In Commentary

Do we live in a post-truth society – one in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”? The term was so widely used in 2016 that Oxford Dictionaries named it their international word of the year.

But maybe this phenomenon isn’t entirely new. People’s opinions have always been swayed by their personal feelings and beliefs – and when it comes to climate change, whether or not people accept it as a reality depends more on their identity and political leanings than their understanding of the facts. This may be why, even though 2016 was a record year for both global temperatures and U.S. floods, many Americans still express doubt about whether the science around climate change is settled.

There’s also that psychological quirk known as “confirmation bias” – the tendency to seek out or interpret new evidence in a way that confirms one’s existing beliefs.

So what is a climate advocate to do? As the examples below point out, the key isn’t fighting human nature, but understanding and working with it.

An ounce of prevention…

“Fake news” may have come to public prominence in the 2016 election, but climate misinformation has been circulating for years, and it can be very problematic when trying to build public urgency around climate action.

new study conducted by researchers from Cambridge, Yale, and George Mason Universities explored whether people could be “inoculated” against falsehoods by receiving a small, pre-emptive dose of misinformation.

In the experiment, participants were shown opposing statements about the level of scientific consensus on climate change. One group was shown a chart accurately asserting that “97 percent of scientists agree on manmade climate change.” The other group was shown a fake petition allegedly signed by 31,000 scientists saying there was no evidence of human-caused climate change.

Being shown either one of these statements substantially increased or decreased the participant’s belief in climate change consensus, depending on which one they saw. But when shown the accurate chart followed by the erroneous petition, the conflicting statements cancelled each other out, leaving the participant with no firm opinion either way.

However, people who were randomly “vaccinated” with a warning proved resistant to the fake news. When alerted that false claims about disagreement among scientists were being circulated by politically motivated parties, acceptance of the accurate statement rose 6.5 percentage points.

The results were consistent across Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. According to Dr. Sander van der Linden, lead author of the study, “On average, we found no backfire effect to inoculation messages among groups predisposed to reject climate science.”

No one likes to be misled – and in this case, being forewarned overrode their confirmation bias and allowed them to view the information in a new way.

Not just the facts, ma’am…

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe knows far more about the realities of climate change than the average person. She could dazzle us with facts and data all day – but that’s not her approach.

In this recent video from her new Global Weirding series, she explains that if rejecting climate science is part of a person’s core identity, arguing over the data can actually be counterproductive because they see it as an attack on who they are.

“More information about the physical science doesn’t help,” says Hayhoe. “But information about how it affects us does seem to sway minds, and it’s even better if that information is tied to something we already care about.” Instead of starting with the science, she suggests finding something you and your audience have in common (like being a parent), then tying that value to climate change (for example, how it impacts children’s health) and showing how you can work together on solutions to the problem.

In an earlier video entitled How Do We Know This Climate Thing Is Even Real?, Hayhoe discusses the sharp political divide on climate change here in America.

“How is it that we’ve got our science so mixed up with our politics?” she asks.

As she goes on to explain, humans are “cognitive misers.” No one can be an expert in everything, so to form our opinions on things we aren’t experts on, we listen to our trusted messengers. Those messengers often have very different things to say about climate change depending on their political leanings.

In addition, many of the people who deny climate change do so because they don’t like the solutions, which they perceive as being too expensive or requiring sacrifice. In our own communications guides, we recommend focusing on the economic and health benefits of solutions, emphasizing that they offer more energy choices, not fewer, while creating cleaner air, cleaner water, and good jobs right here in the U.S.

To read and download our suite of communication reports, visit our research page.

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