Magazine article Geographical

Mind over Matter: Cognitive Science and Psychology Can Help to Explain Why There's a Persistent Gap between the Established Facts of Climate Science and Their Wider Public Acceptance

Magazine article Geographical

Mind over Matter: Cognitive Science and Psychology Can Help to Explain Why There's a Persistent Gap between the Established Facts of Climate Science and Their Wider Public Acceptance

Article excerpt

Every major scientific body in the world, from the UK's Royal Society to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, endorses the view that greenhouse gas emissions from human economic activity are warming the globe and altering our climate. The US National Academy of Sciences calls climate change a 'fact'.

Out of more than 14,000 scientific articles on climate change, all but a few dozen accept this consensus position, as do more than 95 out of every 100 climate experts. The latest IPCC report expressed 95 per cent certainty that human activity is responsible for the observed warming during the past few decades.

Case closed? Within the scientific literature and at scientific conferences, such as the meetings of the American Geophysical Union, the answer is yes. There's no scientific argument about the fundamentals of human-induced global warming, and the scientific debate has moved on to other, more specific, questions, such as whether or not the current wave of extreme weather events in the Northern Hemisphere might be a consequence of the rapid melting of the Arctic ice cap.


Within the public domain, however, the situation is quite different. Repeated polling has revealed that, at least in Anglophone countries, there's widespread public scepticism about the reality of global warming and, in particular, about whether or not it's caused by human activity.

How can we explain this divergence between scientific consensus and public doubt? On the 'supply' side, recent research by sociologist Robert Brulle has suggested that nearly US$1billion is spent annually by conservative foundations and think tanks in the USA to support a 'counter movement'. This movement seeks to reframe public discourse surrounding climate change from one of overwhelming scientific consensus to one of doubt, debate and uncertainty.

Several historical and sociological analyses of the movement have noted the striking parallels to earlier efforts to question well-established scientific findings, such as the link between tobacco and lung cancer, or other public-health findings with potential regulatory implications. Those linkages transcend the institutional and personal levels: some current spokespeople of the climate counter movement were engaged in disseminating contrarian information on behalf of the tobacco industry decades ago.


Even relatively small threats of regulation can trigger counter movements, as revealed by a case involving the makers of aspirin. Aspirin consumption by children with viral illnesses increases the risk of Reye's syndrome--which is fatal in one third of cases--by 4,000 per cent. When this evidence became known, the aspirin industry's counter campaign delayed the introduction of warning labels on their products about the risk of Reye's syndrome by more than five years.

Before the warning labels became mandatory in the USA, some 500 cases of Reye's syndrome were reported annually; today, less than a handful of cases are reported each year. Those figures highlight the fact that opposition to well-established scientific findings can have ethical and moral implications.

In the context of climate change, those moral implications are driven home by the association between past and present climatic changes and the likelihood of future warfare and civil conflict. As one of us has argued in the academic literature recently, a case can be made that climate disinformation, to the extent that it delays mitigation, may be at least partially responsible for possible future violent conflicts.


Organised counter movements undoubtedly contribute to the public's uncertainty surrounding climate change by disseminating an alternative narrative and by questioning the findings from climate science. However, no disinformation campaign can succeed without a 'market' of consumers willing to buy into it. …

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