therefore balk at the need for a "carbon tax".

    Note that the above sentence covers both points 1 and 2, and point 3 could be brought in like this: "Almost every climate expert in the world agrees that climate change is mainly caused by humans burning fossil fuels for energy, which puts heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air." Many people may not totally get "fossil fuels", so maybe it would be better to say "coal, oil, and natural gas".

    So, back to the proposed communication contest. It would be a great way to engage the brains of some smart people to revamp the soundbite background for discussing the climate crisis. The 1-, 2-, and 3-sentence idea is inspired by the 3-level SkS climate myth rebuttals. The time to do this is definitely now, in advance of the general election campaign and debates in the U.S., where hopefully climate change will be a more prominent topic than in past elections.

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  2. The key is getting the multi year sea ice figures on the front page !

    I say we all utilise the YouTube comments section !!

    Problem solved!!!

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  3. The article above talks a lot of sense. This got me pondering about the scientific theory of evolution, and when it was first introduced. There was a lot of scepticism from various groups, especially religious groups.

    The theory of evolution was also difficult to grasp if you didn't know much science. More importantly is it required visualising many small compounding changes over big time scales. Even now some people are still sceptical that this could lead to something like the human eye or ear.

    See the obvious parallels with climate change denial?

    In time more people will grasp climate change and its causes, and will put their ideological biases aside. But lets face facts, some people will never be persuaded, just as with evolution.

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  4. Here are my three sentences to start the ball rolling:

    _WE_ are the polluters.

    _WE_ contribute CO2 to Global Warming when we drive our cars and use energy generated from fossil fuels.

    _WE_ must reduce energy use and go for renewable energy generation.

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  5. As far as I can make out, time is not on our side. Indeed according to some scientists it is already too late and we might as well 'eat, drink, laugh and be merry' etc. Before I join them I would like to see those who have done their darndest to do harm to our species punished for their behaviour. 

    As background for public consumption, how about a weekly feature that shows progress towards known tipping points - in ascending order of importance and showing ramifications if crossed? (I guess the clathrate/methane situation would be at the top.)

    We could have a Kickstarter campaign to fund litigation against those who can be legitimately accused of abusing their position of influence on the issue of climate change.

    It would be unusual for the scietific community to take such action and should draw attention to the message that action is essential and long overdue.

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  6. I'm with bozzza. Need more information in sources the general public sees. I'm no expert, not even close, but read this blog and the other sources, including the denialist's sites. Without going overboard and being careful to preempt the traps of "it's been warm before"and "the temperature data is phony" for consumption by the average American in news stories, in print (where us seniors still get a lot of our information, pand TV, documentary programs like NOVA. More, thought provoking information on changing animal migration habits, growing seasons, droughts, frequency of  record temperatures, and (at least to me) the increase in frequency and intensity of violent weather, Ft McMurray fire, melting ice and glaciers, including Glacier NP, geared to the average citizen. 

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  7. This is terrific and I think people's attitude does change when they discover that the science behind it is something a high-school grad can easily grasp - the link to how global warming works is a very good illustration of just that

    On my university radio show I like to repeat the number 36 Billion Tons - because that's annually how much CO2 is spewed - I believe that number may even be a little low for last year - and of course, how could 36 Billion Tons of anything put into a system (climate) not have an effect?

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  8. Adopting measures to moderate and adopt to the irreversible rapid climate disruption and ocean acidification that is under way would be helped by employing terms that really clarify the situation.  It is technical systems that use the fossil fuels that are the main contributors to this deleterious natual process. People only make decisions about the use of these technical systems. These systems exist so the best that can be done is for people to make decisions to close them down as rapidly as is reasonably possible while adopting measures to cope with the consequences, such as sea level rise.

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  9. Go Johnboy,

    A cool blog

    The existence of a movie by Al Gore is a key even if it was lampooned for being factually untrue: I have not the expertise to really say one way or the other.

