Humans Care More About Climate Change if They Know They're Responsible

When it comes to climate change, it’s what you know that counts.

Apr 30 2016, 8:00pm

Image: Flickr/Lawrence Murray

Climate change denial is still a huge problem among elected representatives, to say nothing of the general populace, and even when our elected leaders do try to act to combat climate change, their efforts often leave much to be desired. While it's easy to blame the problem on scientific illiteracy, a lot of research has shown that even when individuals are educated about climate change and its effects, this knowledge does little to change their concern about the problem—they are still more likely to stick to political narratives than scientific ones.

However, a new study coming out of ETH Zürich and the University of Michigan suggests that what people know about climate change can make a difference. Namely, people who understand that climate change is largely caused by human activity are more likely to be concerned about climate change and its effects.

According to the researchers, the problem with previous studies that didn't find links between greater knowledge about climate change and increased concern about it had more to do with the metrics previous researchers were using to measure "knowledge." Most previous research measured knowledge about climate change using a single, self-assessed scale, whereas the University of Michigan survey contained questions about climate change divided into three general categories of knowledge: physical, causes, and consequences.

"Physical knowledge" included things like knowing that burning oil produces CO2 or that CO2 is damaging to plants. "Causes knowledge" addressed human contributions to climate change, and questions about the predicted outcomes of climate change fell under "consequences knowledge." Finally, the survey asked participants to self-evaluate personal traits like how concerned they were about climate change, how much they cared about looking after themselves and others, and how much they cared about environmental stewardship.

The team found that all 2,500 participants in each of the six countries (US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, and China) seemed to be "reasonably well informed about climate change," particularly when it came to the knowledge of its consequences (the weakest area was "physical knowledge"). Moreover, the team found that knowledge of the causes of climate change was correlated with higher levels of concern about climate change across all countries, something it chalked up to a feeling of responsibility given that climate change is largely driven by human activity.

"What we found was that culture [political narratives, historical relationships to nature, etc.] plays a relatively small role, and that knowledge about climate plays a larger one [in making people concerned about climate change]," said Joseph Arvai, a University of Michigan professor of sustainable enterprise and one of the authors of the study. "Our research clearly shows that education and decision support aimed at the public and policy makers is not a lost cause."

Correction 5/2: This story has been updated to clarify researchers from ETH Zürich and the University of Michigan worked on the study.