A year on from Climategate: What have we learnt?

One year ago today – an unknown hacker penetrated climate science blog RealClimate’s server and began uploading 160MB of emails and other documents swiped from UEA’s Climatic Research Unit own servers on to it.

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Two days later, the stolen emails found their way on to another server and were subsequently released into the public domain. The blogosphere stirred, spluttered and boiled over. Climategate – the unauthorized release of, and news stories about, emails between climate scientists in the US and UK – had begun.

Three UK-based independent inquiries into the Climategate scandal, and another one for Michael Mann (of hockey-stick fame) later, no evidence of scientific fraud was found. Rather, the inquiries painted a picture of a group leading climate scientists who were hounded to the verge of insanity by individuals determined to rip apart decades of analyses and botch their own. And, as you or I would probably do in such circumstances, they vented to one another, blissfully unaware that on stormy day in November 2009 their emails would be shared with the rest of the world.  To boot, ill-advised by their Freedom of Information Act Officers, they failed to respond to multiple requests for data.

All this made for a rather embarrassing story, that was spun and spun until we all felt dizzy and nauseous. (I also had pangs of anxiety as I watched the virtual flogging of the softly spoken Phil Jones and animated Keith Briffa – both who where lecturers of mine at UEA.)

Did Climategate derail climate talks in Copenhagen? Has public belief and concern in climate change changed? How can we deal with climate misinformation? How can scientists better communicate uncertainty? These are but a few questions that scholars, politicians, journalists and policy wonks have been mulling over, while Earth did another lap around the Sun.

Soon after Climategate, a team of academics from Yale and George Mason University conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,001 American adults from December 24, 2009 to January 4, 2010. By comparing the results to a baseline survey conducted in October and November 2008, the authors hoped to answer some of these pressing questions such as shifts in public climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, policy preferences, and behaviors, and the impact of Climategate on public opinion. And they did.

Yes, Climategate had a significant impact on belief and concern of climate change in the US – extrapolating from their survey the authors found that 1 in 4 Americans were influenced by the media coverage of Climategate. This decline, however, was primarily among Americans already predisposed, for ideological or cultural reasons, to disbelieve climate science.

Those most likely to lose trust in scientists and disbelieve climate science were people that held individualistic worldviews or politically conservative ideology. Even more astonishingly, some individuals that held egalitarian worldviews and politically liberal ideology actually gained trust in scientists or strengthened their belief in climate science. This is a phenomenon called  ‘cultural cognition’ – the fact that our cultural values determine what and who we believe. And these results confirm that cultural cognition played a significant role in how the American public responded to Climategate.

It should come as no surprise that cultural cognition is important. According to Yale Law School Professor, Dan Kahan and leading expert on cultural cognition, individualistic or egalitarian worldviews explain different perceptions of environmental-risk more than any other individual characteristic such as gender, income, and educational level.

People with individualistic values, who prize personal initiative, and those with hierarchical values, who respect authority,’ writes Kahan in science journal Nature, ‘tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks.’ This, he argues is because addressing such risks would place restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire. On the hand, those who subscribe to more egalitarian and communitarian values tend to be suspicious of commerce and industry, which are viewed as sources of unjust disparity.

The two groups also interpret new information differently. This means that a neat linear relationship between information and belief and concern in, say climate change, simply does not exist. Oh if only it was that simple.

Instead, more information increases polarization between the two groups not less. This is perhaps why some environmental issues become more controversial, not less with increasing scientific information – an effect highlighted by US science policy expert Daniel Sarewitz.

In the context of climate change this matters. The lack of public support for mitigation policies will inevitably make them more difficult to implement. Second, it is difficult to adapt to something you don’t believe in – especially when it feels far off and abstract.

Although research into the control of cultural cognition is less advanced than the understanding of the mechanisms behind it, Kahan argues that there are two options for better communication of the science.

First, information could be presented in a manner that supports rather than challenges people’s values. Individualists may look more favorably upon emerging climate science if they were aware of the economic opportunities arising from green technology. Second, evidence is more likely to be considered with an open mind when a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts and advocates it.  From this, one might conclude that the right needs its own narrative for climate change communicated by a trusted and respected spokespeople from that group. And, this is a view that Director of Policy at LSE’s Grantham Institute, Bob Ward, has voiced recently.

Simple. Right? No, not quite.

In September this year and following many months hard graft, WWF’s change strategist Tom Crompton published Common Cause. This extensive synthesis of decades of psychological research exploring the role of cultural values and human decision-making provides some further detail on this phenomenon and what to do about it from a campaigning perspective.

Crompton describes two sets of values extrinsic and intrinsic which broadly relates – but are not the same as – Kahan’s individualistic and egalitarian worldviews respectively. Extrinsic values are dependent on the perceptions of others and relate to things like envy, higher social strata, admiration of material wealth or power. Whereas, intrinsic values include the value of community, affiliation to friends and family, and self-development.

Crompton argues that our dominant cultural values are developed over our lifetime – activated by influential peers, the media, education and experience of public policy. Very few individuals are all-out extrinsic or intrinsic, but the two values act in opposition. So the more extrinsic values are activated, the less dominant intrinsic values become.

Given that dominance of intrinsic values are associated with belief and concern for, what Crompton calls ‘bigger-than-self’ issues like climate change, it would seem that Kahan and Crompton are at odds about what how to control cultural cognition. According to Crompton’s logic, Kahan’s narrative for the right, such as an ecological modernization narrative, could reinforce values that would ultimately undermine concern and belief in ‘bigger-than-self’ issues, making them more challenging to deal with.

Both Kahan and Crompton’s work reveal that communication of issues like climate change is no easy feat. How we frame issues could potentially undermine the very actions campaigns seek to motivate. But, in favor of Crompton’s argument, there seems little point in selling an idea – that green growth is possible – particularly when the biosphere is screaming out that it’s not.

Attempts to undermine climate science are ever present. The closer we move towards a global agreement (which seems almost unimaginable at present), the higher the stakes. More and more wads of cash will be hurled towards those willing to spread climate misinformation. Rather than the uncoordinated finger-pointing that emerged in the wake of Climategate, social scientists, communications experts and climate scientists will all need to work together to minimize the damage.

The Yale and George Mason University researchers also found that despite growing distrust in climate science in the US, scientists were still considered to be the most trusted source on climate change.  After watching many of your peers subject to omnidirectional abuse, the knee-jerk reaction may be to disappear into the lab. But, clearly scientists have a crucial role to play and need to be supported in this role.

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  • November 2010
    M T W T F S S
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