What do people really think about climate change?

by Zoe Tabary | zoetabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 2 February 2018 15:14 GMT

In this 2014 file photo, a man walks on the street during heavy smog in the central Bosnian town of Zenica. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

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If people don't like solutions to climate change - like higher electricity tariffs - they're less likely to think the issue is important

A 2017 survey on global threats found that nearly nine in 10 people would be ready to make changes to their standard of living if it would prevent future climate catastrophes – indicating that many people now see climate change as a bigger threat than other traditional or rising concerns such as epidemics. 

Yet in the world’s largest economy, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has proposed to limit federal funding for science research and voiced scepticism over climate change. 

Nowhere is the polarisation of public opinion on climate change more apparent than in the United States, according to Cass Sunstein, a Harvard University professor and adviser to former President Barack Obama. 

Much of that polarisation has to do with the “good news, bad news” effect, whereby “people update beliefs asymmetrically”, he told an audience at the London School of Economics (LSE) on Thursday. 

“Weak believers in climate change update their beliefs only when they get good news – like smaller temperature increases than anticipated – while strong believers are more likely to credit bad news,” he said. 

“That creates polarisation in their beliefs.”

Sunstein also attributed the divide on climate change to a “solution aversion” effect, where people’s perception of a solution to a problem is likely to affect their judgement on the existence and magnitude of that problem.

“So if someone is strongly opposed to high electricity tariffs, they’re less likely to think that climate change exists or is important,” he said.

That makes it crucial to think about how climate changes issues are communicated to the public, if they are to have a desired effect on behaviours, he added. 

LSE professor Nicholas Stern agreed, saying “we don’t seem to be terribly good at getting climate change arguments across”.

Using a “trusted messenger” like revered British naturalist David Attenborough to raise awareness of climate change could help reach sceptical audiences, he suggested. 

“He looks like someone who has seen the evidence on climate change and gradually come out in favour of the issue – which I think can convince people to take action,” said Stern. 

Efforts to tackle climate change will also fall on deaf ears if they don’t use terms that people can understand, say experts.

In northern Burkina Faso, for example, a new guide translates over 500 French and English meteorological terms into the more colourful phrases that local farmers use – a solar eclipse, for example, is when “the cat catches the sun”.

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