The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maybe you can change people’s minds about climate change after all

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

It's no secret that certain political worldviews prevent people from accepting the science of global warming.

And it's not just that conservative and pro-free market beliefs are strongly correlated with dismissal of climate science. Get this: Conservatives who are more scientifically literate, or better at math, are even less likely than their ideological compatriots to accept global warming. That's how powerful ideology can be -- and such findings have often been used to call into question whether educational initiatives can really make any difference when it comes to hot-button scientific issues like climate.

A new study just out in the journal Climatic Change, however, suggests education may work after all.

Kathryn Stevenson and her colleagues at North Carolina State University studied a sample of 378 sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in North Carolina, administering questionnaires that assessed their level of scientific knowledge about climate change, their degree of acceptance of mainstream climate science (the idea that humans are causing global warming),  and also how ideologically "individualistic" -- a worldview that emphasizes freedom and free markets, and that is very skeptical of government regulation -- they were.

And they produced a result that reversed prior findings: In middle school "individualists," as their level of scientific knowledge about global warming increased, so did their acceptance of the idea that it is caused by humans. In fact, the knowledge-acceptance relationship was stronger in these young individualists than it was among kids who had a disposition toward communitarianism -- an ideological view that is best captured in Hillary Clinton's famous phrase "it takes a village," and that emphasizes our co-dependency in society, rather than the importance of individual freedom and initiative.

In the study, communitarian kids started out with a higher level of acceptance of human caused global warming overall -- but individualist kids showed a lot more movement in relation to how much climate science knowledge they had:

In other words, climate science education may well work to counteract political ideology after all -- at least if you get to kids when they're young enough, before ideological views have become crystalized.

Somewhat surprisingly, the study suggests that middle school kids do seem to have ideology -- at least in a nascent form. "Kids are just developing their worldviews, their political ideologies," says North Carolina State's Stevenson, the study's lead author. "The worldviews and political ideologies are just starting to form, and so our data seem to suggest that they’re exerting some influence, but it’s just not strong enough to have the type of lens that we have as adults -- which just sort of takes over everything else."

Indeed, middle school students in the study did show a glimmering of ideological traits similar to those of adults -- some were more individualistic than others, for instance. And just as in adults, individualistic thinking in these adolescents was associated with less global warming belief (at least when students’ levels of knowledge were low). The difference, though, lay in how this ideological disposition seemed to interact with levels of knowledge or education about climate science -- unlike among adults, it just didn't seem to interfere in the same way.

This is not the only study suggesting such a result. Another recent paper, also in Climatic Change, evaluated the effectiveness of a popular climate science education program, the Alliance for Climate Education's entertaining hour-long climate literacy session for high schoolers -- and also seemed to suggest that this educational program can counteract the effects of political ideology.

In this case, the researchers involved -- affiliated with Yale, Stanford, George Mason, Saphir Research Consulting, and the Alliance for Climate Education -- used a different measure of students' ideology or views on global warming: The well-known "Six Americas" paradigm, in which Americans are classified into the following groups with respect to climate change: "alarmed," "concerned," "cautious," "disengaged," "doubtful," and "dismissive." The latter two groups, and especially the "dismissives," tend to be more ideologically individualistic.

The study found that after attending the Alliance for Climate Education's hour long live assembly presentation about climate change -- which has been seen by 1.5 million high school students so far -- 49 percent of students who started out as "dismissive" shifted into a more positively engaged "Six Americas" segment. Those in the "doubtful" and "disengaged" categories moved even more -- 68 percent and 72 percent, respectively. In other words, once again, education seemed to at least partly overcome ideology.

Not everyone agrees with this line of research, though. In particular, Yale researcher Dan Kahan, who has done much of the pioneering research on how individualism and other ideological dispositions shape climate change beliefs -- and how levels of scientific knowledge can actually exacerbate this problem -- composed a lengthy blog post gently critiquing the study by Stevenson and her colleagues.

While Kahan praised the researchers for extending this line of inquiry into a new demographic -- middle-schoolers -- he also suggested there might be a problem with the study design. Students' climate science knowledge or literacy may be difficult to disentangle from their ideological disposition, Kahan suggested, leading to potential confounding in the study. "Propositions of fact on climate change -- like whether it is happening & whether humans are causing it -- have become entangled in antagonistic cultural meanings, transforming them into badges of membership & loyalty to affinity groups of immense significance in people’s everyday lives," he wrote.

In an interview, the study's lead author, North Carolina State's Kathryn Stevenson, responded to Kahan's critique as follows:

He suggests the knowledge scale is not really measuring knowledge, it’s measuring worldview. But I was looking at our data again, and we’re just not finding it. We’re not finding any correlation between the kids’ worldviews, and their knowledge. An individualist is no more or less likely to answer one of the knowledge scales correctly than a communitarian.

No doubt the researchers will have to work this out further. In the meantime, though, climate science educators can have a little hope.