One of the many cartoon caricatures of a climate scientist debunking the myth that climate change is still a debate. [Image credit: 97 Hours of Consensus]
Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, climate change denial stubbornly persists among the public. So a few communicators are looking for new ways to inform society. And, they’re using approaches that have worked in kindergarten classrooms for decades: repeating their messages, simplifying the scientific results and even using cartoons.
They argue that too little information is at the root of all misunderstandings. It’s a seductive model — one with a straightforward solution — but it contradicts a growing view among science communication scholars that mere education is not enough.
“We have a societal tendency to believe that information and data will answer our questions, as opposed to recognizing the valuated aspect of many issues,” said Gregory Mandel, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who studies the psychology of public opinion on science and technology issues.
The problem is, communicators have presented the public with much more information about climate change over the last 20 years, but have made only slight progress toward building a societal consensus on what that science shows, argues Mandel. “My perception is that it’s budged the needle but not much.”
For instance, a recent study by the PEW Research Center (an organization that provides information on demographic trends across the U.S. and the world) found that only four in 10 Americans see climate change as a global threat.
Still, many climate experts keep trying. In September, for example, climate scientist John Cook of the University of Queensland in Australia launched what he called a 97-hour social media event. Each hour, the site displayed a relevant quote from a climate scientist, along with a playful caricature of that scientist. Cook considers the event successful, with tweets seen up to 1.1 million times.
“If you want to get a message across you need to repeat it again and again and again,” said Cook. “I have to confess I’m getting quite sick of talking about consensus, or drawing about consensus. But maybe it’s getting to the point where people are hearing it for the first time.”
But repetition alone won’t close the gap, argues Michael Ranney, who studies the psychology of climate change denial at the University of California at Berkeley. It’s “not going to be enough if people continue to hear the opposite,” he said. Instead of being engaged in a war of he said she said, the public needs a tiebreaker, something to silence the opposite side of the debate, he argues.
So in 2013, Ranney created five cartoon videos — with the shortest clocking in at 52 seconds — that explain the basic physical mechanism behind climate change using colloquial language. It’s a vital tool in convincing people that humans really are changing the climate, argues Ranney, calling it the tiebreaker necessary to silence science deniers.
Although Cook and Ranney might disagree slightly with one another, they both stand on the same side of a much larger debate, arguing that the public simply needs greater information and greater data before they’ll reach a consensus about climate change.
There’s emerging evidence, however, that this knowledge deficit model of science communication is flawed. In 2013, Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan, Temple’s Mandel and others addressed this exact question in a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. “Our study provided compelling evidence that increased education about how global warming works will not reduce the public polarization on climate change,” said co-author Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, from Stanford Law School.
Alarmingly, their work shows that the more information you give people, the deeper their disagreements become.
People’s likeliness to accept climate change has little to do with their scientific literacy and more to do with their deep-rooted cultural dispositions, Kahan and his co-authors assert. In fact, individuals with a higher science comprehension are even better at fitting the evidence to their societal values.
Perhaps the best solution is to combine both approaches. If climate change communicators provide the public with more information, so long as it is well aligned with the public’s cultural beliefs, then the public might reach a consensus where there is now only polarization.