When scholars of the future write the history of climate change, they may look to early 2008 as a pivotal moment. Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth was bringing the science to the masses. The economist Nicholas Stern had made the financial case for tackling the problem sooner rather than later. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just issued its most unequivocal report yet on the link between human activity and climatic change.
The scientific and economic cases were made. Surely with all those facts on the table, soaring public interest and ambitious political action were inevitable?
The exact opposite happened. Fast-forward to today, with the release of the IPCC's latest report on the state of climate science, and it is clear that public concern and political enthusiasm have not kept up with the science. Apathy, lack of interest, and even outright denial are more widespread than they were in 2008.
How did the rational arguments of science and economics fail to win the day? There are many reasons, but an important one concerns human nature.
Through a growing body of psychological research, we know that scaring or shaming people into sustainable behavior is likely to backfire. We know that it is difficult to overcome the psychological distance between the concept of climate change—not here, not now—and people's everyday lives. We know that beliefs about the climate are influenced by extreme and even daily weather.
One of the most striking findings is that concern about climate change is not only, or even mostly, a product of how much people know about science. Increased knowledge tends to harden existing opinions.
These findings and many more are increasingly available to campaigners and science communicators, but it is not clear that lessons are being learned. In particular there is a great deal of resistance toward the idea that communicating climate change requires more than explaining the science.
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc