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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 04/20/2009

Social Science Uncovering New Climate Angles

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Every time I am asked if I "believe in global warming," I am reminded of the communications challenge that faces us when confronted with complex issues such as climate change.

As detailed in this week's cover story in the New York Times Magazine, social science research is now revealing that people tend not to respond very well to long-term, diffuse threats, particularly when information about such threats is conveyed using analytical rather than "experiential" reasoning. Work at Columbia's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), where I am contributing to a climate science communications project, demonstrates that there is a need for exploring innovative ways of engaging people on matters of climate science, climate-related risk management, and personal and societal policy choices in order for society to implement appropriate solutions to the problem.

Keep reading for more on the complex interactions between climate change science and the human mind...

The article sheds light on something that is evident in the comments section of nearly every CWG climate change post: how people feel about climate change, and climate change solutions, can dominate their views of the science and of policies to adapt to and/or mitigate the problem. In other words, their emotional reactions to the issue can trump their analytical reasoning.

As Times author Jon Gertner wrote, "The possibility that society won't act decisively on global warming until we experience a shattering realization - a Pearl Harbor moment, as the climate blogger and former Department of Energy official Joe Romm recently put it - aligns with our tendency to respond quickly to the stimulus of experience and emotion, but slowly to a risk that we process analytically and that may be rife with uncertainties."

Other social science research in the fields of political science and media studies has demonstrated that the political ideology of an individual or an institution can also skew their outlook on both climate science and policy. This may partially explain the persistent partisan divide in the United States on whether man made climate change is occurring and how we should address it.

How do we get to the coveted middle ground, and make sound decisions based on robust scientific conclusions?

One answer may lie in improving climate science communication, which groups like CRED are trying to do. This brings me back to climate science presentations, and the necessity of taking into account how the human mind works. When climate scientists and policy makers rest their case on complicated technical charts to convey the influence of human activities on the climate system, they often fail to instill any sense of urgency or emotion in their audiences, despite the urgency they may feel as a researcher. They rely too much on analytical reasoning, to use the language of CRED researchers discussed in the Times article.

For example, the iconic "Keeling Curve," which shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have been increasing significantly since the 1950s, might give a climate scientist chills. It is perhaps the most famous image in the climate science story. However, members of the general public may be rather nonplussed by it, since the climate change implications of the chart are not immediately evident.

As the Times article makes clear, it's not only the complexity of the climate system that trips us up when trying to grasp its implications, but also the complexity of the human mind.

By  |  10:30 AM ET, 04/20/2009

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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