So Educating People on Climate Change Science Isn’t the Answer? Bugger…

The representation of climate change science in the media has, up until recently, been rather poor. Far too many engaged in debates and articles that gave the impression there was still 2 sides to the argument when in fact the overwhelming majority of evidence only favours one side. The last few years have seen numerous campaigns to rectify this situation and whilst we still haven’t convinced everyone of the real facts it’s been great to see a reduction in the number of supposed “fair” debates on the topic. However if a recent study around the general population’s knowledge on this topic is anything to go by lack of knowledge might not be the problem at all, it might just be the culture surrounding it.

Global Warming Risk

A recent study done by Professor Dan Kahan of Yale university was done in order to understand just how literate people were on the issues of general science as well as climate change science. The results are rather surprising (and ultimately disturbing) as whilst you’d tend to think that a better general understanding of science would lead to a better understanding of the risks associated with climate change the study actually shows that isn’t a predictor at all. Indeed the strongest predictor of was actually their left-right political affiliation with the amount of scientific knowledge actually increasing the divide between them. This leads us to a rather ugly conclusion that educating people about the facts behind climate change is most likely not going to change their opinion of it.

Well fuck.

Whilst the divide along party lines isn’t going to shock anyone the fact that both sides of the political landscape are about as educated as each other on the topic was a big surprise to me. I had always thought that it was more ignorance than anything else as a lot of arguments I had had around climate change usually centered on the lack of scientific consensus. Had I dug further into their actual knowledge though it seems that they may have been more knowledgeable on it than I would first think, even if the conclusions they drew from the evidence were out of touch with reality. This signals that we, as those interested in spreading the facts and evidence as accepted by the wider scientific community, need to rephrase the debate from one of education to something else that transcends party lines.

What that solution would be though is something I just don’t have a good answer to. At an individual level I know I can usually convince most people of the facts if I’m given enough time with someone (heck up until 5  years ago I was on the other side of the debate myself) but the strategies I use there simply don’t scale to the broader population. Taking the politics out of an issue is no simple task, and one I’d wager has never been done successfully before, but until we find a way to break down the party lines on the issue of climate change I feel that meaningful progress will always be a goal that’s never met.


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  1. How about public debates with an actual fair line up of scientists along the spectrum – debating what actions need to be done now, and how urgent they are, ie:
    1 speaker for minimal climate impact
    1 saying its a problem that needs to be tackled in the next hundred years
    50 along the spectrum for a serious problem that needs to be tackled now
    10 saying runaway climate change is already past tipping points
    1 radical imminent doomsdayer

  2. I’m guessing you’re taking a leaf out of John Oliver’s playbook with that one, which I’m not against mind, but this study has made me question just how much impact things like that will have. There’s a good 50% of the population who, as far as we know now, are aware of the facts yet simply don’t draw the same conclusions as we (or the vast majority of the scientific community) do. Debating on what action needs to be taken is something I think needs to be done regardless, whether it will change opinions though is an exercise I’ll have to leave to the reader.

    I really hope there’s a bit more research done in this area as it’s something I’m passionate about but I don’t want to spend my time just pissing people off if I’m not going to have an impact on them.

  3. I was thinking there is a huge difference between being aware of the issues and being engaged in a conversation to really grasp the impact and things that can be done.

    I thought a debate like this would provide a context for people to consider and engage with mindsets that are engaged in mitigating climate change.

  4. I agree although that’s the problem this research highlights: they’re aware of the issues but simply don’t believe there’s an impact (or that it’s as severe as we know it to be) and thus there’s no reason to take the action required. It’d be really interesting to see a debate like that held with the audience’s opinions on the matter taken before and after to see if it changed in light of the discussion, potentially providing a better way for framing the issue in the public eye.

    There’s definitely value in that. I personally don’t know any climate scientists and would love to be able to engage with them directly so that I could be more informed. That’s probably not the case for everyone, mind, but having that direct channel to those with expertise in the matters at hand is never a bad thing to have.

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