A recent survey by the Pew Research Center confirms that the US public’s views on climate change are shaped primarily by politics, not scientific information. Academics and communicators seeking to address complex, societally relevant issues should reflect on the survey results.

I n a 2010 magazine article tracing the roots of climate scepticism, I urged the scientific community to explore the social and political roots of this scepticism rather than seek to quell it by using more or better information. What I was voicing at the time was a critique of the so-called information-deficit model – the contention that disagreement or inadequate action on a particular issue is linked to too little or incomplete information.

My critique was based admittedly on an intuition, given that I was quite new to the field of climate science and politics at the time. But it is consistent with the findings of more systematic, empirical work – such as that by Dan Kahan and colleagues – during the past decade. This body of work has shown that when it comes to complex issues and polarised contexts, information rarely reduces divisions or determines the direction of policymaking. See, Natasha Geiling’s article on the Smithsonian.com for a nice overview of this work and outstanding issues.

But this mounting evidence doesn’t seem to have made a substantial difference to the practice of science communication in fields such as climate change. Indeed, calls for scientists and others to communicate more or better are routine, and our Twitter feeds continue to be flooded with attractive graphs that show the worsening of myriad climate indicators, often with the implicit expectation that such information will impel action on climate change.

So entrenched is the deficit model that traces can be found on the pages of even the most august of journals. For example, the introduction to a recent Nature web issue mentions: “Decision-makers rely on the best information about the earth’s changing sinks and sources as they seek to constrain global emissions.” But to what extent? Information on changing sinks and sources is certainly important, but will almost certainly be overshadowed by conflicting values and competing interests. As Arizona State University’s Daniel Sarewitz has pointed out, “Science can decisively support policy only after fundamental political differences have been resolved.”

Enter a new report1 from the Pew Research Center, which surveyed Americans’ views on a number of issues related to climate change. The report, entitled The Politics of Climate, confirms that political polarisation shapes American views on many issues related to climate change. As the report states: “There are also major divides in the way partisans interpret the current scientific discussion over climate, with the political left and right having vastly divergent perceptions of modern scientific consensus, differing levels of trust in the information they get from professional researchers…” Moreover, the public’s views are not linked in any measurable way to its knowledge about science.

Climate change infographic

More importantly, though, the survey results demonstrate that the American public’s beliefs about climate change today are more or less the same as they were a decade ago. Dwell on that for a moment. Despite all the new scientific insights, the thousands of published papers, two assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the sophisticated infographics and visualisations, Americans’ views remain unchanged. More or better information, at least in the American context, hasn’t led to broad public consensus or political action on the climate issue.

Writing on his blog, Dan Kahan points out rightly that the bottom line of the Pew report is not news to those engaged in a systematic study of science communication. But it does seem that the findings of recent research aren’t prompting a major change in communications strategies.

The Pew findings, of course, pertain to the US. Although polarised views on climate change are found in some other countries, it may not be a universal phenomenon. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that considerations other than facts (culture, values and politics) will determine opinion and action on issues such as mitigation, adaptation and alternative energy. Besides, climate change is not the only issue where aspects such as identity, values and norms influence public views: this is also the case with the HPV vaccine and nuclear energy, for example.

"The American public’s beliefs about climate change today are more or less the same as they were a decade ago."

So what should communicators do? As far as climate change goes, one option is to frame the issue differently. In my 2010 article I suggested that focusing on vehicular pollution or ocean acidification, rather than global warming, might prove to be less divisive. Teresa Myers and colleagues, in a study published in the journal Climatic Change in 2012, found that “the public health focus was the most likely to elicit emotional reactions consistent with support for climate change mitigation and adaptation.” Roger Pielke, Jr has also pointed to the need for changing the framing of the climate debate and recognising the proper place of science.

Kahan, on his part, has exhorted communicators to pay close attention to the “science of science communication”. In a working paper published in 2013, he points that we need to “rid the science communication environment of the toxic partisan resonances that transform positions on climate change into badges of loyalty to contending factions.” But he underscores that such research doesn’t provide communicators with a “bounty of ready-to-use strategies”. He is adamant that communicators should not simply go on intuition or design strategies based on general insights of laboratory studies. Such insights should instead inform the formulation of hypotheses that can then be tested in real-world contexts.

One finding from the Pew report – combined with recent insights from the science of science communication – might lend itself to alternative communications strategies. The report mentions that the majority of those surveyed does agree on expanding wind and solar power irrespective of party affiliation or ideology. Given this, would a strategy that focuses on renewables prove to be more effective, at least in the US context, than emphasising how a given month was the warmest on record or how atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations will not go below 400 parts per million in our lifetimes? Paraphrasing Kahan, only systematic testing and evaluation in a field setting would help answer this.

Knowing what is unlikely to work is easier than knowing what will work. Clearly, a barrage of information may not be the most prudent strategy when it comes to issues marked by cultural or political polarisation. And, as I pointed out in my article on climate scepticism, coming off as arrogant or elitist is likely to backfire: I still believe that “us versus them” thinking or being dismissive of certain groups is likely to entrench rather than ameliorate polarisation.

The Pew report provides yet another opportunity for scientists and communicators around the world to reflect on their understanding and practice of science communication. We at Elevate will continue to follow the latest thinking and research on such issues and look forward to discussions with academics, communicators and others.

1. In this post I focus on only some of the findings. See also Dan Kahan’s recent blog post for an overview of other take-home messages and David Robert’s take on the issue.