If the Catastrophic Weather Events Don't Get Us, the Irrationality Might

By Valerie Ross | April 8, 2011 12:24 pm

global warming
What global warming?

What the weather’s like affects some people’s beliefs about global climate change, a new study found: On hot days, they’re all over it, but on cold days, they’re not so sure.

This is not impressive, people. It’s called “global,” meaning not just what you personally felt when you walked out the door this morning. “Climate” also means something different from “weather”, and “change” could mean things will get warmer, colder, or just plain different. On unusually chilly days, these climatically labile folks are 0 for 3.

If only that was the worst of it. A string of studies have shown that people are comically bad at consistently thinking, well, anything when it comes to climate change. Even miniscule differences in what we’re up to at the moment or how we’re asked can have a big effect on what people think of climate change and what they’re willing to do to help. Here are five more ridiculously simple things that get people to change their minds:

What’s on TV. I’m sure you all remember the 2004 hit film The Day After Tomorrow, in which global warming throws Earth into a new ice age, all of a sudden, much to everyone’s surprise. After the movie came out, one study showed, people believed in global warming more, worried about it more, and felt it was more dangerous than they had a few weeks earlier. Where data fail, have Jake Gyllenhaal run through the streets of an ice-bound New York.

Wording of what’s happening. About 10% more people think weird things will happen to Earth’s climate when you call those weird things “climate change” than “global warming,” a study in March found—because the exact phrasing is what’s really important here, not the weird-climatic-things part.

Wording of what we should do. It’s no secret that feelings on climate change are split along party lines, or that Republicans don’t much care for taxes. If you ask Republicans to shell out extra cash for a plane ticket because of a carbon tax that will make up for the trip’s environmental effects, they’re not having it. But there’s a quick fix, according to a 2010 study: When the price bump is called an offset rather than a tax, Republicans will pay up as often as the Democrats (who are just as likely to favor a tax as an offset). One extra syllable to garner bipartisan consensus? Wow, that was easy.

The order of the options. People asked “paper or plastic?” will tend to go for the recyclable paper bags, while people asked “plastic or paper?” will often choose the environment-strangling plastic bags, says psychologist Elke Weber, who studies how people make decisions related to climate change and the many ways in which those decisions don’t make sense. For choices like this where we don’t much care—and really, paper and plastic bags are equally easy to carry home—query theory tells us that people often pick what they want based on how the options are presented; they tend to go for whatever they heard first. Even if it’s only a three-word question. (By the way, it’s not actually that clear whether paper or plastic is better, but it seems most people haven’t heard that, based on the fact that they keep asking or assuming it’s paper.)

Whether we get a pep talk. Irreversible change to the planet’s climate is a scary thing. But people are less likely to believe that climate change exists when they’re told what a disaster it will be, a recent study showed, then when they’re giving an “upbeat message” about solutions. So, the worse it is, the more people are convinced it’s not happening. Self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?

Image: Flickr / c.miles

  • Paul

    I don’t know about that wording one. “Climate change” is more likely than “Global Warming”, since a global warming trend would be a subset of any sort of climate change.

    P(GW) <= P(CC), basically, since global warming is climate change, but not all climate change is global warming, and therefore climate change cannot possibly be less likely.

  • dirk

    The term “offset” implies that the airline raised the price on their own accord instead of being forced to.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Paul: Good point! It is logically defensible (if you deny the evidence) to say there are climatic changes happening but no overall warming trend. It seems this study may have identified differences in how people actually interpret climate-change info rather than just semantic differences.

    @dirk: In the context of the study it was clear that there was a difference just based on word choice. From the press release: “Volunteers were asked to write down their thoughts about the decision, make a choice, and also indicate whether they would support legislation making the surcharge mandatory for all products of that type…In the ‘offset’ condition, Democratic, Republican, and Independent volunteers tended to select the more expensive, albeit environmentally-friendly, product. They were also equally likely (across party) to support making the cost increase mandatory. However, in the ‘tax’ condition, while Democratic volunteers still opted for the costlier item, Republican and Independent participants were more likely to choose the cheaper item, and did not support legislation.”

