Ecocentric

Why Seeing Is Believing—Usually—When It Comes to Climate Change

When people have personal experience with climate change, they tend to become believers—unless they were already skeptics. Will extreme weather events like Sandy be enough to change the equation on climate change belief?

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Stephen Wilkes for TIME

Breezy Point, N.Y.: On the night Sandy made landfall, a fire swept through this community on the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula, consuming more than 100 homes.

I attended an excellent panel at NYU Law on Thursday that explored the impacts of Sandy and the effects of climate change—something we’ve been writing about a little here. At one point a man in the very crowded audience got up to ask a question: given all that we know about climate change, about the very real danger it poses to the world now and in the future, why had the scientific establishment “failed” to convince political leaders that global warming is real and that immediate action is necessary?

The answer is easy. Political leaders—simplifying things somewhat—haven’t moved on global warming because they’re not feeling widespread public pressure to do so. And the public isn’t putting that pressure on their leaders in part because many people still don’t believe that climate change is a real, or all that dangerous. The vast, vast majority of climate scientists know that global warming is real, and that manmade carbon emissions are a main driver—but a recent survey found that just 66% of Americans understand that global warming is happening, and nearly half of those are either “somewhat sure” or “not sure at all.” Only a third of Americans believe that they or their families will be harmed by global warming. So here’s the real question: why aren’t the American people listening to what the scientists are trying to tell them?

You can find some convincing answers to those questions in a new paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change. A group of researchers including Anthony Leiserowitz—the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, and the man behind many of those opinion surveys—looked at how Americans process climate change, and found that personal experience of climate impacts usually increase belief in manmade climate change. But not always—just as important as that personal experience was prior belief, the political opinions that might shape whether or not someone was primed to even see a “climate impact” as climate change. And that could mean extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy might not have the kind of galvanizing effect on public opinion that many environmentalists would hope for.

(MORE: Climate Change: Polar Ice Sheets Melting Faster, Raising Sea Levels)

Of course, climate change is always going to be a tough sell, as Leiserowitz and his co-authors point out:

One possible explanation for these low levels of belief certainty and perceptions of the threat as distantis that climate change is difficult to perceive directly; `climate’ itself is a statistical abstraction, even though its impacts can be quite tangible. Current theories of cognitive science suggest that learning about abstractions requires analytical information processing, which involves cognitive efforta scarce commodity, which people expend sparingly. Both low motivation to think about climate change and low ability to comprehend scientific information can impede people’s processing of the charts, graphs and models in the climate scientist’s toolkit.

In other words, climate change is hard to really see in one’s daily life, and understanding it requires “analytic information processing”—otherwise known as thinking. That’s not something people have a lot of time, inclination (and perhaps ability) to do. But those who have been personally affected by climate change—which includes more than a quarter of the American public—report that they’ve personally experienced the effects of climate change, and that tends to be associated with higher levels of certainty that climate change is happening. Not always though. Thanks to motivated reasoning—which is essentially the practice of rationalizing our experiences so that they stay
true to our previous beliefs—the way Americans might process a “climate impact” often depends on their politics. That goes for oth climate believers and climate skeptics, as the paper notes:

Research with farmers found biased weather recall, consistent with the farmers’ beliefs about climate change; convinced farmers (in both directions those convinced global warming is or is not happening) were only accurate in their perceptions of locally warming conditions when environmental conditions matched their expectations. A study of Phoenix residents found that social variables, including political ideology, predicted perceptions of temperature change in the region, but that detectable temperature variations predicted perceptions of neighbourhood changes.


(MORE: After Sandy: An Environmentalist Goes Home)

The Nature Climate Change authors go onto describe their own experiment on climate change belief, drawing data from a nationally representative survey of Americans taken in 2008 and in 2011. They found that both that personal experience of climate events seemed to lead to stronger belief in global warming, and they also found
that motivated reasoning on the subject was alive and well. Those Americans who already had strong belief or doubt in climate change tended to process their experiences in a way that confirmed their prior beliefs—liberal or conservative.

