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Finding a Better Message on The Risks of Climate Change

To overcome polarization on the issue of climate change, Yale professor Dan Kahan says in an interview with e360, scientists and the media need to frame the science in ways that will resonate with the public. A message that makes people feel threatened, he says, simply will not be effective.

It’s a common refrain: If people only knew more about the science, there wouldn’t be so much polarization on the issue of climate change. But Dan M. Kahan’s groundbreaking work has gone a long way to prove that idea wrong. In fact, he’s found, it’s not the lack of scientific understanding that has led to conflict over climate change, but rather the need to adhere to the philosophy and values of one’s “cultural” group.

Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School, says “individualists” — those who believe individuals should be responsible for their own well-being and who are wary of regulation or government control – tend to minimize the risk of climate change. On the other side, he notes, those who identify with the “communitarianism” group favor a larger role for government and other collective entities in securing the welfare of individuals and tend to be wary of commercial activity – he sees them as likely to favor restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Kahan maintained that in order to break down this polarization, the issue needs to be reframed in a way that minimizes the likelihood that positions on climate change will be identified with a particular cultural group. “Are there ways to combine the science with meanings that would be affirming rather than threatening to people?” he said. “I think if somebody believes that there just aren’t any, I think that person just doesn’t have much imagination.”

Yale Environment 360: It’s been conventional wisdom in certain circles that people who discount the threat from climate change are not scientifically literate – they just don’t understand the evidence laid in front of them. But your research shows that this is not the case. In fact, polarization on climate change can actually be chalked up to which cultural group you belong to – “individualism” versus “communitarianism.” What do these opposing groups believe, and what does that have to do with one’s belief, or not, in the threat of climate change?

Dan Kahan: The groups are defined by their shared understandings of how society should be organized. People who are more individualistic believe that individuals should be responsible for securing conditions that enable them to flourish without assistance or interference from any kind of collective authority or entity. People who are more communitarian think the collective is responsible for securing the conditions for individual well-being and sometimes should be able to take precedence over the interests of individuals if there is a conflict. People who are more individualistic are going to be more disappointed to believe that the consequences of activities that they like, such as a lot of commercial market activities, are creating harms that you would have to restrict. But if you believe that people who are engaged in commercial market activities are generating lots of inequality, it would be congenial for you to believe that this activity is really dangerous and ought to be restricted.

So part of the theory is that people have a predisposition, based on their values and emotional engagement with the information, to understand it in a certain way… It’s important to recognize that that’s how people get any kind of information relating to science. People need to accept a lot more about what is known to science than they could possibly figure out on their own. They are going to be looking to people like themselves, whose outlooks they share.

e360: But we are talking here about a scientific question. Are you saying that people look toward scientists that they perceive are “like them”?

Kahan: Most of the things that people are making informed decisions about that depend on science are not going to be ones they have consulted scientists for information about. Most of what people know – the decisions they make that are informed by scientists – is based on information that is travelling through all kinds of intermediaries. Scientists aren’t on television giving marching orders. That’s not a good model of how people come to know what’s known by science – from the mouth of the scientist to the ear of the citizen. People figure these things out because they are situated in networks of other people who are part of their everyday lives. And those networks ordinarily guide them reliably to what’s known.

e360: In a study you and colleagues published in the journal Nature Climate Change, you found that as scientific literacy increases, polarization on climate change actually increases as well. Why would that be?

Kahan: Once you have an issue that has become a signifier of your membership in and loyalty to the group, then making a mistake about that can be really costly to your membership in that group. If I marched around [the Yale] campus with a sign that said, “Climate change is a hoax,” even though I have tenure, my life wouldn’t be as good as it is.

You know, Bob Inglis, the congressman from South Carolina, he was like the Babe Ruth of conservative political ratings. Nobody did better than he did [in ratings from conservative groups] across all the issues that normally determine whether you are a conservative in good standing. And then one day he says, “Well, I’m concerned about climate change and what impact that could have on my constituents and other people in the country.” Soon after that, he is out of office because he is defeated in the primary. Now, imagine that you are a barber in the 4th District of South Carolina [which Inglis represented in Congress]. Do you think it is a good idea when somebody comes in for a shave to hand them a petition that says, “Save the polar bears” or something like this? I mean, you’ll be out of a job as quickly as he was. The impact of making a mistake relative to your group membership is large. The cost of making a mistake on the science is zero.

So I think that people, because they generally process information in a way that is good for them, are going to predictably form views that connect them to their group.

e360: So, they’re being rational.

