12 Sep 2013: Interview

Finding a Better Message on
The Risks of Climate Change

To overcome polarization on the issue of climate change, Yale professor Dan Kahan says in an interview with e360, scientists and the media need to frame the science in ways that will resonate with the public. A message that makes people feel threatened, he says, simply will not be effective.

by diane toomey

It’s a common refrain: If people only knew more about the science, there wouldn’t be so much polarization on the issue of climate change. But Dan M. Kahan’s groundbreaking work has gone a long way to prove that idea wrong. In fact, he’s found, it’s not the lack of scientific understanding that has led to conflict over climate change, but rather the need to adhere to the philosophy and values of one’s “cultural” group.

Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School, says “individualists” — those who believe individuals should be responsible for
Dan Kahan
Dan Kahan
their own well-being and who are wary of regulation or government control – tend to minimize the risk of climate change. On the other side, he notes, those who identify with the “communitarianism” group favor a larger role for government and other collective entities in securing the welfare of individuals and tend to be wary of commercial activity – he sees them as likely to favor restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Kahan maintained that in order to break down this polarization, the issue needs to be reframed in a way that minimizes the likelihood that positions on climate change will be identified with a particular cultural group. “Are there ways to combine the science with meanings that would be affirming rather than threatening to people?” he said. “I think if somebody believes that there just aren’t any, I think that person just doesn’t have much imagination.”

Yale Environment 360: It’s been conventional wisdom in certain circles that people who discount the threat from climate change are not scientifically literate – they just don’t understand the evidence laid in front of them. But your research shows that this is not the case. In fact, polarization on climate change can actually be chalked up to which cultural group you belong to – “individualism” versus “communitarianism.” What do these opposing groups believe, and what does that have to do with one’s belief, or not, in the threat of climate change?

Dan Kahan: The groups are defined by their shared understandings of how society should be organized. People who are more individualistic believe that individuals should be responsible for securing conditions that enable them to flourish without assistance or interference from any kind of collective authority or entity. People who are more communitarian think the collective is responsible for securing the conditions for individual well-being and sometimes should be able to take precedence over the interests of individuals if there is a conflict. People who are more individualistic are going to be more disappointed to believe that the consequences of activities that they like, such as a lot of commercial market activities, are creating harms that you would have to restrict. But if you believe that people who are engaged in commercial market activities are generating lots of inequality, it would be congenial for you to believe that this activity is really dangerous and ought to be restricted.

So part of the theory is that people have a predisposition, based on their values and emotional engagement with the information, to understand it in
Scientists aren’t on TV giving marching orders – that’s not a good model of how people come to know what’s known by science."
a certain way… It’s important to recognize that that’s how people get any kind of information relating to science. People need to accept a lot more about what is known to science than they could possible figure out on their own. They are going to be looking to people like themselves, whose outlooks they share.

e360: But we are talking here about a scientific question. Are you saying that people look toward scientists that they perceive are “like them”?

Kahan: Most of the things that people are making informed decisions about that depend on science are not going to be ones they have consulted scientists for information about. Most of what people know – the decisions they make that are informed by scientists – is based on information that is travelling through all kinds of intermediaries. Scientists aren’t on television giving marching orders. That’s not a good model of how people come to know what’s known by science – from the mouth of the scientist to the ear of the citizen. People figure these things out because they are situated in networks of other people who are part of their everyday lives. And those networks ordinarily guide them reliably to what’s known.

e360: In a study you and colleagues published in the journal Nature Climate Change, you found that as scientific literacy increases, polarization on climate change actually increases as well. Why would that be?

Kahan: Once you have an issue that has become a signifier of your membership in and loyalty to the group, then making a mistake about that can be really costly to your membership in that group. If I marched around [the Yale] campus with a sign that said, “Climate change is a hoax,” even though I have tenure, my life wouldn’t be as good as it is.

You know, Bob Inglis, the congressman from South Carolina, he was like the Babe Ruth of conservative political ratings. Nobody did better than he did [in ratings from conservative groups] across all the issues that normally determine whether you are a conservative in good standing. And then one day he says, “Well, I’m concerned about climate change and what impact that could have on my constituents and other people in the country.” Soon after that, he is out of office because he is defeated in the primary. Now, imagine that you are a barber in the 4th District of South Carolina [which Inglis represented in Congress]. Do you think it is a good idea when somebody comes in for a shave to hand them a petition that says, “Save the polar bears” or something like this? I mean, you’ll be out of a job as quickly as he was. The impact of making a mistake relative to your group membership is large. The cost of making a mistake on the science is zero.

So I think that people, because they generally process information in a way that is good for them, are going to predictably form views that connect them to their group.

e360: So, they’re being rational.