All of this explains why your very conservative uncle spent a half hour at Thanksgiving dinner explaining in detail why Superstorm Sandy in fact had absolutely nothing to do with climate change. But for all the sound and the fury over climate change in some quarters—like my Twitter stream—some three-quarters of American adults have low levels of engagement in the issue, which is a fancy way of saying they don’t really care. For environmentalists, that’s where the opportunity for education may lie. Leiserowitz and his colleagues suggest that “place-based” climate-change education strategies might be more effective—having TV meteorologists use extreme weather events to educate the public on climate impacts. Anyone but scientists, whose very methods make them ineffective as popular messengers. The good news—of a sort—is that as the climate warms, more and more people will have that “personal experience” with global warming that the residents of New York got to enjoy at the end of October. Just one problem: by the time enough people have actually been personally touched by climate change, it might be too late to do much about it.

MORE: After Sandy: Why We Can’t Keep Rebuilding on the Water’s Edge

20 comments
JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

Agreed.  For those who don't "believe in" climate change or man's causing of it, here's my own personal story about it:

My family is from Wisconsin.  I grew up there, as did my parents and grandparents.  A tradition there, since at least the time of my gramma, is to make free-to-the-public temporary outdoor ice rinks at public parks during the coldest part of winter.  Sometimes this is over Christmas break, but more often the coldest month of the year is January.  That's crucial, since the city won't pay to make an ice rink that's going to melt in a week.  So to get ice rinks made, you've got to have cold weather (always below freezing, even mid-day) for several weeks, preferably a month.

What does that have to do with climate change?  Well, consider it a "proxy" to climate change, as we scientists call it.  When my gramma was a kid, her local park had ice rinks every year.  Similarly, my mom can only remember one year when she didn't have at least a January ice rink (Dec and Feb have always been more iffy).  As a kid in the '80s and '90s, I grew up with ice rinks most years, but not all.  And they were a lot more common when I was an elementary school student than by the time I graduated high school.  Nowadays, my little cousins pretty much never get ice rinks.  And it's not because the local government just got cheap; it's because it's not been reliably cold for enough weeks in a row for the cost to be worth it anymore. 

To me, that's climate change:  a grandmother and mother who could skate every winter, myself who could skate maybe 75% of winters, and kids now who can't skate almost at all. 

Another example:  look on the back of a packet of seeds from your local garden center.  You know the map of the US with color bands that shows when you're supposed to plant the seeds, depending on where in the country you live?  They've changed that within my lifetime, shifting the bands north half a grade.  Which means you've plant the same flowers earlier in spring now than we did when I was a kid, since winter ends earlier and the heat of summer will come sooner.  That's climate change that anyone with a garden can see.

johleo
johleo

For some time now I have been mystified why this issue is tied so closely to conservative politics.  Science is science and people may have differing opinions and levels of understanding on a scientific question, but in the end data is data and science is science. But the public discussion is not being conducted as a scientific discussion. There is a huge amount of simple denial, coupled with name-calling and vilification of climate scientists who have the gall to put real science into the public discussion. I have come to the conclusion that the solid wall of conservative objection to the idea of man-made global warming is based solely on politics, not science.  The right wing believes so strongly that the answer to all problems is smaller government and lower taxes, if you ask a question that cannot be answered in that way, you are asking the wrong question.  If global warming is real, the only possible solutions lie in government regulations and probably increased taxes.  Therefore it cannot be real.  So they grab any bit of pseudo-information that demonstrates their point of view, and ignore the vast body of solid data and scientific opinion that supports the idea of global warming.

Verron
Verron

My take, the science community (maybe not all) are interested in seeing what's under the icecaps at the expense of human and nature's ill-will.

I believe that internal combustion engines could be eradicated (I think the technology is there), have capacitive charged vehicles that run off electricity, tap the shorelines with wave generators and drill for thermal generated power sources.

Of course, this wouldn't benefit scientists who have this burning issue to dispute GOD about the account in Genesis and the creation.

AnumakondaJagadeesh
AnumakondaJagadeesh

There is endless discussion on Climate Change. By and large there is consensus that measures to control Climate Change are needed.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore(AP),India

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

Seeing is indeed believing - that's why I DO NOT buy the global warming B-S. Case closed. 

ronaldleeclark
ronaldleeclark

There are scientists that are motivated by the facts and the inquiry. But when it comes to the environmental sciences to many are motivated solely by money. Like the disgusting post graduate comment, give me $10,000 and I can find an endangered creature to shut the project down. Truth is fading fast in our land. Who do you choose to believe?

glubber
glubber

why had the scientific establishment “failed” to convince political leaders that global warming is real and that immediate action is necessary?

