Can climate change skeptics get a warm glow from waste-deep snow?
A New York Times story by John Broder
that Senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, a prominent naysayer on the
science of climate change, celebrated the record snowfall in Washington
DC by building a six foot tall igloo on Capitol Hill. He used a
cardboard sign to label it "Al Gore's New Home. He's not the only
gleeful skeptic. A Washington Times
editorial "Global Warming Snow Job"
declares "Record snowfall illustrates the obvious: The global warming fraud is without equal in modern science."
Dr. Jeff Masters, a meteorologist who writes the WeatherUnderground blog,
reminds us that climate is measured in decades and centuries, not
months and seasons, so single events don't signify long term changes.
But he also reminds us that most climate scientists say extreme weather
is consistent with a warmer earth, and warming has been measured over
long periods. A Bloomberg News story
quotes Matt Rogers of Commodity Weather Group as explaining that weak
El Ninos produces cold, snowy winters in the Northeast.. And the federal
Climate Impact Report
cites rising ocean temperatures and says documented warming increases
likelihood of colder winters in the Northeast, more drought in the
Southwest and more major Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Why do different people reach such different conclusions about scientific information?
"Fixing the Communications Failure"
, an article by Dan Kahan
in the January 21 issue of Nature
offers insights on why people believe what they do. He says
polarization aboutclimate change and polarization on such highly
charged social issues as abortion, same sex marriage and school prayer,
arise from what he terms cultural cognition. Cultural cognition,
he writes, "refers to influence of group values-ones relating to
equality and authority, individualism and community-on risk perception
and related beliefs."
Kahan and scientific colleagues Donald Braman at George
Washington Law School, Geoffrey Cohen at Stanford University, John
Gastil at the University of Washington in Seattle and Paul Slovic at the
University of Oregon have studied the mental processes behind cultural
cognition. Their research suggests, for instance, people with
individualistic values and those who accept hierarchies and respect
authority, tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risk from global
warming because that evidence could lead to restricting industry and
commerce, which they admire. They also resist directives from
government. People who have more egalitarian and "communitarian "
values tend to be suspicious of industry as a source of social
disparities, and more receptive to the idea that its activities should
be regulated. They also tend to think government's responsibility
includes protecting people from harm.
How can scientists present information without getting
caught in culture wars? Professor Kahan says people are more open
minded when information could support, rather than threaten, their
values. For instance, he writes, an individualist who dislikes the idea
of constraining industry might be receptive to a climate change response
that included geo-engineering. An egalitarian who is suspicious about
the risks of nanotechnology might be more receptive if there were
emphasis on the role nanotechnology could play in environmental
protection. People also tend to be more open minded when they receive
information from those who seem to have similar values, he writes, so
scientific information presented by diverse groups of experts may have a
better chance of being received thoughtfully by broader audiences. Read
his essay here.