The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The term that actually makes climate change less political

An M9-class solar flare erupts on the Sun. (NASA via AFP/Getty Images)

As we’ve told you in recent weeks, a growing body of psychological research in political science is starting to show us why the debate over climate change is so politically polarized. People’s politics and worldviews seem to affect how they perceive climate change’s existence and severity.

This “cultural cognition” model is giving us new insights into how we should talk about climate change, vaccines and other hot-button issues where risk is involved. The moral of the story: More information doesn’t always help, and in some cases it can hurt by polarizing people ideologically on these issues.

[Related: Elite science panel calls on U.S. to study climate modification]

A new study, published recently in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, confirms what we knew — that government proposals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions polarize us over climate change. But it also tells us of a potential policy that actually somewhat depolarizes people, while still getting them to care about climate change: geoengineering.

Geoengineering has been in the news a lot lately. Broadly speaking, it’s the idea of using technologies to manipulate the Earth’s climate. Think things like reflecting sunlight to space with large mirrors or reflective aerosols or reducing carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere by sucking it out of the air with machines or planting a lot of trees.

[Related: Short-term fixes for long-term climate problems? Not so fast]

But geoengineering has environmental groups and many scientists concerned, as they argue that it’s akin to playing God with the climate and that some specific techniques could have nasty side effects. The National Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, suggests that we need to do more research into geoengineering before it’s ready for prime time.

Dan Kahan at Yale University and colleagues wanted to know how geoengineering, alongside more traditional climate solutions, would affect people’s views of climate change. The researchers divided 3,000 people into three groups. Kahan and colleagues presented all three groups with the same information on the science behind climate change — namely that “irreversible climate changes” have already occurred because of human emissions and that society would face climate risks for 1,000 years even if we were to halt emissions today.

But each group received different information on the policy implications of climate change:

  • One group was told that scientists recommended anti-pollution measures to address climate change.
  • A second group was told that scientists recommended investing more in geoengineering, which could potentially work better than emissions cuts.
  • A third, control group wasn’t given any specific policy recommendation.
  • Then, all participants were surveyed on their views about the scientific information they read, on their worldviews and on their general perception of climate change’s risks to society.

Conventional wisdom might hold that telling people about geoengineering would make them less concerned about climate change’s risks by making them complacent about it; if geoengineering works, then maybe climate change isn’t such a big deal. But that’s not what the researchers found. The geoengineering group viewed climate change as posing a slightly higher risk than did the control group and a similar level of risk as did the anti-pollution group.

But that finding doesn’t get at another equally crucial issue: polarization. Not surprisingly, the anti-pollution group was more polarized (i.e., the gap between liberals and conservatives was larger) than the control group was, both on the scientific information they read and on climate change’s risks more generally.

With the geoengineering group, however, something different happened. The anti-pollution and geoengineering groups were still roughly equally polarized over how risky they think climate change is, relative to the control group. But when it came to the scientific information on climate change that the researchers made all participants read, the geoengineering group was actually less polarized on whether the science is solid than the control group was.

What’s going on here? Not only was it a matter of conservative skepticism of climate science shrinking in the geoengineering group, but liberals in the geoengineering group became more likely to question the science. The researchers wonder whether many liberals’ concerns about geoengineering’s potential pitfalls made them more likely to question the science. Meanwhile, more conservatives in the geoengineering group could have accepted the information because geoengineering wouldn’t entail the emissions-cutting policies they oppose.

Those findings confirm that people’s views on a problem like climate change are shaped not only by what we know about the problem, but also by the problem’s societal implications. More surprisingly, however, geoengineering might not make people complacent about climate change at all. Also, at least superficially, geoengineering appears to have a depolarizing effect on the climate debate — and not simply by quelling conservative rejection of climate science.

I’m not saying we should all hop on board the geoengineering train. But the broader point here is that getting people concerned about climate change isn’t a matter of giving them more information about it. Rather, it may all be in the framing.