    But the fact it exists is great as most movies promote a resourcefully wasteful mode of being: some call it the witches wand of Hollywood!

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  10. The other thing I might say: is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is famous for saying that, "...the people lead:Governments follow!"

    Who are we and why did we have kids?

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  11. Another tidbit for the general public, particularly folks who can't fathom the idea that human activity could possibly effect the climate of the entire planet. From a couple of websites, determined that the amount of carbon that has been extracted or chopped down and burned since the industrial revolution is roughly equivalent to the total amount of carbon currently remaining in ALL of earth's forests combined, around 600B tons.

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  12. Some people can't understand how such small quantities of CO2 could change the climate. An anaolgy is how incredibly small doping agents in semiconductors (or transistors) can make these things amplify large currents.

    Catalysts in chemistry also use very small quantities of certain chemicals to enable large reactions to take place.

    One educational tool could be a decent graphic of temperatures over the last 2000 years, with CO2 concentrations overlaid over this, like a double hockey stick. A picture paints 1000 words. I have seen lots of separate graphs of these things, but not one combined.

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  13. With Nigelj too. CO2 constitutes a minuscule percentage of the atmosphere, yet keeps planet earth from being an ice ball and supplies all the plants and trees on earth with whats needed for life as we know it to exist.

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  14. nigelj @12, the best, because easiest to understand, analogy of the increase in CO2 concentration for those who claim low ppmv impacts are too small to have any effect is this one:

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  15. nigelj @12:

    "One educational tool could be a decent graphic of temperatures over the last 2000 years, with CO2 concentrations overlaid over this, like a double hockey stick."

    It is not as directly educational as you might think.  The reason is that the heightened temperatures from 1000-1200 and the reduced temperatues from 1400-1750 were respectively due to reduced and increased volcanic activity, not to the small changes in CO2 concentration over those periods.

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  16. Johnboy @13, indeed.  Afterall, it is a core denier argument that:

    1)  Increasing the CO2 concentration by 0.016% of the atmosphere is too small a change to have any conceivable effect; but that

    2) Decreasing the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere by 0.014% of the atmosphere would be completely devestating, preventing photosynthesis and thereby killing all multicellular life on Earth; 

    and that

    3)  Increasing the CO2 concentration by 0.016% of the atmosphere significantly increases plant growth and is necessary to feed a hungry world.

    Of course, it is necessary to being a 'rational' denier that you never mention point (1) in the same blog post as you mention points (2) and (3).  It is necessary that they be believed at different times so that there is no fear of contradiction /sarc

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  17. Tackling the 400ppm CO2 is so small a quantity, I feel there is another argument that may have traction in the minds of doubters. In normal circumstances it would be true to say "0.04% is so tiny!" but is it really when we talk the atmosphere? That is not a normal circumstance as we are talking tiny tiny molecules and a troposphere 12km thick. (Hopefully I haven't suffered decimal point drift in this below.)

    CO2 molecules are today above 400ppm by volume or 607ppm by weight within the atmosphere. As the atmosphere weighs 5.15 million billion tonnes, that means (with an atomic weight of 44), there are 42,800 trillion trillion trillion CO2 molecules up there.

    Now, consider the physical size of each CO2 molecule, imagine each molecule presents an area towards the Earth's surface equal to just the size of one of its carbon atoms which are ~70 picometres in diameter (imagine the molecules all stood on their ends with the other two atoms hidden behind the first carbon atom). Given this, and with the globe having an area of 510 million sq km, a photon if considered to be a point object leaving planet Earth by the shortest route (straight up) through an average bit of atmosphere; that photon would have to pass unabsorbed through over 320,000 CO2 molecules to escape into space unhindered.

    That suggests the atmosphere contains rather a lot of CO2, not rather a little.

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  18. MA Rogers...  And, of course, at that point contrarians will flip completely the other way and say, "Oh yeah? That just means the GHE is saturated." ;-)

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