Turning Up the Heat: Converting Global Climate Change Skeptics

With extreme winter weather taking the Northern United States by storm, disbelief in global climate change is on the rise. Staff writers for the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin and David Fahrenthold, report:

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week that 2009 tied as the second-warmest year on record, this week two new public opinion polls have confirmed a trend reported last fall: As Washington has focused more on climate change, the American public has come to believe in it less.

On Wednesday, Yale and George Mason universities released a survey showing that just 57 percent of people said global warming “is happening.” That was down 14 percentage points, from 71 percent, in October 2008. Fifty percent of people said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about global warming, down 13 points from 2008.

How to make believers out of skeptics: a quandary shared by churchgoers and environmentalists alike.  A recently published study from Jane Risen of the University of Chicago and Clayton Critcher of the University of California, Berkeley, offers possibilities for a new approach.

Enlisting American university students as their experimental group, Risen and Critcher created questionnaires asking for students’ opinions in regards to varying political topics, including global climate change.  The first set of surveys was conducted out of doors in temperatures ranging from 49 to 89 degrees Fahrenheit.  For the second set, students responded in cubicles, half of which were heated by a space heater to 81 degrees, and the other half of which were controlled at 73 degrees, eight degrees cooler.

Surprisingly enough, Risen and Critcher found that students who filled out their questionnaires in warmer environments were more likely to say they believed in global warming, indicating the visceral nature of belief.

Risen and Critcher write in their report:

What makes future events feel more real is not necessarily well-conducted research or impressive meta-analyses that speak to the event’s likelihood of occurrence but factors that facilitate the ability to picture what the future event would look and feel like.

However, many obstacles prevent us from experiencing this visceral reality, including our sense of entitlement to comfort.  In regards to Risen and Critcher’s research, Tom Jacobs writes the following for Grist:

While the researchers don’t mention it, their work appears to reveal a tragic irony. Thanks to our use of greenhouse gas-emitting energy supplies, we now spend our summers in air-conditioned buildings and cars, which makes it harder for us to comprehend, on a visceral level, the reality of a warming world. Without such a sense, dire scenarios seem implausible and easy to dismiss.

As we consider effective methods of conversion for climate change skeptics, perhaps it’s time we set aside our analytical graphs and scientific predictions, turn up the heat, and face the music.  Or, wait until summer comes and take a step outside.

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