Kahan: That’s a kind of rationality. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a climate scientist to do that with respect to climate change because it’s really obvious what position your group has.

e360: Let’s talk about a fascinating experiment that you carried out. You asked people to assess a study on climate change after reading one of three articles. One article had nothing to do with climate change, another called for strict CO2 regulations, and a third advocated research on geo-engineering, the manipulation of the environment to offset the rise in CO2. You found that the group that read the geo-engineering article was less polarized over the validity of the climate change study. Why would that be so?

Kahan: We examined whether people, in judging the validity of evidence on climate change, would be more or less open-minded based on whether they had just previously been exposed to information either about geo-engineering or carbon limits. Logically speaking, whether the information
Are there ways to combine the science with meanings that would be affirming rather than threatening to people?”
on climate change is valid doesn’t depend on whether you can do carbon emissions limits or geo-engineering or anything else. There either is a problem or there isn’t. But psychologically, the hypothesis was that these two kinds of stories would determine the meaning that people attached to the evidence on climate change. The meaning of the carbon limit story was the one that tends to make more individualistic people resist evidence on climate change. It’s kind of like a game-over message. The geo-engineering story, on the other hand, has in it certain kinds of themes that people who have an individualistic world view are moved by and find inspiring – the fact that we use our ingenuity to overcome and deal with limits, including the limits that themselves might be generated by the use of our own ingenuity. So just knowing that geo-engineering was a possibility, the hypothesis was that that would generate a meaning for the subsequent evidence we showed them on climate change that wouldn’t be nearly as threatening. And measuring the outcome here is simple: Are you engaging the information in a more open-minded way? And we found that they were, and because they were, there was less polarization.

e360: It’s hard to imagine Bill McKibben, for instance, tweaking his message as he campaigns against the Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben, I imagine, is going to continue to call for exactly what he believes in: no pipeline. I’m wondering, as far as climate change goes, maybe these positions have been too entrenched for too long to hope for any reduction in polarization.

Kahan: I’m not sure about Bill McKibben. I haven’t talked to him, so I don’t know what he thinks. But I do know [climate scientist] James Hansen thinks that you ought to have nuclear power. We did the same experiment where we used nuclear power [instead of geo-engineering] and we got similar effects.

I think the only thing that is certain not to work would be a style of framing the issues and presenting information that continues to accentuate the perception that the sides on the debate are identified with particular groups. I believe there are ways – in fact, many ways – of presenting the information about climate and science that don’t have that effect. The question is: Which ones are like that, and how could you deliver them? The point is, are there ways to combine science with meanings that would be affirming rather than threatening to people? I think if somebody believes there aren’t any, I think that person just doesn’t have much imagination.

e360: You do offer some examples at the local level – Florida, for instance – where adaptation to climate change has taken place without running into the cultural identity obstacle. Why wasn’t the individualism/communitarianism dynamic at work in those instances?

Kahan: The reason there is potential to promote engagement there is that the meanings are entirely different. People in Florida have had a climate problem since they got there. It’s a bad climate. It gets overwhelmed by water and hurricanes. It’s not like this is news to them. I can find materials that were distributed in the 1960s that are not all that much different from what they are using now to try to explain to people why you have to worry
These are decision-makers who are getting information from scientists and trying to make sense of it.”
about saltwater penetration into the aquifers. Every few years you have to do things since sea level rises. They are used to talking about this, and they’re used to talking about it with their neighbors. They may be red and blue when talking about certain national issues, but they’re all just property owners. The insurance guy is there saying one thing, and so is the power company. Now, people are going to squabble because choices always have to be made in politics. But for purposes of this debate, they are all on the same team. You don’t have to come up with clever framing messages. Just use the way that people already talk about these issues.

e360: Are you saying that in Florida they talk about the threat of climate change without actually using the words “climate” and “change?”

Kahan: People talk about climate and climate change in Florida, but really what they talk about is: How do we deal with the problem we’ve always dealt with? I don’t know that there is a taboo on mentioning the word “climate.” What they’re talking about is: What do we do here in Florida?

e360: I understand that you have a project on the ground in Florida right now, in which you are looking at science communication on the issue of climate change.

Kahan: We’re advising different municipal actors who are part of the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact. Those groups are working together from Florida’s four most populous counties to implement a directive that was actually passed by the Republican legislature and signed by the Republican governor in 2011: that everybody should update their


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comprehensive land-use plan to reflect the most recent information on sea level rise and other kinds of adverse climate impacts. We’ve been talking about how to create a science communication environment in which the members of the public will be receptive to the type of information that travels to them. But, of course, a lot of time what you’re communicating is: How about the estimates from this model about exactly how much sea level is going to rise? And how about that model and what if we made this assumption?

These are decision-makers in administrative positions who are getting information from scientists and are trying to make sense of it and understand the trade-offs and the costs and benefits. What we try to do is help the members of the compact understand what the best evidence is on the ways to communicate the science.

