Sociology

Impacts on climate change views

Climate researchers and educators must recognize legitimate disagreements about the risks of climate change, and should support informed dialogue about value-laden choices.

The risks posed by climate change have been a subject of public policy debate in many countries. In some (most notably the United States), even the existence of an anthropogenic element in climate change remains controversial, despite increasing scientific consensus. Consequently, citizens' acceptance or rejection of consensus science on climate change has become a topic of interest among social scientists. A 2012 paper by Daniel Kahan and colleagues in Nature Climate Change1 offered relevant insights and received considerable attention among climate scientists.

The authors found evidence from US survey data for two propositions: that the degree of perceived risk from climate change was not associated with measures of general scientific knowledge and numeracy, and that it was strongly associated with differences in a measure of respondents' world-views. People with 'egalitarian, communitarian' world-views, who favour greater collective attention to individual needs, perceived higher levels of risk from climate change than people with 'hierarchical, individualistic' world-views — people who, in the words of the authors, “give authority to conspicuous social rankings” and eschew “collective interference with the decisions of individuals possessing such authority”. Furthermore, the difference by world-view was greater among respondents scoring high on science literacy and numeracy.

These concepts of world-view came from what social scientists call the cultural theory of risk2. This theory, first formulated in the wake of the 1970s rise of the environmental movement, posits that risk perceptions are more reflective of perceivers' world-views, defined as a cultural phenomenon, than of actual risk. It has been widely critiqued as an effort to discredit the movement's concerns as fundamentally subjective rather than rational3,4.

The main findings presented in the paper were not surprising to social scientists working in this area. The insight that perceptions of environmental risks do not derive simply from scientific knowledge was well established in research on risk perception5, though it might have surprised climate scientists who believed that better education would necessarily result in widespread acceptance of IPCC conclusions regarding the risks. Kahan et al.1 helped draw attention in the climate research community to some important questions at the interface of science and action: if science education does not lead to acceptance of consensus climate science and increased concern with reducing climate risks, what would? And why do some scientifically knowledgeable people fail to accept the scientific consensus?

The conclusion that risk perceptions are linked to fairly stable attributes of the perceiver confirmed past studies. Climate change risk perceptions were known to be related to multiple individual-level factors (including general pro-environmentalism, political orientation and gender), and perceptions were more polarized among the better educated and knowledgeable6. Research grounded in psychological theories of fundamental human values7 had shown that individuals holding altruistic values develop beliefs that are more supportive of environmental protection than individuals whose values prioritize self-enhancement, and that value measures sometimes explain beliefs about environmental risks better than the world-view measures from cultural theory8.

Studies such as that of Kahan et al.1, which seek explanations through individual-level analysis, are important for revealing the significance of values to risk perceptions, but can leave the mistaken impression that these relationships are universal and grounded only in stable personal characteristics. International comparisons suggest otherwise. Rejection of consensus climate science and polarization of opinions are cultural in a way cultural theory did not anticipate: they are peculiar to the US and a few other Anglophone countries. US conservatives stand out from publics in other countries in their rejection of consensus climate science9. The differences follow the left–right political cleavage in US politics, the world-views measured by Kahan et al.1, and the opposition between altruistic and self-enhancement values.

But there is more involved than only these cleavages. Polarization on climate change risks is strongest in countries where a contrarian social movement funded by fossil fuel and related interests has been most active in raising doubts about the scientific consensus10,11,12,13. Polarization seems to depend not only on individuals' stable values or world-views, but also on organized influence attempts, which have proved most effective with receptive subpopulations holding particular political and social values. In the US, where these influence attempts are strongest, polarization has increased over time, affecting mainly political conservatives6. It is worth noting that many contrarian arguments generate mistrust of mainstream climate scientists10, a strategy that past research suggests affects risk perceptions14.

The stream of social science research on climate risk perceptions, including that of Kahan et al.1, forces recognition that climate 'facts' are not all that matter in judging risks. Values also matter. Climate change and efforts to reduce its risks affect different people and the things they value in different ways that change over time and are not entirely predictable. Climate choices involve trade-offs between different objectives and time horizons, also evoking values.

To inform such choices, science needs to produce more than just physical facts — it should also attend to the social effects of climate choices, including inaction. Climate education needs to recognize that knowledge is evolving and that some uncertainty is inevitable. In addition to facts, it might offer mental models that embody these complexities and encourage dialogue across different points of view. One potentially useful analogy that has been suggested is coping with progressive medical conditions such as hypertension or atherosclerosis, for which there may be multiple defensible responses, each with associated risks, and room for informed disagreement15. Science can promote better-informed choices, but not straightforward answers.

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Correspondence to Paul C. Stern.

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Stern, P. Impacts on climate change views. Nature Clim Change 6, 341–342 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2970

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