Talking Climate: Why Facts are Not Enough

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 3:16 PM
Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, United States
The challenge posed by human-induced climate change to society and the natural environment has been established by thousands of peer-reviewed studies, many of which have appeared in AGU journals and have been presented at AGU meetings such as this one. This literature has in turn been carefully and methodically summarized by decades’ worth of exhaustive reports by Royal Societies, National Academies, federal agencies, and the IPCC, many of which clearly document the solid science, the emerging consequences, and the future risks of climate change at the global, national, and even regional scale.

In the U.S., the most recent Third National Climate Assessment vividly illustrates how warming temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, rising sea levels, and increasing risk of weather extremes are already affecting agriculture, infrastructure, human health, natural resources, and water supplies. In many sectors, the risk of severe and even potentially dangerous impacts increases with higher levels of carbon emissions and global warming.

As the scientific evidence builds, however, public and political opinion in the U.S.—as well as in other developed nations including Australia, the U.K., and Canada—remains sharply divided. Social science has established that this divergence in opinions on global warming tends to run along ideological, socio-economic, religious, and even racial lines. Polling has also shown how public polarization on climate change has increased, rather than decreased, over time.

Understanding the reasons that have created and fed this polarization is crucial to the success of outreach efforts that attempt to bridge this divide. The main reason for this divergence is not a deficit of information or knowledge among the public. Instead, there are a plethora of causes that can be variously categorized as psychological, societal, political, and economic. The diversity of these barriers helps explain why no single message or campaign has been able to successfully turn the tide of public opinion. By identifying each of these barriers, however, I will share from my experience how it is possible to bypass much of the “he said-she said” stalemate that occurs in media and outreach activities, transitioning instead towards positive discussion based on a foundation of shared values and concern.