The reason is that politicians as well as normal people does not believe yhay it is caused by humans and thus nothing else than prepareing for extreme weather to come can be done. Scientific proof is missing while global warming is explained in many other ways by scientists.. 

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

A climate change believer is someone who believes. A former climate change believer is someone who knows. Former believers KNOW not one single IPCC warning says a crisis will happen, only might happen so how could we be at the brink of no return from unstoppable warming? Scientific exaggeration isn’t a crime, yet and let’s remember that science also gave us pesticides, and germ warfare and cancer causing chemicals…….REAL planet lovers need real reasons to condemn their kids to a CO2 death and REAL planet lovers are glad a crisis wasn’t real, for whatever reason.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

"Why had the scientific establishment “failed” to convince political leaders that global warming is real and that immediate action is necessary?"

Give me a break, as indicated by Al Gore in his Documentary "An Inconvenient Truth", politicians only pay attention to the scientists when they say something the politicians want to hear.

We have a large number of politicians who deny rights to abortion and at least some of whom are convinced that evolution is a plot by the far right to undermine their God given knowledge of the way things work, or at least the way their constituents prefer to think that's the way they work.

Politics unfortunately aren't about being right, or even doing the right thing, politics is solely about winning, and winning in the short term.

Also, unfortunately, winning in the short term is very often about losing in the long term, - - - Where we are now!

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

I thought news organizations were to keep us up to date?*Occupywallstreet does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded carbon trading stock markets run by corporations.*Obama has not mentioned the crisis in the last two State of the Unions addresses.*In all of the debates Obama hadn’t planned to mention climate change once.*Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).After 26 years of saying we could be at the brink of no return the world of science has yet to say it "WILL" happen instead of "might" and "could" etc. REAL planet lovers welcome the obvious conclusion of scientific exaggeration. Find me one single IPCC warning without "maybes". Help my house could be on fire maybe?Meanwhile, the entire world of SCIENCE, lazy copy and paste news editors and obedient journalists, had condemned our kids to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated "crisis" and had allowed bank-funded and corporate-run “CARBON TRADING STOCK MARKETS” to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 26 years of insane attempts at climate CONTROL.

ronaldleeclark
ronaldleeclark

This article may have helped the cause of Climate change advocates, if they would have pointed out the facts, of how Sandy was brought about by climate change instead of attaching the susceptible.  What I heard from the science community was that it was not caused by Climate change but was the a rare collision between two, quite normal storms systems. Skepticism lies at the feet of people who misquote or exaggerate the facts. At this point we are talking about two degrees only. Extreme weather has been around for thousands of years. 

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@ArxFerrumSeeing IS indeed believing.  Tell me, where are you from, that you've avoided all vision of climate change?

My family is from Wisconsin.  I grew up there, as did my parents and grandparents.  A tradition there, since at least the time of my gramma, is to make free-to-the-public temporary outdoor ice rinks at public parks during the coldest part of winter.  Sometimes this is over Christmas break, but more often the coldest month of the year is January.  That's crucial, since the city won't pay to make an ice rink that's going to melt in a week.  So to get ice rinks made, you've got to have cold weather (always below freezing, even mid-day) for several weeks, preferably a month.

What does that have to do with climate change?  Well, consider it a "proxy" to climate change, as we scientists call it.  When my gramma was a kid, her local park had ice rinks every year.  Similarly, my mom can only remember one year when she didn't have at least a January ice rink (Dec and Feb have always been more iffy).  As a kid in the '80s and '90s, I grew up with ice rinks most years, but not all.  And they were a lot more common when I was an elementary school student than by the time I graduated high school.  Nowadays, my little cousins pretty much never get ice rinks.  And it's not because the local government just got cheap; it's because it's not been reliably cold for enough weeks in a row for the cost to be worth it anymore. 

To me, that's climate change:  a grandmother and mother who could skate every winter, myself who could skate maybe 75% of winters, and kids now who can't skate almost at all. 

