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Science of Conveying Science

This article is part of theGIST Science for Society 2014 Article Competition. The top three articles will present their work at the conference. Vote for your favourite article here. Voting closes on Friday 31st October 2014.


Scientists have warned us about the negative effects of global warming for decades. Still, the emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other climate altering gases continue to grow, and regardless of an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community on the role of humans on the current warming of the planet, global warming denial still finds widespread support among politicians and the public. Psychologists have recently turned their focus on the psychological aspects of global warming denial and seek to establish mechanisms that help scientists and those worried of climate change convey the information to global warming deniers. Contrary to popular belief increasing communication and awareness about climate change may not suffice to move the public consensus towards that of the scientific community and reduce political polarization around the issue. Research suggests that the way we process information may come in the way, and we must find ways around these cognitive barriers in order to communicate climate science effectively.

The debate around climate change is highly polarized between the left and the right political wings. Allen and Casteno [1] found that conservatives tend to be less worried about environmental problems than liberals and tend to rate the economy higher than environmental concerns on the list of priorities. In America, 42% of Republicans say climate change is caused by human activity compared to 73% of Liberals [2]. In general, Republicans are less likely than Liberals to say that global warming is already happening and will pose a serious threat within our lifetimes and they are also less likely to believe that a majority of scientists think global warming is occurring. Even though in Britain climate change is politically less controversial than in America, climate change denial is still associated with supporting the Conservatives and having right-wing ideological beliefs [3].

The polarization of opinions on climate change between the left and the right wings has lead psychologists to look for a way to convince the political right about the seriousness of climate change. Feinberg and Willer [4] found that liberals, but not conservatives, view the environment in moral terms. They also found that the contemporary environmental discussion is largely based on moral concerns related to harm and care, which are more deeply held by liberals than by conservatives. In their experiment, exposing people to messages focusing on the harm global warming causes did not affect the environmental attitudes of liberals nor conservatives, and the researchers explained it by the fact that the public discussion about climate change is already focusing on its harm. Thus, those who find talk of the harm climate change causes appealing were already worried about climate change, and those who were not concerned about environmental issues, would not begin to worry about them by appeals to harm. However, the researchers found that reframing environmental messages in terms of purity and sanctity, moral values important to conservatives, reduced the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ environmental attitudes. Thus, in order to appeal to the political right, we should focus on the pollution and contamination of our environment and on the importance of keeping our habitat clean and pure instead of talking about the harm environmental problems cause.

Feygina, Jost and Goldsmith [5] found that those who think the current political system is justified tend to be less committed to pro-environmental action and deny the existence of environmental problems. The motivation to see industrial corporations, national governments and cultural and economic institutions as legitimate and mostly benign may inhibit a realistic assessment of the seriousness of global warming. As global warming poses a challenge to the foundations of our socioeconomic system, this threat may stimulate a defensive, system-justifying response and, therefore, continued denial of the problem, the researchers reason. Also, system justifying may explain partly why conservatives are more prone to climate change denial than liberals as political conservatives scored higher than liberals on measures of system justification. However, the researchers found that it is possible to eliminate the negative effect of system justification on environmentalism by encouraging people to regard pro-environmental change as patriotic and consistent with protecting the status quo. Reframing environmentalism as means of protecting our “way of life” eliminates the negative association between system justification and desire to help the environment. Thus, in order to appeal to those who see our current political system through rose-coloured glasses, we must reframe our talk on climate change as conserving our culture and political system rather than challenging it. In order to convince people across the whole political spectrum into taking climate change seriously, we must take into account the cognitive barriers of information processing and change our environmental discourse accordingly. Studies presented in this article demonstrate that psychology can be useful in addressing the challenge of global warming as changing people’s views on climate change is not only about providing information, but also about conveying the information in the right way. Therefore, if we want everyone to listen what science has to say about global warming, we must first know how to talk about it. Luckily, science can help us with that.

Article by Petra Kosonen



[1] Allen, R. and Castano, E. Conservatism and Concern for the Environment. Quarterly Journal of Ideology, 2007; Vol. 30, 3 & 4.

[2] Dunlap, Riley E. “Climate-Change Views: Republican-Democratic Gaps Expand”. Gallup. [Online] 2008. [Retrieved 24th October 2014].

[3] Clements, B. Exploring public opinion on the issue of climate change in Britain. British Politics, 2012; 7, pp. 183-202.

[4] Feinberg, M. and Willer, R. The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes. Psychological Science, 2013; vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 56-62.

[5] Feygina, I., Jost, J. and Goldsmith, R. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2010; 36(3), pp. 326–338.

Published on: September 25, 2014

Filled Under: Science for Society Article Competition

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