Climate Change Literacy Won’t Be Enough

Guest Post by David Ropeik

A new study finds that most of us don’t know what we need to know in order to make an informed judgment about climate change. The study, from researchers at Yale University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that 52 percent of Americans “failed” a quiz on the basic questions regarding climate change science. Forty percent got a C or a D, and only eight percent of us know enough to rate an A or a B.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. After all, roughly half of America doesn’t know that it takes one year for the earth to orbit the sun and one in four doesn’t know the earth goes around the sun (not the other way around). 

But the question is not whether we should be surprised at low literacy about climate change. The question is, how much should we care? How much difference would a more informed public make? To what degree could even perfect knowledge of the basic facts get Americans to take this potentially serious threat, more seriously?

Don't Put Too Much Hope in the Wisdom of a More Informed Public

In the introduction to “Americans' Knowledge of Climate Change,” Yale's Anthony Leiserowitz suggests that ignorance is part of why we’re not making more progress. He argues that ignorance and misconceptions lead “…some people to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks.”

All these observations are certainly true. The more facts we have, the more informed our judgments will be. But it is seductive, and dangerous, to place too much hope in the wisdom of a more informed public. Our “wisdom” —  yours, mine, everyone’s — is the product of what we know, as judged through a set of affective/instinctive/emotional filters which help us make sense of those facts, to give them the meaning that turns them from raw data into our judgments and choices. Perception is a combination of reason and gut reaction, intellect and instinct. This is particularly true of the perception of risk, which at its foundation is about survival, which means some pretty strong instincts and affective filters are involved.

So a closer understanding of and respect for the psychological aspects of climate change is as important to moving things forward as a more factually informed public.

Some of the psychological characteristics that make a risk feel more or less threatening are common to us all. (This comes from the research of Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff, among others). One of them is the subconscious question we instinctively ask ourselves about any possible danger; “Can it happen to ME?” If not, why worry? Can you name one way climate change might seriously, negatively impact your life in the next ten years? Most people, even the most dedicated environmentalists, can’t. Climate change doesn’t trigger the “ME” factor, so concern about it stays intellectual, and doesn’t hit us in the gut. You can see this in the “Americans' Knowledge” study. Sixty three percent of the respondents said they understand that global warming is real, and happening now, but only 16 percent say they are personally very worried. This mirrors the findings in most surveys of public opinion about climate change — concern about climate change is more broad than it is deep.

Another risk perception factor is whether the risk is “NOW or LATER”. As you might expect, a risk that’s staring you in the face will trigger more concern than danger that looms down the road. Even if you think climate change is already underway, you’re right to think that most of the harm will come LATER, and later just isn’t as scary.

A third psychological factor is “personification;” is the risk represented in the form of real victims, or just as an abstraction, an idea? A risk with real victims is more emotionally compelling. Think pictures of dead soldiers lying bloody on the ground versus statistics of war dead. The numbers are bigger, but the personified images are more affectively powerful. A risk that’s an “issue” is less likely to send chills down your spine than one represented by a face, or a name.

So the threat of climate change, even if you get an “A” on the test asking you about the facts, feels like an abstract idea, the worst of which isn’t going to happen for a while, and when it does, it will probably affect somebody else. Is that the sort of danger that will keep you up at night, or get you to change your light bulbs or the vehicle you drive or the thermostat? Does that feel threatening enough to warrant more expensive electricity or gasoline, or get you politically engaged? Probably not.


But why don’t we all feel the same about climate change? Why the intense disagreement over the same facts (which reinforces the point that the psychology may be more of a problem than lack of factual knowledge.) There is another subconscious force that shapes our perceptions, the polarizing effect of something called “Cultural Cognition” (Much of this work is by Dan Kahan, et. al).

We shape our views to conform to those of the groups with which we most powerfully identify. This strengthens the prevalence of our group’s view, and strengthens the group’s acceptance of us as a member in good standing. Both are important to the survival of a social animal like us. In this case, a group is much deeper than political affiliation or religion or gender or family, the more obvious “tribes” with which we identify. Cultural Cognition posits that group means the way you think society should be organized and should operate. It identifies people along two continua.

  • Individualists, who think that society should mostly let each member do his or her own thing. At the other end of that spectrum are Communitarians, who think we all are in it together and society should operate more as a whole rather than a bunch of independent members.
  • Heirarchists, who prefer a society with well-identified class and authority structures and a firm and predictable status quo. At the other end of that spectrum are Egalitarians, who prefer a more open society with fewer pre-determined class and authority structures and a less rigid status quo.
    (We all fall in different places somewhere along each continua depending on the issue.)

Studies by Kahan and his colleagues have found that these cultural cognition characteristics are more predictive of people’s positions on climate change (and many of the so-called Culture War issues of the day) than the traditional demographics of political party, age, health status, education, etc. Communitarians and egalitarians show more concern about climate change (and most environmental issues) because the solutions challenge the status quo and will require a “we’re all in this together” response by society. Individualists and Hierarchists are much more likely to be climate change skeptics, because acknowledging the problem threatens the way they think society should operate.

Leiserowitz and Ed Maibach found just this phenomenon in their “Global Warming’s Six Americas” research. Education and awareness of the facts had less to do with where people stood on climate change than their group affiliations. There were plenty of well-educated skeptics, whose demographics match those of Heirarchists/Individualists.

And if you want proof not from survey research but from the real world, read the New York Times story from October 19: “In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy.” Folks in America’s heartland who have no affection for Al Gore and don’t believe climate change is real, support many of the energy saving steps the “we’re all in it together” climate change advocates are suggesting, when those steps are couched not as a solution to climate change but in terms of energy independence and defending the status quo of a strong America, which is a more appealing perspective to Hierarchists.

In an interview, Leiserowitz acknowledged that the facts alone are not enough. “People are different and have different psychological, cultural, and political reasons for acting,” he said. “Information is necessary, but insufficient.” Then what else is necessary to promote the actions that might address this threat?

There are a number of sciences that can help; the hard sciences that help provide the facts about what’s happening in the physical world, and the social and neurological sciences that explain how we interpret those facts into our judgments and actions. Insufficient attention is being paid to the latter, and studies like “Americans' Knowledge” that emphasize the importance of the facts only reinforce that imbalance. We need to pay attention to the facts, of course. But we need to pay much more attention to, and show much more respect for, the way those facts feel. 

David Ropeik is an instructor at Harvard, consultant in risk perception and risk communication, and author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”