You know those national debt counters, with the numbers that rapidly get bigger and bigger? Or those global population counters that do the same thing? Well now comes a climate change counter, that measures the heat we’ve added to the biosphere since 1998, in terms of the heat that was released by Hiroshima atomic bombs. As this is being written, the counter says we’ve added the equivalent of 2,041,000,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs worth of heat to the climate in just the past 15 years.
How do you react to that link, between climate change and atomic bombs? Does it seem dramatic? Does it change your thinking about climate change? That’s what it’s creators hope. Specifically it was designed…
“…to counter a misconception that has gained in popularity over the last year - that global warming has stopped since 1998 (or sometime around then). People who deny global warming fail to take one simple fact into account - our planet continues to build up heat. In fact, the heat build-up hasn't slowed down at all over the last few decades - it has increased. The laws of physics did not cease to operate after 1998 and the greenhouse effect continues to blaze away. Our widget demonstrates this in strong, clear, visual terms.”
Will it work? Almost certainly not. Robust research on the psychology of the way we perceive risk suggests that, almost instantaneously (and largely subconsciously) as any climate skeptic/denier read that first paragraph, they found a way to dispute the data, or deny the relevance of the comparison altogether. They did what we all do all the time on lots of issues; twist the facts around so we can see them they way we want to.
Research into Cultural Cognition by Dan Kahan and others has found that when information comes along that conflicts with a view we have on some polarized issue, we don’t consider that information with open minds. Rather, we find ways to interpret that information so we can maintain our pre-existing view. And our initial view isn’t the product of an open-minded consideration of the facts either. As we first make up our minds about an issue, Cultural Cognition research has found that we come up with views that are consistent with the beliefs in the groups with which we most closely identify. We agree with our friends. This is a powerful part of the psychology of how social animals like us perceive risk, because being a member in good standing of our group – our tribe – helps protect us. It feels safe to agree with the group, and threatening when we go against the tribe’s beliefs and risk going it alone. So as we consider the facts, the fundamental motivation for safety and survival easily overwhelms dispassionate open-minded objective reasoning and we end up with beliefs that match those of our 'ingroups'.
(The smarter we are, the worse this gets. Smarter brains are more proficient at seeing the facts the way we want to see them, so our views match up with our group’s beliefs. See an earlier post, The Smarter We Are, the Dumber About the Facts We Can Be)
So the Hiroshima/climate change comparison is not likely to accomplish it’s goal of changing the minds of climate skeptics or deniers. It’s another instance where scientists trying to communicate risk ignore what the research on risk perception and science communication has taught us, that risk perception is emotional and subjective, not just a matter of the facts by themselves, but also how those facts feel. The would-be science communicators talk about the facts but only through the lens of their own science…in this case about the heat and physics and atmosphere chemistry…in the belief that just giving people the facts will make them see The Light. That’s arrogant behavior for scientists, because it ignores vital findings from the social sciences, like Cultural Cognition, that would help them be better communicators.
But Cultural Cognition is only one element of the psychology of risk perception. Other emotional factors also shape what feels scary and what doesn’t, and those factors influence how many people feel about climate change as much as or more than Cultural Cognition. Research by Anthony Lieserowitz and Ed Maibach and others has found that there are plenty of people, for example, who do believe that human activity is causing the climate to change in dangerous ways but who don’t seem all that worried, because climate change doesn’t feel like a serious personal or imminent threat. Those two emotional qualities - can it happen to ME, and how soon – have a lot to do with how scary any risk feels.
Will the dramatic comparison between climate change and atomic bombs help get the people who are only somewhat concerned, more concerned? Probably not, because, again, risk perception is subjective, not just a matter of the facts but how those facts feel. And the two risks being compared don’t feel anywhere near the same. The emotional nature of the impacts of climate change bears no resemblance to the emotional quality of the horrific fiery instant death and suffering of exploding atomic bombs. In terms of the feelings these risks engender, the comparison is apples and sneakers. It is ridiculous.
In fact, it is so ridiculous that it just might backfire. Comparing such patently different risks could lead some people, who might have been receptive to the information about the heat we’re adding to the climate, to reject the whole comparison outright as a forced and manipulative PR exercise.
It grows more and more frustrating for the pioneers in the research of risk perception and science communication, people like Kahan and Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff and Matt Nisbet (and for the proselytizers of that knowledge like me), that the wisdom of what they have taught us is ignored by the people who could use it, like climate change communicators. The danger we face is huge, and the time to act to avoid the serious harms of climate change grows ever shorter. It is long past due that the people trying to encourage the public to take the risk of climate change more seriously look to sciences beyond their own for guidance and insights about how to communicate in order to encourage the public to make more informed and intelligent choices.