April 7, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Public understanding of climate change: The deficit fallacy

At the end of February the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee launched an inquiry into public understanding of climate change and its implications for policy. The STSC asks for written submissions on various questions, such as:

  • What is the current state of public understanding of what is meant by climate change? How has this changed in recent years?
  • Which voices are trusted in public discourse on climate science and policy? What role should Government Departments, scientific advisers to Government and publicly funded scientists have in communicating climate science?
  • How could public understanding of what is meant by climate change be improved? What are the main barriers to this? Does the media have a positive role to play?
  • How important is public understanding in developing effective climate change policy?
  • What evidence is there that public attitude to climate science affects their engagement with energy policies or initiatives?
  • Does the Government have sufficient expertise in social and behavioural sciences to understand the relationship between public understanding of climate science and the feasibility of relevant public policies?
  • Can lessons about public engagement with climate change policy be learned from other countries? (bold added)

Public understanding, discourse, attitudes and engagement

Although public understanding is the focus of this call, other terms are also used, such as public discourse, public engagement and public attitude.

  • Discourse seems to be related to the ‘communication of climate science’ by various experts in science and policy making.
  • Public understanding seems to be related climate change and climate science.
  • Attitude seems to be mainly related to attitude to science.
  • Engagement seems to be related to policy.

This is interesting. There is an implicit chain of inference at work here: first there is public discourse (by scientists, policy makers etc) about x (or the science of x); then comes public understanding of x (or the science of x); that brings about public attitudes to x and to the producers of x (scientists); and finally we have public engagement with x or the policy of x; where x = ‘climate change’. Can it be that simple? A look at the meaning of public understanding of climate change will demonstrate that things are, as one might expect, more complicated than they seem.

Public understanding of climate change – what is it?

What does public understanding of ‘climate change’ (or PUCC for short; in analogy to PUS as acronym for public understanding of science) mean, a phrase that seems to be crucial to the whole chain stretching from discourse or communication to action and from science to policy and policy uptake? What is it that ‘the public’ should ‘understand’ (and various people should communicate) about ‘climate change? What is the X in the above chain of inferences?

There is a very broad range of possibilities, that is to say, x is rather complex: It can refer to (inter alia) understanding that

  • climate changes over time
  • climate  is influenced by human activities or the emission of certain gases, especially carbon dioxide (or not)
  • climate change is dangerous in various ways and to various degrees
  • scientists produce climate models in order to understand and, if possible, predict, the causes and consequences of climate change (or concentration and impact of certain gases in the earth’s atmosphere) and these are right/wrong/useful
  • climate change risk assessment is very complex and uncertainty is an inherent factor in all of this
  • climate change is a global phenomenon with distinctive local impacts (or not)
  • scientists agree that climate change is a problem (or not)
  • policy makers think they have to prevent the worst consequences of climate change (or not)
  • dealing with climate change should be driven by a sense of social responsibility and justice (or not)
  • citizens should ‘do’ something to prevent, mitigate, adapt to climate change (or not)
  • climate change is not ‘a problem’ waiting for ‘a solution
  • and many many more!

Given the multiple meanings of ‘climate change’, understanding climate change becomes a complex affair. This also means that understanding the PUCC is equally complicated. It cannot be reduced to assessing or measuring a rather mythical ‘belief in climate change’. And yet, this is what various public opinion/belief/understanding (?) polls have tried to measure, and to which the STSC refers. There is also an implicit assumption that PUCC is somehow separate from ‘scepticism’, which can also be measured (as non-belief?), and should be reduced.

PUCC and the deficit model

It has been known for a long time that trying to measure or assess PUCC in this way (by measuring ‘belief’ as a proxy for understanding) is flawed in a variety of ways (What is ‘belief’ in this context? How is the question about belief framed; in terms of climate change or global warming? Do people respond to facts or values? What’s the weather like when they are asked? Are they sitting near dead plants?….).

As early as the year 2000, Harriet Bulkeley pointed out that, “in accordance with the information deficit model, recorded levels of ignorance are seen as a barrier to effective public involvement in the policy process” around climate change; and this also seems to be the case with this inquiry (but, again, one has to ask: ignorance of what?). However, as Bulkeley found, communication of information, that is plugging holes in deficits or ignorance, is not enough; instead “policy attention should be directed to the social and institutional barriers that act to constrain public involvement in addressing global environmental change”. That is to say, give people a tool to work with and they’ll act if it fits in with their forms of life. Communication of information alone is not enough. Most importantly: Don’t get trapped by the deficit fallacy when trying to understand PUCC.

Of course, providing (and valuing existing) information or knowledge is still important. But that leads us back to my list above: knowledge of and information about WHAT? About physical processes, about modelling, about policy making; about local or global issues; about justice, about…? And how much information, and indeed what degree of information? Does talking about a 2 or 4 degree warming lead to climate change action or inaction?

Public concern, awareness and understanding of climate change

In a recent report, Nick Pidgeon has provided a useful overview of PUCC in the UK. Interestingly, he talks (almost interchangeably) about PUCC and public attitudes, but also public awareness and public concern. Are these the same or similar concepts though? I may be aware of climate change but not be concerned about it. I may be concerned about climate change, but nevertheless I may not understand ‘it’. I may have very definitive attitudes towards climate change policies, despite not understanding climate change or thinking that I do, or trusting others that they do, and so on. PUCC and therefore also public engagement with climate change or PECC are indeed complex issues.

Challenges and opportunities

This brings us back to the questions to which the STSC is trying to find answers. Let’s just look at the first question again: “What is the current state of public understanding of what is meant by climate change? How has this changed in recent years?” As I have tried to show here, finding answers to these questions will be a very difficult and challenging affair, depending on what the person asking the questions means by ‘climate change’ and depending on what the person answering the questions means by ‘climate change’. Measuring fluctuations over time in ‘public’ ‘understanding’ of ‘climate change’ is therefore doubly complex and doubly challenging (and I haven’t even dissected the word ‘public’).

We are currently carrying out two research projects in which we are trying to come to grips with these challenges, as for example in this blog post on the continuity and fluctuations in alarmism discourse from the 1980s to now, or this one on changes in public perception of climate change between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, or this post about the relation between media volume and public concern about climate change. For more information on articles dealing with various aspects of climate change in the public sphere, please consult the website related to an ESRC funded project on climate change as a complex social problem and follow Warren Pearce’s blog posts related to the ‘Making science public’ programme of research funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Image Wikimedia Commons: Personification of knowledge (Greek Επιστημη, Episteme) in Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey.






Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics