The Perception Factor: Climate Change Gets Personal

By Cooney, Catherine M. | Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Perception Factor: Climate Change Gets Personal


Cooney, Catherine M., Environmental Health Perspectives


Summer 2010 saw a new suite of climate change studies from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) with the stark conclusion that "Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for--and in many cases is already affecting--a broad range of human and natural systems." (1) The NAS series received a boost from separate research indicating that up to 98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing agree with the tenets of anthropogenic climate change outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2) At about the same time, however, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) announced he couldn't find the votes to pass legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from major sources. (3) Meanwhile, in California, a fiercely debated jobs bill called Proposition 23 seeks to suspend--some say effectively repeal--the state's ambitious greenhouse gas legislation until unemployment drops to no more than 5.5% for a full year. (4)

This whopping disconnect between legislators and the scientific community could be a signal that it is time for a new path toward climate change mitigation and adaptation that more directly involves the public. Many researchers interested in global warming are wondering: just what might it take to encourage individuals in the United States to think more seriously about climate change?

A New Era for Climate Change Science

To find out, the NAS recommended tapping into social science, which can be used to describe people's perceptions of critical facts and their goals when making choices. (5) This research has been under way for decades and saw a relatively small but significant boost in the 1970s during the energy crisis, says Paul Stern, director of the National Research Council Committee on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change. The focus then was on energy consumption and conservation in households, but funding dried up quickly after oil prices went down, Stern says.

Recently there has been a surge in published social science papers looking into the U.S. public's perception of climate change, notes Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. Maibach says climate researchers are eager for social scientists to tell them what they know about human behavior and why a majority of Americans are not taking action that could significantly reduce their own carbon footprint.

Renewed interest in social science was expressed clearly by the NAS reports issued this summer. (1) These reports, known as the America's Climate Choices (ACC) series, summarize the science on global warming and recommend that the country focus its efforts on areas where the most severe impacts are expected to occur. (6) They also discuss current U.S. attitudes toward climate change and suggest communication should improve between scientists and the general public about global warming science and its impacts. The report Advancing the Science of Climate Change urges that climate change science incorporate disciplinary and interdisciplinary research across the physical, social, biological, health, and engineering sciences. (1) This integrated approach should help put the science into perspective not just for a struggling public but also for policymakers ranging from city planners to members of Congress.

Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford University and chairwoman of the Advancing the Science of Climate Change study panel, says her group concluded there already exists a significant amount of research on understanding climate change and its impacts, both of which are critical for a national climate change program. But Matson says we also need to try to complement existing research with data on new or understudied elements of climate change science--areas such as risk communication to help people better understand climate change and behavioral science to improve understanding of individual, societal, and institutional factors that shape decisionmaking. …

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