How moral values shape estimates of climate risks

Our values play a large role in shaping our perceptions of the risks of climate change, and this is even more the case for those with higher general numeracy and scientific literacy.  Simply providing more information on the risks of climate change is unlikely to be enough to change perceptions of risks.  There  is a need to communicate with people in ways that speak to their values.

There has been much discussion in recent months of renewed impetus towards regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the USA, in particular following the President’s State of the Union address.  But differences in public opinion on this issue continue (along with other factors) to be a major obstacle for the development of stable, long term policy on climate change in the USA.  Some decades of effort to communicate the science have not created a shared perception of the risks of climate change among Americans.  Recent research, on the American public’s perceptions of climate change and other risks (notably by the Yale Cultural Cognition Project) throws light on why this is so, and suggests some ways of developing more widely shared understanding in this area.

The research shows that people’s social and moral values are the strongest predictor of their perception of the risks of climate change – a stronger predictor than political orientation, education, income, gender, racial origin, or any other variable that the researchers looked at[i]  Values are characertised on two dimensions:  “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism”.  People with a “hierarchical” worldview tend to believe that rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed differentially and on the basis of clearly defined and stable social characteristics, while those of an “egalitarian” worldview tend to believe that these things should be distributed equally.  People who subscribe to a “communitarian” worldview tend to believe that societal interests should take precedence over individual ones and that society should bear the responsibility for securing the conditions in which individuals can flourish, while those who subscribe to an “individualistic” worldview tend to believe that individuals should secure the conditions in which they themselves can flourish, without collective interference or assistance.

There is a clear correlation between these world views and perceptions of climate risk[i].  Those with egalitarian and communitarian outlooks tend to perceive greater risks from climate change.  Those with hierarchical and individualist outlooks assess the risk of climate change as being less.

People’s values are a strong predictor of their perceptions of climate change risk …

Risk vs values chart
 
 

This effect is so strong that general scientific literacy and numeracy does not always tend to increase the acknowledgement of climate change risks.  Rather, a recent study by the Yale team[ii] indicates that increased general scientific literacy and numeracy increases the difference in results between those with different values – a polarisation effect[i].  Increases in scientific literacy and numeracy, as measured by answers to a range of questions designed to test general scientific knowledge (rather than specific knowledge of climate science) and numeracy, lead egalitarian communitarians to perceive greater risks of climate change.  But hierarchical individualists perceive less risk as their scientific literacy increases, although for neither group is the effect very strong compared with the difference between the two groups. The authors of the study speculate that the decrease in risk perception among hierarchical individualists may be because those who are more generally scientifically literate are more successful in fitting evidence to their world view.

Increased general scientific literacy tends to increase differences in risk perceptions between people of different values …

How much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety or prosperity?

polarisation chart
 
 

The underlying driver for the strong relationship between values and risk perception appears to be the advantages we all find in sharing common outlooks with those around us.  Our own views have little influence on the course of climate change, but if our views differ from those to whom we feel close and with whose values we tend to identify we may find it socially costly – whether it is the Boston professor espousing to fellow faculty members the view that mainstream climate change science is a hoax, or the member of a conservative Scottsdale golf club arguing for large-scale concerted action to address the risks highlighted by climate science.  But while it may be a costless and socially congenial for any individual to form a perception of climate change risks on this basis, it is harmful for collective welfare for people in aggregate to form beliefs in this way.  The authors call this a “tragedy of the risk-perception commons”.

The research implies that additional presentations of the scientific evidence on climate change to address a supposed deficit of information or understanding is unlikely to be enough to persuade those who perceive a conflict between the science and their values to acknowledge the risks.  However an important caveat here is that as the survey tested general scientific literacy, not specific knowledge of climate change science, it remains possible that greater knowledge of climate science might shift perceptions, as some other work has found[iii].

So, if additional presentation of the science is not enough what can be done?  The research is specifically American, and does not deal with the extent to which the conclusions may transfer to other cultures.  Nevertheless, it suggests a number of important lessons for communication on climate change which may well prove transferable, and which may help to avoid unnecessarily alienating those with hierarchical and individualist values.

First, changing perceptions of solutions to limiting climate change can alter acceptance of the science.  Hierarchical individualists are more likely to accept the truth of a description the science of climate change if it is said to imply an increased role for nuclear power than if it is said to imply increased regulation of pollution.  This is because nuclear power is more consistent with their value system, for example involving mastery of nature and respect of technical elites, than is the increased control over the activities of firms and individuals implied by pollution control regulation.

Recent studies have also shown the communicating the extent of scientific consensus on climate change rather than the science itself can shift opinions (see post of 24th April)

Also, it matters a great deal who is giving the message.  People are more inclined to believe information coming from someone they think shares their values, especially if it is contrary to the views they might expect the person to espouse.  This implies, for example, a presentation from the US military about planning for climate related conflict may prove more persuasive to those with hierarchical values than a video by Al Gore.

Other researchers have found that framing of the story affects responses[iv].  The more a message speaks to issues that matter to people, like public health, the more effective it is likely to be.

And, finally, presentational form can matter, with graphical information[v] more effective than text.

Incorporating these finding into discussion of the issues will not make the task of creating a wider understanding of climate change risks easy.  But at least the tools of science are being applied to communicating the message, as well as ensuring that it is robust.

Adam Whitmore      22nd March 2013  updated 24th April

[ii] The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks.  Kahan et. al.  Nature Climate Change May 2012 http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n10/full/nclimate1547.html

[iii] Tobler et. al. M. Climate Change 114, 189-209 (2012)

[iv] Nisbet et. Al. (BMC Public Health, vol 10. p.299

[v] Nythan and Reifler (2011)

 

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