Monday, October 1, 2012

UK public on climate change

An interesting report is out, co-authored by Emily Shuckburgh, Rosie Robison and Nick Pidgeon. It examines the public perception of climate science and climate scientists in the UK, comparing data collected in six focus group interviews. There are some results which will not surprise Klimazwiebel regulars, others might. Below I summarize the main findings:

The study shows that while a substantial majority of the UK public believe the world’s climate is changing, many feel relatively uninformed about, or uninterested in, the findings of climate science, and a sizable [sic] minority do not trust climate scientists to tell the truth about climate change:

  • Less than half the UK public say they know a ‘fair’ amount or more about climate change, and less than  half like to read and think about it. Climate change is often conflated with other environmental issues  and many people fail to identify unprompted the relevance of certain activities which contribute towards  climate change such as everyday gas and electricity use.
  • This apparent lack of knowledge or interest in climate science is tinged with a marked note of scepticism.  While the majority of the UK public believe that the world’s climate is changing, their levels of concern  have decreased over the past five years (as has their willingness to change behaviour to limit climate  change) and the proportion who believe the seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated has  increased to include almost half the population. Trust in ‘authority groups’ (e.g. scientists, government,  business and industry, environmental groups and the media) to give an accurate portrayal of climate  change has decreased in recent years. Moreover, one-third of the UK public do not trust climate scientists  to tell the truth about climate change.
  • Attitudes to climate change are correlated with the level of engagement the public has with climate  change as a topic (in particular how much they like to read and think about it, but also self-assessed  knowledge) and with their confidence in climate science (i.e. whether they think most scientists agree on  the human causes of climate change, whether they trust climate scientists to tell the truth about climate  change and whether they think the seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated). However,  the cause/effect cannot be determined from our survey data and it is important to recognise that an  individual’s political beliefs, personal values and worldview are likely to contribute to their attitudes to  climate change. 
Effective communication of climate science needs new ways of engaging with the public. Key  findings from the focus groups and a review of the relevant literature on how communication of  climate science through the news media might be improved are:
  • Cultural factors influence the way the public assimilate and process information and these should be taken into account when designing a communications approach. Opportunities to do this include: encouraging a range of talented science communicators from different backgrounds; giving thought to how climate scientists might work with others to embed scientific statements in broader messages using diverse communications channels; and encouraging activities that encompass two-way engagement between scientists and the public. 
  • Communications could be designed to accommodate the different interests and scientific literacy of the  audience and tested to ensure the information is presented in a manner that most aids understanding.  Providing a clear and meaningful illustration of the key information and concepts might help build some  intuition for unfamiliar topics. This could be a simple graphical description, a straightforward explanation  of a mechanism, or an ‘indicator of change’ such as the decline in the number of bees. It may also be  helpful to expose more scientists to the complexities of opinion formation by the public (e.g. through  involvement in public engagement activities), allowing greater mutual understanding and a more  deliberative model of communication.
  • Other key factors that may help engage the audience include: personal relevance (e.g. a connection to  the local area); novelty (e.g. a new angle to a piece of science information); clarity of language and style;  the delivery of scientific evidence in a non-alarmist, non-manipulative but passionate manner; and the  inclusion of information on how people might use the scientific results being presented (which may require  scientists to work in collaboration with others to communicate a message and its implications).
  • Careful attention should be paid to communicating around topics known to be susceptible to  misinterpretation. A particular example is ‘uncertainty’, where scientific and public interpretations of the  term can diverge. Scientists need to be aware that, by their choice of wording, they may unwittingly alter  the way a statement is interpreted. Great care should be taken in constructing statements of scientific  uncertainty and their framing, and messages should be tested to ensure they are not misconstrued. Rephrasing such statements using the everyday public language of risk might help alleviate the problem. 
H/T Bishop Hill


18 comments:

Werner Krauss said...

I have to confess that I still prefer good ol' critical science-journalism to this kind of stylized manipulation of public opinion that the authors of this study suggest!

Hans von Storch said...

Werner,

I thought these deliberations meaningful, and in fact quite close to how I think and hope to act. However, I do not consider myself manipulative in doing so - but maybe I oversaw something in the argument, which you disliked - thus: what is it you find manipulative? (Manipulative means for me something like: persuading somebody to accept something with linguistic tricks, overriding the interests and perceptions of the manipulated.)

Werner Krauss said...

Hans,

why I suspect manipulation?

I think it's the bees: the authors recommend to take as "an 'indicator' of change' ... the decline of the number of bees".
Maybe, they suggest, the bees help to show people that even "everyday gas and electricity use" contributes towards climate change.

