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The great climate communication clash

Cultural cognition vs. consensus messaging: 

Challenges of climate communication in a polarized world


L-R: Dan Kahan and Steve
Lewandowsky. Image taken from
Climate Desk (Maggie Severns).
If anyone attending the Cabot Institute debate between science communication researchers Dan Kahan and Stephan Lewandowsky last Wednesday was hoping for a relaxing, passive glance into the word of climate communication then they were in for a shock.

Attending the event, which was moderated by Climate Outreach director Dr Adam Corner, was like being thrown into a politically-fuelled hurricane of communication and miscommunication. The mildly terrifying, albeit engaging, debating style of Dan Kahan meant there was never a dull moment as the two world-leading cognitive scientists locked horns over their opinions on how science should communicate climate change to the public. 

The evening was kicked off by Kahan, whose invasive debating style saw him thundering into the audience to deliver his messages, a style which certainly drew attention if not support. The greatest focus of his message seemed to be in addressing the motivations of climate sceptics. Kahan claimed that the climate change consensus delivered by the scientific community is polarising opinion; those who are sceptics are not misinformed, their scepticism is fuelled by how they identify themselves. To put simply, the side of the climate change war they fight is supported more by culture than learning. 

If this is the case, then increasing the budget powering the scientific consensus won’t help. Indeed, as Kahan expressed, the expensive climate change communication campaign in the U.S. hasn’t made any difference to the opinions of the public. His message? Stop trying to change who we are and do something proactive with the budget instead.

Next Lewandowsky stepped up to the floor. His argument is pro-consensus, defining the consensus as a few simple facts; that climate change is happening, is caused by humans and is problematic.  His theory is that people respond to education and change their opinions based on the information available to them. This, he claims, is based on testing trials performed in Australia where participants found themselves more concerned about climate change after being exposed to the general consensus. In Lewandowsky’s words “consensus is the gateway to belief’.

Underpinning his argument is the relationship between the layman and the expert. Lewandosky claims that in times of uncertainty, people defer to the expert; “If 97% of engineers delivered a consensus that the bridge was unsafe to cross, would you cross the bridge?”. 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is an issue, so we submit to the opinion of the expert. The idea works in theory but, according to Kahan we aren’t submitting to the expert, in fact, public opinion is unchanged.

So where does the answer lie? Despite lengthy discussions on the climate consensus, no communication consensus was reached. After the discussion was opened up to the audience, the complexities of the task at hand became apparent: while the ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ controversy is clearly polarised, audience members suggested there are degrees of ‘yes’. Is climate change part man made and part natural? Should we be spending more money on adaption rather than mitigation as Kahan suggested? To what extent is politics contributing to the miscommunication; how can we disentangle the issue of left-wing environmentalism as an opponent of capitalism? The list goes on. 

My opinion of the outcome was that the path forwards was a hybrid of the opinions present. Yes, we shouldn’t focus on ‘converting’ the minority of sceptics. The consensus should focus on revaluating the options and behaviour of the supporters. How can we make reducing climate change an economic option for free market capitalism, rather than just trying to close it down. Maybe, as Kahan suggests, instead of aggressive PR campaigns that polarise opinion, we should be working on strengthening the knowledge of the ‘believers’. Indeed making the outcome of the consensus more attractive to those who are in support of climate change, to me, seems like a more progressive step forward. 
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Further reading

Dan Kahan's blog from this event: Against consensus messaging

Read about Steve Lewandowsky's paper on how climate science denial affects the scientific community.

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