POSTED ON 12 Sep 2013 IN Biodiversity Climate Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Asia North America 


Know your science! For 28 years science has only said and agreed that it COULD be a climate crisis, not WILL be. So why are you remaining believers threatening our children saying it WILL be a crisis when science has NEVER said or agreed it WILL be a crisis?
Posted by mememine69 on 12 Sep 2013

Has Kahan made a poll of physical scientists, or even scientists as a whole, to see what their opinions are regarding climate science? And correlate that with their politics?

There are many other factors that influence people's attitudes about these issues, including the influence of the corporate media and the money poured into the dialogue by the wealthy fossil fuel industry — for example, the Koch brothers.

Finally, people will change their positions when under foreseeable and/or imminent threat. It is not only with whom they associate that determines their positions.

I find his analysis very limited, even if with some validity.
Posted by Morton Brussel on 12 Sep 2013

Our legislators are being paid off by the oil, gas and coal companies through campaign funding. They are exclusively responsible for the confusion. The citizens believe what they tell the public.

The fossil fuel companies use TV and the internet to advertise "clean coal," "clean natural gas," "low risk pipelines," and these are all false claims. They have immense lobbying power.

Scientists are not assertive and this is also a major source of confusion to the public.

Here we stand today where we were in 1980 with the same tactics being used and the same result — no action plan. The oil and gas companies are going to frack, drill, and mine and there doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it. It's the reality.

In about 100 years our planet will be so hot and hostile to life, without ability to grow enough food for our overpopulated species, no backup wildlands as a source of food, and depletion of our fresh water supply. There will be self-correction through the massive die off of mankind, the source of the problem.

From what I am witnessing, this is when man's party will end. The men and women responsible for the bad decisions will be long dead.

With this said, I can't understand why the U.S. isn't recycling everything right in our cities and designing manufacturing plants to remake all post-consumer and post-commercial waste. It's not only practical but the software and knowledge is at our fingertips. Oracle and SAP have awesome supply chain, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution systems to manage these processes. I really don't think a single scrap of waste should be going into the landfills because products like metals, plastics, rubber, glass, wood, precious metals are already refined and just need to be tweaked to be made into another product. It's 75 percent less intense than mining iron ore and transporting it to a steel mill for processing, etc.

We should be putting Monsanto in the rearview through organic agriculture and use of multiple-tiered closed greenhouses that are pest-free.

And why, again, aren't vehicles getting 500 mpg rather than puny 55 mpg???

Buildings can be temperature-controlled but we're still using old traditional building codes. Some progress is being made in using wood that has not been planked, so at some point the structure can be dismantled and the same piece of wood used again and again.

Good food for thought.

Posted by Penny Melko on 13 Sep 2013

Important topic — the cultural underpinnings of the climate problem are increasingly critical.
Posted by Bill Prindle on 13 Sep 2013

Prof. Kahan's thesis has been told dozens of times before, with the focus on the oft-told point that neither side hears the other if it is inconsistent with the prism through which they see the world. Sure. Fine. But that, by itself, doesn't move the needle, which gets to his second point.

That is the argument that, in regard to a seminal crisis that does demand massive government intervention, climate scientists or climate activists need to reconfigure their message to get under the individualist's radar. Missing is the fact that doing that produces too few results to achieve the enormity of changes needed to meet the challenge, unless there is an underlying assumption that getting the individualists' little toe wet will wind up being transformative of his or her world view — not likely without more.

Focusing on this second point, what I feel is missing is that this sort of study implicitly assumes that, in terms of these givens, the political/social world is static rather than dynamic, and hence, we're stuck with that dichotomy, so, make the best of the limits that fact imposes.

But, social change can be dynamic. Just look at how rapidly attitudes "evolved" over gay marriage. Or the similar rapidity that the self-actualization confined to a few elite campuses in the early 60s reached Joe Lunchbucket by the early 70s.

True, there is no horn book that contains the secret sauce to make this happen. Our science of abrupt social change is at the level of alchemy.

But, that does not mean it is impossible to happen.

So the question before us is whether to follow a well-trodden path that Prof. Kahan retells, which, while more likely to achieve its narrow pretensions, is certain not to gain the enormous changes that global warming demands.

Or, to leap into the unknown with uncertain prospects, other than, if successful, at least there will be a chance of averting the worst...and knowing that in great social causes of the past, ending the slave trade, apartheid, Jim Crow, civil disobedience and the great personal sacrifices it entails, has worked before if it catches fire in the popular sensibilities. With our children's future in palpable jeopardy, there is ignitable material to build on, I should think.

I never liked golf, but my father did and I went occasionally to have time to be with him. One thing I learned there is that if one putts cautiously, while one never goes over the hole into the sand trap, neither does one ever bag the shot. Turning back to climate change, time is, if it hasn’t already done so, running out.

