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Climate Change Revisited: It Isn't Just For Natural Scientists Anymore

Wind generators at Pacific Hydro's Cape Bridgewater wind farm in Warrnambool, Australia, in May 2012. Each generator produces roughly enough energy to meet the annual needs of 12,000 households.
Wind generators at Pacific Hydro's Cape Bridgewater wind farm in Warrnambool, Australia, in May 2012. Each generator produces roughly enough energy to meet the annual needs of 12,000 households.

Last week I shared an interview with Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive psychologist and Winthrop Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Western Australia. Lewandowsky's recent research investigates why people do or don't accept the lessons of contemporary climate science, and in my post we discussed the provocative new finding that rejecting anthropogenic climate change is associated with conspiratorial thinking.

The comments to last week's post raised many questions. Here I want to focus on one of the themes that emerged: Even if we all grant the science — that is, we accept that humans are largely responsible for climate change — what do we do about it? This question is no longer a strictly scientific one; it also requires input from economics, psychology, sociology, political science and public policy, among others.

In moving beyond scientific facts to their implications for decision makers at all levels, we shift a large portion of the burden of responding to climate change onto social scientists, not the natural scientists who have been documenting the Earth's warming. A post by Anna Barnett over at Nature.com highlights a keynote speaker at a 2009 meeting on global environmental change who opined that as much as 90 percent of research on global change should be social scientific.

Does current psychology shed any light on how to move forward? I asked Lewandowsky this very question during our conversation. He first suggested that "highlighting how denial operates" is itself an important part of getting people behind climate change:

You have to understand who the people are who deny the science and how they operate and what drives them. We know from a lot of research on misinformation that without explaining ... why people oppose it so much, it's very difficult for the average person to accept the science because the moment there is the perception of a scientific debate people sort of tend to walk away from it and say, "well, it's not settled."

In other words, people need to understand why there is the appearance of controversy in order to feel confident moving forward with (uncontroversial) scientific assumptions. In other research, Lewandowsky has found that merely alerting people to the existence of an enormous scientific consensus can shift beliefs.

Second, Lewandowsky noted that sometimes progress doesn't require a change of mind, just a change in policy and behavior. He suggested that policy makers can potentially "bypass attitudes altogether ... and move forward with policy solutions that people can agree to, independent of what their attitudes are towards climate change." As one example, Lewandowsky offered:

In Australia, at least, there is overwhelming support for alternative energies. Whenever you ask people about clean energies (solar, wind, whatever it is) they want that. They want it much more than they want fossil fuels. So I think any government that says, "OK, let's move ahead with alternative energies," sidestepping the whole issue of climate change, will actually have an agenda that is absolutely winnable and sellable, and I think that's the way forward.

Of course, there's still a lot of work to be done, for both natural scientists and social scientists, but it's nice to be able to offer some basis for optimism!

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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