A new paper argues that climate educators and communicators are ignoring deeply held beliefs that influence climate skepticism.

It is the great riddle of the day in climate circles: Why is public concern about global warming so shallow, and why do widespread doubts about man-made climate change persist?

Everyone seems to have a pet theory. Al Gore blames the media and President Obama. Some green critics argue that Gore should look in the mirror. Let’s not ignore the recession, scholars remind us. Yes, but the lion’s share of blame must go to those “merchants of doubt”, particularly fossil fuel interests, and climate skeptics, plenty others assert. Err, actually, it’s our brain that’s the biggest problem, social scientists now say.


Another reason, similar to that last one, is that cultural and religious beliefs predispose many to dismiss evidence that humans can greatly influence the climate. In fact, geographer Simon Donner in a paper published this week in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, argues:

“Successful climate change education and outreach programs should be designed to help overcome perceived conflict between climate science and long-held cultural beliefs, drawing upon lessons from communication and education of other potentially divisive subjects like evolution.”

Donner is not the first to try to bridge the gap between science and religion. E.O. Wilson gamely attempted to do so several years ago, with his book, The Creation. In a 2006 interview with NPR, Wilson acknowledged that, “the usual approach of secular science is to marginalize religion” in debates on environmental issues. After the book’s publication, this writer facilitated a lengthy dialogue between Wilson, ecologist Stuart Pimm and leading evangelical Richard Cizik, on areas where science and religion could find common ground. Expanding on that public dialogue has proven difficult. If anything, the polarized political landscape and the continuing climate wars have narrowed the space for science and religion to be reconciled.

Still, those who want to overcome obstacles to climate action should be mindful of culture’s importance, Donner stresses in his paper. He writes that “lingering public uncertainty about anthropogenic climate change may be rooted in an important but largely unrecognized conflict between climate science and some long held beliefs. In many cultures, the weather and climate have historically been viewed as too vast and too grand to be directly influenced by people.”

Donner writes that scholars studying public attitudes on climate change should factor in such cultural worldviews when accounting for climate skepticism. He surmises: “Underlying doubts that human activity can influence the climate may explain some of the malleability of public opinion about the scientific evidence for climate change.”

Donner suggests that climate educators and communicators learn from approaches that have worked in the evolution debate. He informs us:

“Pedagogical research on evolution finds that providing the audience with opportunities to evaluate how their culture or beliefs affect their willingness to accept scientific evidence is more effective than attempting to separate scientific views from religious or cultural views.”

Moreover, Donner argues that “reforming public communication” on climate change “will require humility on the part of scientists and educators.” He concludes:

“Climate scientists, for whom any inherent doubts about the possible extent of human influence on the climate were overcome by years of training in physics and chemistry of the climate system, need to accept that there are rational cultural, religious and historical reasons that the public may fail to believe that anthropogenic climate change is real, let alone that it warrants a policy response. It is unreasonable to expect a lay audience, not armed with the same analytical tools as scientists, to develop lasting acceptance during a one-hour public seminar of a scientific conclusion that runs counters to thousands of years of human belief. Without addressing the common long-standing belief that human activity cannot directly influence the climate, public acceptance of climate change and public engagement on climate solutions will not persist through the next cold winter or the next economic meltdown.”

The intersection where science and religion meet is all too often home to an ugly collision. Donner advises that such crack-ups can and should be avoided in the climate debate.

Can it be done?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.