Kahan: That’s a kind of rationality. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a climate scientist to do that with respect to climate change because it’s really obvious what position your group has.

e360: Let’s talk about a fascinating experiment that you carried out. You asked people to assess a study on climate change after reading one of three articles. One article had nothing to do with climate change, another called for strict CO2 regulations, and a third advocated research on geo-engineering, the manipulation of the environment to offset the rise in CO2. You found that the group that read the geo-engineering article was less polarized over the validity of the climate change study. Why would that be so?

Kahan: We examined whether people, in judging the validity of evidence on climate change, would be more or less open-minded based on whether they had just previously been exposed to information either about geo-engineering or carbon limits. Logically speaking, whether the information on climate change is valid doesn’t depend on whether you can do carbon emissions limits or geo-engineering or anything else. There either is a problem or there isn’t. But psychologically, the hypothesis was that these two kinds of stories would determine the meaning that people attached to the evidence on climate change. The meaning of the carbon limit story was the one that tends to make more individualistic people resist evidence on climate change. It’s kind of like a game-over message. The geo-engineering story, on the other hand, has in it certain kinds of themes that people who have an individualistic world view are moved by and find inspiring – the fact that we use our ingenuity to overcome and deal with limits, including the limits that themselves might be generated by the use of our own ingenuity. So just knowing that geo-engineering was a possibility, the hypothesis was that that would generate a meaning for the subsequent evidence we showed them on climate change that wouldn’t be nearly as threatening. And measuring the outcome here is simple: Are you engaging the information in a more open-minded way? And we found that they were, and because they were, there was less polarization.

e360: It’s hard to imagine Bill McKibben, for instance, tweaking his message as he campaigns against the Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben, I imagine, is going to continue to call for exactly what he believes in: no pipeline. I’m wondering, as far as climate change goes, maybe these positions have been too entrenched for too long to hope for any reduction in polarization.

Kahan: I’m not sure about Bill McKibben. I haven’t talked to him, so I don’t know what he thinks. But I do know [climate scientist] James Hansen thinks that you ought to have nuclear power. We did the same experiment where we used nuclear power [instead of geo-engineering] and we got similar effects.

I think the only thing that is certain not to work would be a style of framing the issues and presenting information that continues to accentuate the perception that the sides on the debate are identified with particular groups. I believe there are ways – in fact, many ways – of presenting the information about climate and science that don’t have that effect. The question is: Which ones are like that, and how could you deliver them? The point is, are there ways to combine science with meanings that would be affirming rather than threatening to people? I think if somebody believes there aren’t any, I think that person just doesn’t have much imagination.

e360: You do offer some examples at the local level – Florida, for instance – where adaptation to climate change has taken place without running into the cultural identity obstacle. Why wasn’t the individualism/communitarianism dynamic at work in those instances?

Kahan: The reason there is potential to promote engagement there is that the meanings are entirely different. People in Florida have had a climate problem since they got there. It’s a bad climate. It gets overwhelmed by water and hurricanes. It’s not like this is news to them. I can find materials that were distributed in the 1960s that are not all that much different from what they are using now to try to explain to people why you have to worry about saltwater penetration into the aquifers. Every few years you have to do things since sea level rises. They are used to talking about this, and they’re used to talking about it with their neighbors. They may be red and blue when talking about certain national issues, but they’re all just property owners. The insurance guy is there saying one thing, and so is the power company. Now, people are going to squabble because choices always have to be made in politics. But for purposes of this debate, they are all on the same team. You don’t have to come up with clever framing messages. Just use the way that people already talk about these issues.

e360: Are you saying that in Florida they talk about the threat of climate change without actually using the words “climate” and “change?”

Kahan: People talk about climate and climate change in Florida, but really what they talk about is: How do we deal with the problem we’ve always dealt with? I don’t know that there is a taboo on mentioning the word “climate.” What they’re talking about is: What do we do here in Florida?

e360: I understand that you have a project on the ground in Florida right now, in which you are looking at science communication on the issue of climate change.

Kahan: We’re advising different municipal actors who are part of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact. Those groups are working together from Florida’s four most populous counties to implement a directive that was actually passed by the Republican legislature and signed by the Republican governor in 2011: that everybody should update their comprehensive land-use plan to reflect the most recent information on sea level rise and other kinds of adverse climate impacts. We’ve been talking about how to create a science communication environment in which the members of the public will be receptive to the type of information that travels to them. But, of course, a lot of time what you’re communicating is: How about the estimates from this model about exactly how much sea level is going to rise? And how about that model and what if we made this assumption?

These are decision-makers in administrative positions who are getting information from scientists and are trying to make sense of it and understand the trade-offs and the costs and benefits. What we try to do is help the members of the compact understand what the best evidence is on the ways to communicate the science.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: Steve Liptay

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