Why not polar bears? Because the polar bear science communication strategy ended up in alarmism (see the Guardian below) and Climategate (I know, this is unfair, but you get the idea). So now we try it with bees?

I think we had this kind of communication strategy before, as we had forewords by Lord Stern. We don't need another vision of a unified climate science that speaks truth to power and "dumbs down" the message for the crowd to make them more aware of their carbon footprint or whatever. In my opinion, we don't need more social engineering and embedded messages, as the authors suggest; we also shouldn't use the media to transport scientific truth to the public - instead, we need more critical discussions of climate change, science and policy IN the media, including the blogosphere. This helps, in my opinion, to regain trust in climate science and to find alternatives to the failed strategy of selling climate science as Ersatzpolitik.

Anonymous said...

Werner,

the percentage of people, who do not trust in climate science, varies a lot in different countries, the USA, GB and Australia show a rather high percentage. Why?

Science communication is an important point, but I think it can't explain the differences. It might be worth to examine the influence of the merchants of doubt, which are rather strong in the countries mentioned an which use the english language.

BTW: I'm not surprised that Bishop Hill misses that point, but others should not.

Andreas

Reiner Grundmann said...

If the "merchants of doubt" were influential in the UK, you would not get 93±3% of respondents saying that climate change is entirely or mainly human made (p.11 of the report). I think the figure for Germany is closer to 50%.

Werner Krauss said...

Andreas,

thanks for the comment. My contribution is not about explaining the differences; it is intended as a critique of the science communication strategy as suggested in the above article.

I don't doubt that the study itself (about the opinions of the British public) is very insightful.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Werner
I partly agree with you but think you miss the point about the bees: the researchers found this a topic coming up in the focus group interviews.
It is thus not primarily an attempt at manipulation from above/outside, but picking up of a matter of concern from citizens.

And do not forget that this kind of research is done under the brief of "tell us how science communication can be improved". Hence their research strategy and data collection method.

Nevertheless, it would be interesting to outline an alternative approach, one which you hint at ("we need more critical discussions of climate change, science and policy IN the media, including the blogosphere. This helps, in my opinion, to regain trust in climate science and to find alternatives to the failed strategy of selling climate science as Ersatzpolitik").

Maybe we should apply for research grants with this line of thought ;-)

But it will be more indirect, less compelling to the funders and their current thinking.

Hans von Storch said...

Werner, I missed the bees - you are right; that is not helpful, in particular when one has to consider the possibility that it is not only climate which is changing the conditions for life of bees.

Andreas - it may be the other way around. Because of a skeptical attitude there are many "merchants of doubt"; you could say it a bit more positive: Since many have reservations there are many who express this reservation.

Werner Krauss said...

Reiner,

yes, I see the framework, and inside of this framework, this study is consistent and well done, no doubt. And yes, the bee-issue was raised in the groups, but then the bees were immediately considered as a means to get better inside people's minds - for a good goal, of course.

But I get impatient after many years of discussion: for such a long time, people were made believe by science and the state that cap and trade, Kyoto, and exchange of light bulbs are the logical consequence of science. They are not.

Jerry Ravetz compared the "war on climate change" with the "war on terror", and he had the fake evidence of chemical weapons in mind. Tony Blair was part of the war on terror, and Tony Blair also said that only 15 years are left for saving the planet - of course, based on scientific evidence (you posted the Guardian article). The "war on terror" failed. The war on climate change wasn't very successful, too, up to now.

Maybe it is time to change perspective (and strategies). Maybe we as social scientists shouldn't focus that much on what people think, but on what politicians and industries actually do to both ruin whole economies and endanger our climate. Or what they fail to do. I am sure this would also restore public trust in science. Sounds reasonable too, right? Just a suggestion....

Reiner Grundmann said...

Werner,
again I agree with much of what you say but am sceptical about that part of the argument which has to do with restoring trust to climate science.

The results in the study show that (mainstream) climate scientists have lost credibility, something that was doubted by many of their supporters (also here on Klimazwiebel). Now we see evidence for this claim, whatever the causes. It may be this is the result of their own practices, they have taken a risk (overselling) and lost.
Let me ask two questions to see if we are talking about the same thing:
1 How can lost trust in climate science be restored?
2 Does it matter?

Re 1: you say through more critical reflection of politicians and industries’ practices

Re 2: you say we can have good climate policies which are not science-led. But why would the restoration of trust be an issue?

Werner Krauss said...

Reiner,

thanks for your insightful comments!I don't have an answer, I think your questions are answers at the same time, too. I do not object much of what you say here. And yes, we talk about the same thing, more or less -:)

Anonymous said...