  • Terry

    I think that study is yet one more proof of how easy it is to pull a confidence game on people, if you call that con an offset.

  • Leigh Cox

    Saying “climate change”/“global warming” doesn’t exist because we have cold winters is like saying the sun doesn’t exist because it gets dark at night.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “It is logically defensible (if you deny the evidence) to say there are climatic changes happening but no overall warming trend.”

    It’s even more complicated than that.

    There are people who believe climate changes continually – the ice ages, the Holocene optimum, Dansgaard-Oeschger events, the Bond interstadials, the Younger Dryas, the green Sahara, the Minoan warm period, the Roman warm period, collapse of the Mayan empire, the Medieval warm period, the little ice age, etc. So if you ask them “Do you believe in climate change?” they will say “Yes”, but mean something completely different to what you think. They’re not necessarily thinking about the current period at all.

    There are people who think that the modern warming over the 20th century is just another such event. So while they are now thinking about the same warming over the same stretch of history, they’re not talking about anthropogenic climate change, so again, they don’t mean what you think they mean.

    There are people who believe in either or both of the above, but who recognise “climate change” as a code word for “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, and the politics surrounding it” and knowing the use to which the data will probably be put, will answer “No”, even though literally-speaking they do.

    There are people who think the meaning of the phrase “climate change” depends on context. Do you mean theoretical, detectable, practically significant, or catastrophic? Do you mean a five year period, or ten years, or thirty years, or sixty years, or four hundred years, or a thousand, or ten thousand, or millions? You will get different answers depending on the context, and the specific answer you get will depend on their day-to-day experiences prior to asking – where their mind is. Or they would argue that the question is meaningless, and answer “Don’t know.”

    There are people with no knowledge of the science or the data, for who it is a matter of no importance or interest, but who know that society expects them to care deeply, and so will answer as they think they are expected to. If you give them the impression you want answers leaning in a particular direction, they will oblige – they’ll say yes, and they’ll say the government ought to do something about it, and of course we should stop using fossil fuels. They’ll feel that by simply expressing support, they’ve done their bit. All so long as they think that it’s Somebody Else’s Problem a long way away. But as soon as it has an actual impact on their lives, like having to give up air travel or their car, or paying more than they can afford on their heating bills, they’ll suddenly change their minds.

    It’s a complicated debate, and not helped by simplistic classifications. It has been so heavily politicised, that apparently-simple phrases now come with a host of unrecognised assumptions and ambiguity. So this sort of very basic yes/no survey result isn’t really very helpful.

  • Chris

    The one thing we can agree on is most people are idiots.

  • Tony

    To Most:

    Climate Change (keyword “change”) is a vastly different term than is Global Warming (keyword ‘warming”). Climate Change could cover anything from Global Warming to Global Cooling to Global Hyperhydration to Global Dehydration. It could also mean one continent is getting dryer while another one is seeing more precipitation than normal. It could mean longer winters and shorter summers in one area, and vice-versa elsewhere. It could simple mean the world sees less of the frequent smaller storms, but more of the infrequent larger more dangerous storms. The term “Climate Change” covers a VASTLY larger arena of terminology than does the term “Global Warming”.

    I would expect a much higher increase than 10% to think wierd things to happen when discussing “Climate Change” vs. “Global Warming”.

    To Me:

    Climate change is a never ending event. Sometime it’s more evident than hostory shows; other times it’s not. People effect it – sure. Roads, buildings, cars, waste sites, facotries … yeah we contirbute. But more so does continental drift, the Sun’s shifts in behavior, the moon’s ever drifting distance from Earth, the ever changing volcanic activity, and the waxing and waning of the magnetic poles. Can we humans do something? Maybe; and why not try – right?!

  • Don

    #7 Chris
    Comedian once said “The average person is an idiot and, by definition, 50% are even dumber.”

  • Nullius in Verba


    Everybody is an idiot about something. We are all specialists, each with our own individual areas of expertise and idiocy.

    #9 – only if “average” means “median”. :-)


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