Friday, 17 October 2014

They know, but do they know.. you know?

Public attitudes to climate are hugely important in any mitigation strategy. In 2013 17% of UK emissions (DECC 2014) came from the residential sector, taking into account individual choice over foods, goods and transport the public could have up to 51% of energy (Hillman 2004) use in their hands. Whilst an IPSOS Mori poll found that 86% of British people believe human activity affects climate this doesn’t appear to transfer into action. Only 17% of Adults in the same poll feel ‘well-informed’ about Climate Change. This gap between awareness and knowledge is preventing engagement. With information out there, what barriers are there to its uptake, and can policy help, ultimately affecting individual behaviour?

Lorenzi et al (2007) categorise barriers as individual or social. They deem individual factors, such as uncertainty in sources or climate being a ‘far-off threat’, as denial strategies related to guilt or anxiety. I don’t think this is true. Verheggen et al (2014) found skeptical scientists receive disproportionate media time, whilst other studies (Media Matters 2014) show that certain media groups favour the topic to others. Take a look at the video to see what a representative debate should look like Confusion from media affects the way the public understand a complex issue and prominent voices can seed distrust. I do however see the problem with separation in space and time; louder climate concerns come from countries most at risk (Brechin 2010), with developed countries ranking it below other national issues. Developed nations lack ‘evidence’ of change. One slightly macabre benefit of climate disasters like the Somerset Levels or Hurricane Sandyregardless of their link to emissions, is that it makes people care more about global warming. I’d argue that the majority of individual aspects identified in Lorenzi et al are actually a function of a broader social landscape.

 John Oliver hosts the worlds first mathematically representative climate debate

How then can policy bridge the social gap? The authors suggest two ideas.

1)     Basic information provision, regularly sustained, that is both credible and transparent (following recommendations by the House of Lords select committee of science and technology 2000).
2)     Supportive institutions that make positive choices easier, e.g. lower carbon transport that’s cheaper/more efficient than driving.

The issue with the first is media content; scientific journals are inaccessible for the majority, whilst government advice is lacking. Restricting media would suppress press freedom and freedom of speech in general. I’d personally recommend that all journal articles include a summary for journalists, detailing conclusions and uncertainties in explicit terms. This will prevent misinterpretation from journalists who lack scientific literacy and provide a stopgap to mainstream media. Ideally a government-supported institution dedicated to the dissemination of climate science, spearheading a social marketing campaign (like this by Mckenzie 2000) to transcend news cycles would revolutionize understanding.

Shifting personal behavior is vital to any successful mitigation strategy, although the current UK public is aware of climate change numerous factors converge to prevent awareness becoming knowledge, and subsequently action. Whilst a lot of these are highly individualized policy can help. For example people who have experienced a wild environment care about its protection (Zaradic et al 2009) more than those that haven’t, increased funding for school trips could shape a new generation more focused on nature. Whilst an independent institution is a long way off, clarity of language in journal articles and a summary for the media could provide benefits in the short-term.

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