I think what the bees argument was getting at perhaps was that this type of research doesn't address the root cause of the problem - that 'better' science communication, even one that incorporates the 'bees' (as brought up by 'real' people in focus groups), does not work in the context of climate change, where, as Werner Krauss points out so nicely, climate science has become (a failed) Ersatzpolitik (thus loss of trust in climate scientists). In this context only 'real' political and, in a sense, 'industrial' action can help, again as suggested, I think, by Werner Krauss

Dennis Bray said...

I think one of the problems is that too much gets lumped under the ‘global warming’ heading. We have issues of detection, attribution and impacts. Climate science is mostly about detection and attribution. Even amongst climate scientists, a scientist may agrre with one ‘consensus’ but not the other. How are the public to react to this? Social science should deal with the socio economic impacts. It is these impacts which are likely of most interest to the public, and they should be presented more in local and regional – rather than global – terms: the issue must be made meaningful at a personal level. But how often have you seen social scientist involvement with the media, discussing things in local terms? Also, to say the trust in science has been lost is far to general. It depends where you ask. In eastern Europe, for example, the trust in science far out weighs the trust in the media, for obvious reasons of recent political history. Further, on the matter of trust in science, we are talking about science as reported by the media with the usual quotes from a few scientists. I am not sure if (climate) science as a social program has been relinquished to the rubbish bin. A few scientific personalities yes, but no really climate science per se. Of course, those personalities are, unfortunately, the public representatives of science. To do something about that issue should be the responsibility of the science and of academia. After all, they do police many other ethical isses.

Werner Krauss said...

Dennis,

thanks for this really refreshing comment! I especially appreciate your comments concerning differentiation in the "trust-issue" - those generalizations (public lost trust in climate science) are mostly political in intention and based on the usual surveys which can prove everything.

Here two additions: social science should deal with both sides, with socio-economic impacts AND with the production of scientific knowledge - because both cannot be separated. Specific knowledge privileges specific focus on impacts (is wind energy, for example, a direct socio-economic impact from climate change? Surely not; there is a whole social "translation process" in-between).

"Climate science" doesn't exist as such; it is under permanent construction and interpretation, from inside and outside. Climate science is a story to be told; a story of methods, of personalities, and of politics, of course. There are already too many attempts to "police" it from the inside (just think of what the Climategate emails revealed); I think the topic is too important to be left to academia only! Furthermore, the presence of "big men" is one of the characteristics of climate science, as were "foundation fathers" (sometimes mothers) in other disciplines, too.

Anonymous said...

"and the proportion who believe the seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated has increased to include almost half the population."

"The seriousness of climate change is exaggerated:

Strongly agree 12%

Tend to agree 32 %

Neither agree nor disagree 17%

Tend to disagree 20%"

"Tend to disagree" and "Neither" are still sceptical about the "seriousness of climate change".

Here we have 81% skeptics.

The same with "concerned". Only 22% are very concerned and even me (the climate-antichrist) am concerned.

And "caused by". Only 28% believe that its mainly or entierely caused by humans. 72% evil skeptics.

"one-third of the UK public do not trust climate scientists to tell the truth about climate change."

The TRUTH IS:

"Just over one-third (38±3%) of respondents agreed that ‘climate scientists can be trusted to tell us the truth about climate change’"

62±3% are evil skeptchicks

And what do they mean when they write:

"This apparent lack of knowledge or interest in climate science is tinged with a marked note of scepticism."

This sounds pretentious and hypocritical to me.

"... new ways of engaging with the public."?????

OUCH


Yeph

Anonymous said...

@Andreas

"The merchants of doubt"?

Hansen? Rahmstorf? Realclimate? Pachauri&Co?

95% of climate news are pro alarmism

I blow a little kiss to the hypocrites.


Yeph

Anonymous said...

Political views trump facts

http://www.newswise.com/articles/political-views-trump-facts-for-some-on-climate-change-new-unh-research-finds

Dennis Bray said...

Hey Werner

Have you ever heard of Catweasel?
I don't recall saying anything about surveys, though Werner. So I really have no idea what you are talking about.

"with socio-economic impacts AND with the production of scientific knowledge - because both cannot be separated" - But social science does discuss both, usually with a disciplinary separation though.

"is wind energy, for example, a direct socio-economic impact from climate change? Surely not; there is a whole social "translation process" in-between" - I agree, SURELY NOT - just ask Cervantes.


""Climate science" doesn't exist as such; it is under permanent construction and interpretation, from inside and outside." - what scientific and pseudo scientific discipline isn't?

" I think the topic is too important to be left to academia only!" What would you suggesst? Poets?