4. How moral values shape perceptions of climate risks

Differences in public opinion on the priority that should be given to addressing climate change continue (along with other factors) to be a major obstacle for the development of stable, long term policy on climate change in the USA, Australia and other jurisdictions.  Some decades of effort to communicate the science have not created a shared perception of the risks of climate change among the American public.  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].  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.

The effect of values even extends to the ability of people to interpret data.  correctly.  When shown date where the apparent interpretation is not correct people are less likely to spot the correct interpretation if it conflicts with their values.  This tendency is not found for value-neutral questions such as effectiveness of skin cream [ii].

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 can be applied to communicating the message, as well as ensuring that it is robust.

Updated 8th December 2015

[i] The Yale Cultural Cognition Project, Second National Risk & Culture Study, September 2007


[ii] Kahan et al.  Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government Yale Cultural Cognition Project, Working Paper 116

[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)

One thought on “4. How moral values shape perceptions of climate risks

  1. Pingback: When Margaret Thatcher and the Dalai Lama agree | On Climate Change Policy

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