Climate change is complex. You have the overwhelming majority of scientists who study climate change declaring it to be largely a function of human activity. But, you also have a nonsensical effort of some media to give both sides of the debate equal attention. After moving through the stages of climate understanding, from “climate change is happening” and “climate change is human-caused,” to “what will its specific effects be?” and “how should we try to address it?,” things get even more complex. What are the key climate change points people need to understand, and how can we help them appreciate these points?
Along with Drs. Kaitlin Raimi and Paul Stern, we recently examined how best to educate people about seven key dimensions of climate change (published recently by PLOS ONE; they also made a nice graphic). We wanted people to appreciate, among other facts, that climate change is human-caused (“anthropogenic”), it’s progressive (the effects will only worsen over time), there are uncertainties about when and where the effects will be the worst, and taking action can help reduce the risks. Now, these are some relatively complex ideas. For example, people need to appreciate that even though the overwhelming evidence is that climate change will get worse over time, we can’t say exactly when we’ll see these negative effects (and to be sure we’re already seeing some), such as sea level rise, and we can’t say exactly how severe the effects will be. These are tricky questions countless scientists and engineers are wrestling with.
This may make it sound like climate change is unlike anything else in our human experience. However, we do actually deal with complex issues like climate change in our lives. One particularly relevant experience is trying to understand and cope with disease. Being diagnosed with cancer, for example, leads to many more questions. What caused it? How and when will it progress? Will treating it reduce or eliminate the risks? Helping people appreciate how climate change resembles medical diagnoses and treatments may improve people's understanding of the seven core dimensions of understanding climate change.
So, in our experimental research people from across the United States read different types of analogies about climate change, to help them appreciate these seven dimensions. In one condition, previously highlighted, they read about how climate change is similar to a medical disease. In another condition, they read about how thinking about climate change was like thinking about disaster preparedness and considerations of disaster insurance. In yet another condition, they read about how understanding climate change is like understanding a complex court trial, with different degrees of evidence for various arguments. Finally, there was a fourth condition where people simply read about climate change without the help of an analogy (treated as the control condition).
However, science can be messy. As a discipline, psychology needs to do a better job of replicating their research results to increase confidence in the findings (and trust me, it isn’t just a problem for psychology). Well, in a second study we found that the effect of the medical analogies on people’s climate understanding was much weaker, and sometimes the medical analogy didn't affect conservatives’ beliefs at all. Well, what do we do with these inconsistent results across the two studies? This could be part of a much longer conversation, but for the purposes of our article we took the idea of a meta-analysis (synthesizing results across studies and research labs), and conducted an internal or mini meta-analysis. So we used all of the data from the two studies together, to present a more complete picture of the results. And we found that, although the effects were stronger in Study 1 than in Study 2, as a whole conservatives who read about the medical analogy of climate change were still a little more likely to believe in human-caused climate change, that climate change is progressive and unprecedented, that there are trade-offs to addressing climate change, and that mitigation would help reduce the risks of climate change.
Now, there’s room for a lot more research on this topic. For example, are there ways to make medical analogies more effective at conveying information about climate change? We used the exact same medical analogy message in both studies, but maybe that message can be improved or designed to be more helpful, particularly for conservatives. Additionally, are there other types of climate change analogies that are even more effective? And, how do these analogies affect people’s environmental behaviors, not just their climate understanding? Finally, did they use these analogies themselves when talking to their loved ones or friends about climate change afterward? These questions, and others, are questions worthy of future exploration.
What do you think?