Background: Climate change is an issue which has received increasing attention amongst scientists, policy-makers, businesses and the media. While there has emerged a scientific consensus about the reality of human-caused climate change, the media often emphasises disagreement and debate surrounding the issue due, for example, to journalistic norms (to present a balanced view). As an issue, climate change also poses many challenges to communicators due to its complexity, intangibility, and the implicit threat it poses to modern, energy-intensive lifestyles. These unique characteristics may - at least in part - explain why we see low levels of public engagement - that is personal involvement at cognitive, emotional and behavioural levels - in the issue. While surveys indicate rising levels of public awareness and concern about climate change, more in-depth studies expose misconceptions, ambivalence and little behaviour change amongst individuals. To date, however, no attempt has been made to rigorously explore the nature of perceived uncertainty, scepticism and ambivalence amongst the public and how this impacts on behavioural responses to climate change.

Objective/Hypotheses: This research examines the public understanding of, and behavioural responses to, climate change in the UK, with a particular focus on the dimensions and prevalence of uncertainty. This analysis is used to draw recommendations for communicators and educators.

Methods: This paper primarily reports on research conducted in the UK using qualitative interviews (N=24) and a postal survey of residents in Hampshire, UK (N=589). Discourse analysis and Principal Components Analysis are used to elucidate aspects of uncertainty within participants’ understanding of climate change. Findings from other studies, such as UK surveys conducted by Ipsos-MORI, are used to examine how the nature and prevalence of uncertainty has changed over time.

Results: The research exposes pervasive uncertainty of various kinds amongst the UK public. Two main kinds of uncertainty were exposed: (a) Feeling under-informed or unsure of one’s own knowledge; and (b) Ambivalence about the reality of anthropogenic climate change due to perceived uncertainty or dispute among the scientific community and exaggerated or dubious claims made by the media or scientists. In this sense, uncertainty was closely linked to distrust in informational sources. Uncertainty was found to negatively relate to behavioural response to climate change, and to environmental values. A relationship between science education and perceived uncertainty was also found. Longitudinal analysis indicates public uncertainty about climate change has declined only modestly in recent years, despite the existence of scientific consensus and widely reported political action in the UK to tackle climate change.

Conclusions: This research exposes important disparities between scientific (expert) and public (lay) conceptions of climate change. The findings suggest a need for more sophisticated approaches to communication and education which acknowledge scientific uncertainties but also inform and motivate individuals to take action.

">
 [PCST]
PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Uncertainty, scepticism and ambivalence in public understanding of climate change

Lorraine Whitmarsh   Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia

Background: Climate change is an issue which has received increasing attention amongst scientists, policy-makers, businesses and the media. While there has emerged a scientific consensus about the reality of human-caused climate change, the media often emphasises disagreement and debate surrounding the issue due, for example, to journalistic norms (to present a balanced view). As an issue, climate change also poses many challenges to communicators due to its complexity, intangibility, and the implicit threat it poses to modern, energy-intensive lifestyles. These unique characteristics may - at least in part - explain why we see low levels of public engagement - that is personal involvement at cognitive, emotional and behavioural levels - in the issue. While surveys indicate rising levels of public awareness and concern about climate change, more in-depth studies expose misconceptions, ambivalence and little behaviour change amongst individuals. To date, however, no attempt has been made to rigorously explore the nature of perceived uncertainty, scepticism and ambivalence amongst the public and how this impacts on behavioural responses to climate change.

Objective/Hypotheses: This research examines the public understanding of, and behavioural responses to, climate change in the UK, with a particular focus on the dimensions and prevalence of uncertainty. This analysis is used to draw recommendations for communicators and educators.

Methods: This paper primarily reports on research conducted in the UK using qualitative interviews (N=24) and a postal survey of residents in Hampshire, UK (N=589). Discourse analysis and Principal Components Analysis are used to elucidate aspects of uncertainty within participants’ understanding of climate change. Findings from other studies, such as UK surveys conducted by Ipsos-MORI, are used to examine how the nature and prevalence of uncertainty has changed over time.

Results: The research exposes pervasive uncertainty of various kinds amongst the UK public. Two main kinds of uncertainty were exposed: (a) Feeling under-informed or unsure of one’s own knowledge; and (b) Ambivalence about the reality of anthropogenic climate change due to perceived uncertainty or dispute among the scientific community and exaggerated or dubious claims made by the media or scientists. In this sense, uncertainty was closely linked to distrust in informational sources. Uncertainty was found to negatively relate to behavioural response to climate change, and to environmental values. A relationship between science education and perceived uncertainty was also found. Longitudinal analysis indicates public uncertainty about climate change has declined only modestly in recent years, despite the existence of scientific consensus and widely reported political action in the UK to tackle climate change.

Conclusions: This research exposes important disparities between scientific (expert) and public (lay) conceptions of climate change. The findings suggest a need for more sophisticated approaches to communication and education which acknowledge scientific uncertainties but also inform and motivate individuals to take action.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

BACK TO TOP