Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
Knowing the basics of climate change doesn't make people care

Improving public understanding of anthropogenic climate change is essential to cultivating the political will to do something about it. However, a lot of research has shown that simply improving people’s understanding won’t necessarily do much to change their point of view. This is because people’s opinions on many topics are largely based on their political beliefs, rather than how well they understand the science.

That leaves us with a tricky situation. If improving science education won’t change public opinion, what will? A recent article in Nature climate change suggests that education may not be as hopeless a cause as previously thought, but the work has some important limitations that may not give us much cause for optimism.

A problem with previous research on this topic is that “climate change knowledge” has been treated as a monolith, the authors of the new paper argue. Previous studies did not take into account that there are different kinds of knowledge about climate change. While knowledge in one area may be influenced by ideology, knowledge in other areas may not be.

So for this study, the researchers divided their survey questions into three different knowledge categories: physical knowledge, knowledge about causes, and knowledge about effects. Recognize that burning oil produces CO2 fell into “physical knowledge.” Understanding of human influence on climate change came under “causes knowledge”, while knowledge about the predicted impacts of climate change was “consequences knowledge”.

Researchers surveyed 2,495 people in six countries: the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Switzerland and China. In addition to asking knowledge-based questions, they also asked participants how concerned they were about climate change. Other questions included how much value the participants attached to taking care of themselves, taking care of others and taking care of nature and the environment.

It is not surprising that concern about nature and the environment was closely related to concern about climate change. What used to be Surprisingly, in all countries a higher level of knowledge about the causes of climate change was associated with a higher level of concern. More knowledge about the “consequences” was linked to more concern everywhere except Canada and China.

In fact, greater physical knowledge – basic climate literacy – was linked to less concern. This finding is consistent with previous research suggesting that scientifically more informed people may be better at finding ways to ignore research they don’t like.

There are several important limitations in this study. First, the survey is static: it doesn’t look at whether people’s opinions change as they gain more knowledge. The authors could be right that certain kinds of knowledge make people more concerned. But it may also be that people who are more concerned are more likely to look up information about climate change and become better informed as a result.

There is also a problem with the wording of the ’cause’ questions. These questions may not really test people’s knowledge, but rather whether they agree with a certain statement. For example, someone who answers “no” to the statement “Climate change is mainly caused by human activities” may either deny and think the statement is not true, or simply be unaware of it.

If this part of the questionnaire essentially tested people’s opinions about the cause of climate change, rather than their knowledge, it’s not surprising that the answers correlated strongly with concerns about climate change. However, it does not mean that people will change their mind if they are just told that humans are causing climate change.

The only avenue for hope is the “impacts” section, which included statements about what climate scientists think, for example, “For the next decade, the majority of climate scientists expect an increase in extreme events such as droughts, floods, and storms. It’s harder to say ‘no’ to this just because you think we shouldn’t expect droughts, floods and storms. The question is about what climate scientists think.

People’s answers in this section also correlated with their level of concern, and it’s harder to argue that this section of questions only assessed people’s existing opinions on climate change. So it could be that education about the dire consequences we can expect will have an effect on people’s opinions. But we need a lot more research, including studies of changes in opinions over time, to find out.

Nature climate change2016. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2997 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.