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