Posted by Peter Anderson on 13 Sep 2013

I am regularly asked if I "believe" in global warming or climate change. I don't "believe" in plate tectonics, or whether the earth is the center of the universe, or if the sky is blue. I know there is continental drift, I know that the earth is not the center of the universe and I know that the sky is blue.

Unfortunately, warmists make AGW appear almost faith-based. More of a political or social justice question and never a scientific question, which it clearly is.

That is their mistake.
Posted by Don Allen on 13 Sep 2013

Another way to engage the public is to offer solutions that complement the need to reduce carbon emissions, such as telling us where that carbon is needed: IN THE SOIL. The world's soils have been severely depleted of carbon-rich material and microorganisms, and replacing those soil components can and will do a great deal to alleviate drought and flooding, enable farming to do without its toxic chemical inputs, and regulate the climate by storing moisture as they once did. Spread the word about soil carbon!
Posted by Brian Cartwright on 14 Sep 2013

I find one of the most troubling issues in society is that science provides us with critical facts, but hardly any of the world’s cultures change their lifestyles. When a culture does not change its ways, neither do the individuals in that culture. However, many cultures talk about changing their ways, but I would like to see less talking and more doing. After all, Shakespeare once said in his play Richard III, “talkers are no good doers.” While Dan Kahan does bring a good point about individualists versus communitarianism, welfare and well-being share the ethical notion that we all have self-imposed duties in society and how we respond to our duties in our community determines how successful our society is. It seems to me that individualists tend towards an anthropocentric lifestyle, where they do not want to restrict their lifestyles even if their lifestyles are harmful. I cannot understand how people always think like that when there is suffering all around them. As for communitarians, sometimes sacrifices must be made for the sake of the community at large. If more macro communities, like Florida, worked together instead of individuals shutting out each other, perhaps global problems like climate change can be reversed at a quicker rate.
Posted by Natasha on 16 Sep 2013

I do not believe that you have to be one side or the other in your beliefs and morals when dealing with the issue of climate change. You have to work at the individual level before you can work with a community. It is also important for everyone to realize that they are a contributor to climate change — no one is immune. A lot of people are getting their information through the media, not through scientists or accredited sources. I feel the people who do not acknowledge climate change are the ones that fear it the most or are unwilling to change.
Posted by dog lover on 16 Sep 2013

I agree with the main argument by Kahan in this interview. I find that in order for the majority of the public to come to a concrete understanding about climate change, the type of person they are should be considered. I believe that we are all shaped individually by our experiences, culture, and upbringing. This is why some of us agree about human influence to climate change and why some of us don't even care to worry about climate change. I think the question should be: How can scientists and activists frame scientific evidence so that, one, people with as little as a high school education can understand the depth of the current environmental situation, and, two, make people want to be interested in climate change if they are not already.
Posted by Chelsea on 17 Sep 2013

Quite right. If people knew their science, the whole alarmist scare of AGW would have been put to rest years ago. For myself, as a history buff, I will NEVER forgive Mann et al for airbrushing out the medieval warm period and the little ice age. Both science and history rebuke the fad and junk science of manmade global warming.
Posted by Steve Meikle on 18 Sep 2013

I am an engineer and have looked into understanding the science behind AGW — the idea that CO2 generated by human activities will cause dangerous warming of the global climate. My current opinion is the entire proffer of radiative back warming is bogus. But many believe there may be a little. In any case the measurement, the true global measurements of satellites, have shown no predicted warming.
Posted by tom watson on 18 Sep 2013

So in reading the article and all the comments, why aren't we looking to get rid of the stigma of the phrase "climate change"? Why focus on such a broad picture that generalizes the issues that we face? If we focused on, say, one portion of the issue that affects climate change and can provide a clear description of the problem, clear data, and a plan to work towards to solve the problem, then and only then can I see mainstream media focusing the attention in a positive way and also educating the individuals who discount the phrase or idea of climate change. Oh, and temperature change (up or down) alone is not indicative of climate change.

All I'm saying is instead of focusing all the time and money trying to solve this huge problem (whether you believe in it or not), focus on the smaller solvable problems. For instance, focus exclusively on the deforestation in a region, not as it relates to climate change, but as it relates to species diversity, loss of wild areas, mass wasting, carbon sequestration...fixing these problems will lead to a more stable environment, helping calm the climate issues.

When I am working with the individuals that are adamantly against all claims of climate change, if I frame the problem differently, focusing on only one area instead of 50 and not mentioning the words "climate change" or "global warming," I get a 180-degree change in their stance, even though what I proposed didn't change, only the focus of the problem did. I believe we need to divide and conquer, fix one area and move onto the next...showing benefits along the way instead of this grand plan.
Posted by Michael C on 26 Sep 2013


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Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. She also has reported on science, medicine and the environment for WUNC, the public radio station in Chapel Hill, N.C.



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