Another example:  look on the back of a packet of seeds from your local garden center.  You know the map of the US with color bands that shows when you're supposed to plant the seeds, depending on where in the country you live?  They've changed that within my lifetime, shifting the bands north half a grade.  Which means you've plant the same flowers earlier in spring now than we did when I was a kid, since winter ends earlier and the heat of summer will come sooner.  That's climate change that anyone with a garden can see.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@ArxFerrum 

Arx here is an example of one incapable of thinking... A prime example of 'Grade A American Dumbass Factor'

Combine this kind of stupid with religion and you have the foundation for the enormous amount of 'stupid per capita' polluting the rest of us... Perhaps it is time we gave the Eugenics movement another chance and kill the stupids around us before they kill us with there stupids.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@ronaldleeclark Dude.  I've got a PhD in aerospace engineering.  Trust me, I could make a LOT more working for Boeing than I do as a scientist who deals with things related to the climate.  Moreover, I could make a lot of money if I proved, once and for all, that climate change is NOT happening.

Most of us who do work with real climate-related data aren't really going out of our way searching for evidence of climate change.  It's just that it's so HUGE that we can't do our OTHER work without solving for it and canceling it out of our data to start with.  For example, if I want to work on physical oceanography in the Arctic, I NEED to estimate and remove the huge Greenland melt mass before I do anything else, because it swamps all the signal within 500 km of the coast, otherwise!

Sorry to tell you this, but we're not making tons of money on this and we've actually got other work we'd rather do.  We just can't do that work until we've estimated and accounted for the very real and very large effects of climate change.  But don't just trust me blindly:  a lot of the data is publicly available online.  I know both GRACE gravity and Jason altimetry, which I use, are.  Feel free to look at the data yourself. 

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@DavidNutzuki 

You are the kind the stupid that manifests itself as a disease.

Your mind is already made up and cant be changed no matter the data you waste of life.

j.rodrigo.mora
j.rodrigo.mora

@DavidNutzuki   "Beliefs" belong to the realm of religions, where people can feel entitled to believe and defend arguments without any solid evidence (aka 'faith'). Science, including climate science, is based on facts and evidence, which in turns evolves into sound hypotheses and theories. These theories can certainly change or evolve if new sound *evidence* is presented, which is in contrast to hard-core (religious/political) beliefs that won't change *despite* overwhelming evidence indicating otherwise.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

@ronaldleeclark Exaggerated science trumps any and all consensus science.The only question climate blame believers want answered is why professional scientists and experts all would lie about a crisis being real or not. I don't know the answer but for whatever reason the millions in the global scientific community are not acting at all like they condemned their kids as well to a CO2 he!! on earth. Exaggeration isn't a crime and real planet lovers welcome the good news of crisis exaggeration, for whatever reason. The actions or lack of actions from science proves exaggeration until they issue a global emergency statement clearly saying it "WILL" happen, not just might happen.

j.rodrigo.mora
j.rodrigo.mora

@Hadrewsky @DavidNutzuki Well--your poor ability to express your thoughts without offending other people just makes my case. Whoever reads this trail will clearly see the kind of people who are among the denialists. You are undermining yourself your own 'cause'. I won't waste my time trying to convince people like you...so I won't continue this interaction regardless of any other inflammatory remarks you might write.

AnthonyCagliano
AnthonyCagliano

@DavidNutzuki @ronaldleeclark 

Have you guys had a look at the atmospheric thermodynamics readouts over the past 10 years or so, and compared them with those of the past 50-100 years. I have been in touch with NOAA's storm prediction center and the numbers are through the roof. Even an imbalance of two degrees can significantly raise the thermodynamics or C.A.P.E. of the atmosphere (CAPE = Collective Available Potential Energy). I'm not quite sure whether you guys are skeptics or advocates, but either way, the CAPE stuff is an interesting read.

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

@AnthonyCagliano @DavidNutzuki @ronaldleeclark A climate change believer is someone who believes. A former climate change believer is someone who knows. Former believers KNOW not one single IPCC warning says a crisis will happen, only might happen so how could we be at the brink of no return from unstoppable warming? Scientific exaggeration isn’t a crime, yet and let’s remember that science also gave us pesticides, and germ warfare and cancer causing chemicals…….REAL planet lovers need real reasons to condemn their kids to a CO2 death and REAL planet lovers are glad a crisis wasn’t real, for whatever reason.