Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Keep That Global Warming Discourse Pleasant, Please

By Nate Seltenrich
Tue, Nov 16, 2010 at 7:42 PM

John Shimkus, the Illinois Congressman currently angling to lead the House energy committee, says he’s not worried about climate change. It’s all there in the Bible: Following the Book of Genesis’ epic flood, Shimkus says, God promises Noah that he won’t destroy Earth again. And according to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year, 48 percent of Americans believe global warming concerns are exaggerated, compared to only 31 percent in 1997. Now, two UC Berkeley researchers think they just might have an answer as to why Americans in general aren’t taking well to a growing body of scientific evidence regarding the existence and severity of global warming.

Through a pair of experiments employing 97 UC Berkeley undergraduate students and 45 volunteers from thirty US cities recruited via Craigslist, coauthors Robb Willer, a UC Berkeley social psychologist, and Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology, found that the secret lies in the way global warming’s findings are delivered. Dire warnings about the consequences of global warming, if presented too negatively, tended to decrease — rather than increase — subjects’ level of concern about global warming, regardless of the nature of the data behind the warnings. This was true for subjects on both sides of the political spectrum. Willer said that while conservatives were more apt to downplay global warming’s seriousness than liberals, the size of the effect was equal. Willer and Feinberg’s results will be published in the January issue of Psychological Science.

“We were interested in trying to answer this puzzle, which is why don’t people believe in global warming,” despite mounting evidence, said Willer. Their conclusions pointed to a “fundamental human need to believe in a world that is just, fair, and predictable.” Global warming, by contrast, points to a planet that is anything but predictable. This just-world bias has been proven to affect human decision-making processes in a multitude of ways, Willer said, and links their study with a larger body of work dating back over forty years.

Here’s how it works: The more severe the implications of global warming appear to be, the more global warming threatens our fundamental need to see the world as essentially stable — and the more we’re hard-wired to tune it out. By disregarding evidence of global warming, we maintain our belief that the universe is basically just, fair, and predictable, and thus maintain our ability to function in daily life.

“We think it’s one of the major factors” in the public’s turning against global warming, Diller said. But that still doesn’t explain Shimkus.

To read the study in its entirety, including the authors' thoughts on how we ought to be discussing global warming, visit http://willer.berkeley.edu/FeinbergWiller2011.pdf.

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