Why Better Education Is Key To Understanding Climate Risks

Why Better Education Is Key To Understanding Climate RisksThe Philippines after 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan: Personal experience changes minds Image: Trocaire from Ireland via Wikimedia Commons

Many of us accept that the world is warming but will not necessarily recognise that climate change caused by human activities is responsible. Social scientists say better education is the answer.

Researchers in the US have confirmed the great global warming paradox: people recognise that climate may be changing and that the storms, floods or heat waves they experience are not normal − but whether they attribute the abnormalities to man-made climate change depends on their existing beliefs.

Political party identification, the researchers found, plays a role in these matters. Democrats generally believe in the idea of global warming, Republicans do not.

Aaron McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University, and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that they analysed Gallup Poll data from 2012 on the responses of 1,000 people to temperatures in their home states.

The winter of 2012 was the fourth warmest in the US since 1895. Around 80% of US citizens reported that winter temperatures were warmer than usual, and those polled by Gallup also recognised that the conditions were out of the ordinary.

But only 35% believed that the main cause of the abnormally high temperatures was global warming. “Many people had already made up their minds about global warming and this extreme weather was not going to change that,” said Dr McCright.

Mistaken Assumption

“There has been a lot of talk among climate scientists, politicians and journalists that warmer winters like this would change people’s minds. The more people are exposed to climate change, the more they’ll be convinced. This study suggests that this is not the case.”

The research confirms a pattern, and others have already hypothesised that humans are not very enthusiastic about dealing with threats that lie some way in the future. The Michigan State researchers conclude that “actual temperature anomalies influence perceived warming but not attribution of such warmer-than-usual winter temperatures to global warming.

“Rather, the latter is influenced more by perceived scientific agreement; beliefs about the current onset, human cause, threat and seriousness of global warming; and political orientation. This is not surprising given the politicisation of climate science and the political polarisation on climate change beliefs in recent years.”

So the message is: personal experience might help spread support for the idea of adaptive measures, but it may not increase support for mitigation policies.

The North American warm winter of 2012 was only one of a string of extremes that indicate a pattern of change: the 2010 Russian heat wave, Superstorm Sandy on the US East Coast in 2012 and Typhoon Haiyan in the Pacific in 2013 were all natural disasters consistent, the researchers say, “with expectations for a warming world.”

Education Matters Most

Which is why Wolfgang Lutz of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and colleagues argue in the journal Science that although huge sums of money will be spent on engineering adaptations to climate change, the urgent need is for universal education.

The researchers looked at recently-published analyses of disaster data from 167 countries in the last 40 years and found that making people aware of the hazards and their own vulnerability might do more than sea walls, dams, irrigation systems and other protective infrastructure.

For the researchers, knowledge is power. “Our research shows that education is more important than GDP in reducing mortality from natural disasters. We also demonstrated that under rapid development and educational expansion across the globe, disaster fatalities will be reduced,” said Raya Muttarak, one of the co-authors.

“Education directly improves knowledge, the ability to understand and process information, and risk perception. It also indirectly enhances socioeconomic status and social capital. These are qualities and skills useful for surviving and coping with disasters.” – Climate News Network

About the Author

Tim Radford, freelance journalistTim Radford is a freelance journalist. He worked for The Guardian for 32 years, becoming (among other things) letters editor, arts editor, literary editor and science editor. He won the Association of British Science Writers award for science writer of the year four times. He served on the UK committee for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. He has lectured about science and the media in dozens of British and foreign cities. 

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