Climate Change and Conceptual Change
- Author(s): Clark, David Joseph
- Advisor(s): Ranney, Michael A.
- Ivry, Richard B.
- et al.
Global Warming (“GW”) is easily one of the most pressing concerns of our time,
and its solution will come about only through a change in human behavior.
Compared to the residents of most other nations worldwide, Americans report
lower acceptance of the realities of GW. In order to address this concern in a
free society, U.S. residents must be convinced or coerced to take the necessary
actions. In spite of the democratic appeal of education, however, many climate
communicators appear to be settling on the notion that emotional persuasion is
superior to education.
We'll set an empirical foundation in Chapter 2, reviewing an experiment in
the Numerically Driven Inferencing (NDI) paradigm that sheds some light on the
cognitive processes involved in learning and attitude shifts in response to
surprising policy-relevant information. Chapters 3–6 contain results from
a comprehensive program of research specifically targeting climate-related
attitudes and beliefs in the United States. As alluded to above, there have been
many surveys of American attitudes. Chapter 3 provides an overview of our
approach to assessing climate-related beliefs and attitudes. In particular, we
note relationships observed in one survey between scientific literacy regarding
the GW mechanism on one hand and attitudes, including “willingness to
sacrifice” on the other. As with some other empirical approaches, our
results suggest that U.S. residents generally accept anthropogenic (i.e.,
“human caused”) climate change, and support action on this issue.
But even if this is the case, Chapter 4 describes an experiment demonstrating
that these beliefs and attitudes are disturbingly fragile in the face of
cherry-picked, misleading numerical facts. Chapter 5 then describes a pair
of experiments evaluating the effects of representative numerical facts.
Chapter 5's Study 1 (Section 5.1) demonstrates that even when
students report strong psychological effects after receiving a set of surprising
numbers, their beliefs and attitudes will not necessarily be affected.
Chapter 5's Study 2 (Section 5.2) improves upon the clarity of
materials used in Study 1 and demonstrates that such materials
can effectively increase climate change acceptance and concern.
In both of these studies, as with the study presented in Chapter 4, this
relatively uncontextualized, surprising numerical information undermines
students' confidence in their own knowledge. Chapter 6 reports on three
successful experiments (spanning four samples) that provide a coherent
explanation of the mechanism of climate change that includes relevant numerical
facts. As with Study 2 in Chapter 5, this intervention shifts
participant attitudes towards the scientific consensus. Unlike uncontextualized
numerical information, however, this mechanism intervention additionally leaves
participants feeling that they know more than they did prior to instruction.
Chapter 6's Study 1 (Section 6.1) establishes this effect in
classroom-based settings at two culturally distinct universities.
Chapter 6's Study 2 (Section 6.2) provides an initial evaluation
of the time-course of retention for the cognitive shifts that followed our
mechanism intervention, and Chapter 6's Study 3 (Section 6.3)
provides a successful demonstration of durable shifts with the general
Taken together, these experiments point the way towards effective curricula and
on-line materials that can help bolster support to combat climate change. While
we must certainly be sensitive to the needs, values, and interests of our target
audiences, we should not reflexively steer away from science education. Indeed,
the experiments in this dissertation provide empirical support for the notion
that science education materials can have a meaningful and lasting impact on GW
attitudes and beliefs. While this may not provide the complete behavioral
solution we need for the United States (and the world), it seems likely that
such shifts will make behavioral and policy changes far more tractable in the