Are the public disengaged with scientific topics like climate change simply because they lack knowledge in the subject? It might be easy to assume this, but research has shown that the relationship between scientific literacy and concern about/engagement with climate change is not straightforward. That doesn’t mean we should dismiss knowledge as a factor that influences public engagement on climate change. But it is much more complicated than “people who know more science, care more”.
One major finding is that science knowledge is not well aligned with belief in climate change, which has instead been found to fall along political and ideological lines. For instance, conservatives who rate highly in science literacy tests may be less likely to be concerned about the risks of climate change than conservatives who received lower scores. The opposite effect is found in liberals, which suggests that a focus on knowledge as a source of inaction can be polarising and misleading.
However, researchers should be careful not to dismiss knowledge entirely. Some kinds of knowledge matter – for some things. For instance, knowledge can have a meaningful role to play in shaping public opinion – it can reduce the impact of ideologies, particularly if the source is a trusted messenger, and the knowledge is framed to appeal to compatible values.
Information is also crucial for climate change action – for knowing what to do about climate change. Conveying knowledge of what actions to take, how to reduce one’s impact on the climate, as well as the relative benefits of different actions is necessary for people to act pro-environmentally. Further, local or indigenous knowledge, when paired with science knowledge about environmental changes or adaptation measures can be powerful tools for communication, as well as action. We also need to be careful to ask ourselves which bits of knowledge the public might want or need, in which contexts. Climate communication often starts from the science of climate change, for example, when understanding a mix of the economics, science, engineering and politics of the energy system might be more helpful.
It is naïve to assume that providing information is all that is needed to encourage climate action, but we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we dismiss it entirely. Information is necessary, but not sufficient, to motivate environmental behaviour.
Recently, there has been discussion about the merits of shifting communication from knowledge-transmission to an approach that emphasises the qualities of science in general. The Yale Professor Dan Kahan has explored the notion of science curiosity (self-motivated consumption of science information) as an alternative to science literacy. Science curiosity is an interest in science for its own sake. This research demonstrates that people who are highly curious about science tend to seek more diverse forms of information (as opposed to information that confirms their existing beliefs) than those low on science curiosity. There is also less partisan polarisation on issues such as climate change among the science curious. In many ways, those who are curious about science are the true “sceptics” – interested in the truth, rather than confirming their views. Promoting and encouraging this type of engagement with scientific knowledge is perhaps a better approach than conveying an endless list of facts and figures.
Studies suggest that when people better understand the degree of consensus among scientists on climate change, it is a ‘gateway’ to other positive climate change beliefs. So is belief in the scientific consensus a form of scientific knowledge, or a type of social belief (about what trusted ‘others’ think)?
What type of ‘consensus’ information is most powerful for climate communication – an expert consensus or a social consensus?
If general scientific literacy isn’t the best predictor of climate change views, what types of knowledge are important?
By Adam Corner & Susie Wang
Adam is the Research Director for Climate Outreach. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners, and leads the Climate Visuals programme.