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Countering Climate Science Denial and Communicating Scientific Consensus  

John Cook

Scientific agreement on climate change has strengthened over the past few decades, with around 97% of publishing climate scientists agreeing that human activity is causing global warming. While scientific understanding has strengthened, a small but persistent proportion of the public actively opposes the mainstream scientific position. A number of factors contribute to this rejection of scientific evidence, with political ideology playing a key role. Conservative think tanks, supported with funding from vested interests, have been and continue to be a prolific source of misinformation about climate change. A major strategy by opponents of climate mitigation policies has been to cast doubt on the level of scientific agreement on climate change, contributing to the gap between public perception of scientific agreement and the 97% expert consensus. This “consensus gap” decreases public support for mitigation policies, demonstrating that misconceptions can have significant societal consequences. While scientists need to communicate the consensus, they also need to be aware of the fact that misinformation can interfere with the communication of accurate scientific information. As a consequence, neutralizing the influence of misinformation is necessary. Two approaches to neutralize misinformation involve refuting myths after they have been received by recipients (debunking) or preemptively inoculating people before they receive misinformation (prebunking). Research indicates preemptive refutation or “prebunking” is more effective than debunking in reducing the influence of misinformation. Guidelines to practically implement responses (both preemptive and reactive) can be found in educational research, cognitive psychology, and a branch of psychological research known as inoculation theory. Synthesizing these separate lines of research yields a coherent set of recommendations for educators and communicators. Clearly communicating scientific concepts, such as the scientific consensus, is important, but scientific explanations should be coupled with inoculating explanations of how that science can be distorted.


Climate Change Conspiracy Theories  

Joseph E. Uscinski, Karen Douglas, and Stephan Lewandowsky

An overwhelming percentage of climate scientists agree that human activity is causing the global climate to change in ways that will have deleterious consequences both for the environment and for humankind. While scientists have alerted both the public and policy makers to the dangers of continuing or increasing the current rate of carbon emission, policy proposals intended to curb carbon emission and thereby mitigate climate change have been resisted by a notable segment of the public. Some of this resistance comes from those not wanting to incur costs or change energy sources (i.e., the carbon-based energy industry). Others oppose policies intended to address climate change for ideological reasons (i.e., they are opposed to the collectivist nature of the solutions usually proposed). But perhaps the most alarming and visible are those who oppose solutions to climate change because they believe, or at least claim to believe, that anthropogenic climate change is not really happening and that climate scientists are lying and their data is fake. Resistance, in this latter case, sometimes referred to as climate “skepticism” or “denialism,” varies from region to region in strength but worldwide has been a prominent part of a political force strong enough to preclude both domestic and global policy makers from making binding efforts to avert the further effects of anthropogenic climate change. For example, a 2013 poll in the United States showed that almost 40% believed that climate change was a hoax. Climate skeptics suggest the well-publicized consensus is either manufactured or illusory and that some nefarious force—be it the United Nations, liberals, communists, or authoritarians—want to use climate change as a cover for exerting massive new controls over the populace. This conspiracy-laden rhetoric—if followed to its logical conclusion—expresses a rejection of scientific methods, scientists, and the role that science plays in society. Skeptic rhetoric, on one hand, may suggest that climate skepticism is psychological and the product of underlying conspiratorial thinking, rather than cognitive and the product of a careful weighing of scientific evidence. On the other hand, it may be that skeptics do not harbor underlying conspiratorial thinking, but rather express their opposition to policy solutions in conspiratorial terms because that is the only available strategy when arguing against an accepted scientific consensus. This tactic of calling into question the integrity of science has been used in other scientific debates (e.g., the link between cigarette smoking and cancer). Opinion surveys, however, support the view that climate change denialism is driven at least partially by underlying conspiratorial thinking. Belief in climate change conspiracy theories also appears to drive behaviors in ways consistent with the behaviors of people who think in conspiratorial terms: Climate change conspiracy theorists are less likely to participate politically or take actions that could alleviate their carbon footprint. Furthermore, some climate skeptics reject studies showing that their skepticism is partially a product of conspiratorial thinking: They believe such studies are themselves part of the conspiracy.


