Knowledge as a Driver of Public Perceptions about Climate Change Reassessed

By June 16, 2015Library

The role of “culture” in the climate change debate isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Erb Faculty Director, Joe Arvai published in Nature Climate Change

There’s an emerging body of research suggesting that how much people know about climate change is unrelated to how much they care about it, or how much support they’ll have for actions aimed at addressing it.  This research argues that our feelings about climate change are instead a function of “cultural variables”, which work independently from knowledge.  New research by Joe Árvai and colleagues from ETH Zürich suggest that this is in fact not the case. Much of the research comparing culture and knowledge misses the mark in terms of how both knowledge and culture are measured.  Measuring “culture” requires cross-national comparisons; a failure to measure culture in this way leads only to a highly specific measure of political ideology. And, measuring knowledge about climate change actually requires measuring knowledge about climate change; what other researchers are doing instead is measuring general scientific literacy.  Recasting their findings, other researchers are observing that general scientific literacy’s trumped by political ideology in debates about climate change.

But what happens if scientists actually measure culture and climate change-specific knowledge.  In a study that measured culture across six diverse countries, and with robust measures of climate change-specific knowledge, Árvai and his colleagues showed that that culture actually plays only a minor role in concern about climate change, and that knowledge plays a much more important role. Why is this important? If we take the previous cultural work at face value, it paints a hopeless and pessimistic picture; it says there’s nothing we can do until “culture” changes, which is occurs slowly.  Árvai’s research clearly shows that education and decision support, aimed at the public and policy makers, is not the lost cause that many followers of the culture wars think it is.

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