Guilt and Shame in U.S. Climate Change Communication  

Jennifer Jacquet

Some of the major misconceptions in the United States about climate change—such as the focus on scientific uncertainty, the “debate” over whether climate change is caused by humans, and pushback about how severe the consequences might be—can be seen as communications battles. An interesting area within communications is the contrasting use of guilt and shame for climate-related issues. Guilt and shame are social emotions (along with embarrassment, pride, and others), but guilt and shame are also distinct tools. On the one hand, guilt regulates personal behavior, and because it requires a conscience, guilt can be used only against individuals. Shame, on the other hand, can be used against both individuals and groups by calling their behavior out to an audience. Shaming allows citizens to express criticism and social sanctions, attempting to change behavior through social pressure, often because the formal legal system is not holding transgressors accountable. Through the use of guilt and shame we can see manifestations of how we perceive the problem of climate change and who is responsible for it. For instance, in October 2008, Chevron, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, placed advertisements around Washington, DC, public transit stops featuring wholesome-looking, human faces with captions such as “I will unplug things more,” “I will use less energy,” and “I will take my golf clubs out of the trunk.” Six months later, DC activists reworked the slogans by adding to each the phrase “while Chevron pollutes.” This case of corporate advertising and subsequent “adbusting” illustrates the contrast between guilt and shame in climate change communication. Guilt has tended to align with the individualization of responsibility for climate change and has been primarily deployed over issues of climate-related consumption rather than other forms of behavior, such as failure to engage politically. Shame has been used, largely by civil society groups, as a primary tactic against fossil fuel producers, peddlers of climate denial, and industry-backed politicians.


The Relationships Between Climate Change News Coverage, Policy Debate, and Societal Decisions  

D. B. Tindall, Mark C.J. Stoddart, and Candis Callison

This article considers the relationship between news media and the sociopolitical dimensions of climate change. Media can be seen as sites where various actors contend with one another for visibility, for power, and for the opportunity to communicate, as well as where they promote their policy preferences. In the context of climate change, actors include politicians, social movement representatives, scientists, business leaders, and celebrities—to name a few. The general public obtain much of their information about climate change and other environmental issues from the media, either directly or indirectly through sources like social media. Media have their own internal logic, and getting one’s message into the media is not straightforward. A variety of factors influence what gets into the media, including media practices, and research shows that media matter in influencing public opinion. A variety of media practices affect reporting on climate change─one example is the journalistic norm of balance, which directs that actors on both sides of a controversy be given relatively equal attention by media outlets. In the context of global warming and climate change, in the United States, this norm has led to the distortion of the public’s understanding of these processes. Researchers have found that, in the scientific literature, there is a very strong consensus among scientists that human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change is happening. Yet media in the United States often portray the issue as a heated debate between two equal sides. Subscription to, and readership of, print newspapers have declined among the general public; nevertheless, particular newspapers continue to be important. Despite the decline of traditional media, politicians, academics, NGO leaders, business leaders, policymakers, and other opinion leaders continue to consume the media. Furthermore, articles from particular outlets have significant readership via new media access points, such as Facebook and Twitter. An important concept in the communication literature is the notion of framing. “Frames” are the interpretive schemas individuals use to perceive, identify, and label events in the world. Social movements have been important actors in discourse about climate change policy and in mobilizing the public to pressure governments to act. Social movements play a particularly important role in framing issues and in influencing public opinion. In the United States, the climate change denial countermovement, which has strong links to conservative think tanks, has been particularly influential. This countermovement is much more influential in the United States than in other countries. The power of the movement has been a barrier to the federal government taking significant policy action on climate change in the United States and has had consequences for international agreements and processes.