I recently came across an interesting research article that influenced my thinking on climate change education and the impact we, as educators, may – or may not – be having on people’s understanding of climate change risk. The article was published in 2012 by a collective of researchers from Yale, Ohio State, Temple University, George Washington University, and a nonprofit research consortium in Eugene, Oregon. The team asserts that a commonly held notion about climate education is fundamentally flawed. The notion is that people are apathetic to climate change risk because they are ill-informed about climate science – we just need to teach people about climate science and help them think like scientists and they will care about climate change.

Turns out, knowing more about climate science and how to interpret quantitative data does not inherently (or statistically) make people more concerned.

Peer Pressure

Instead, people are more likely to perceive climate change as a risk – and act to make change – if their peers think the same way. In the study, the researchers asked participants “How much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety or prosperity?” They also asked participants about their cultural worldview and placed people on a scale between “individualism” (i.e. believing the individual is expected to secure his or her own well-being without assistance or interference from society) and “communitarianism” (i.e. believing society is obliged and empowered to secure collective welfare in the face of competing individual interests).

The results showed, specifically among people who leaned toward the individualistic worldview, that when respondents’ “science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased.” That mean knowing more equals less action. In fact, the researchers contend that more data and the capacity to interpret data is used to support – or explain away – reasoning that supports their peer-groups’ beliefs, not to uphold the need for climate action.

Importantly, the desire to feel accepted and supported by one’s peers is far more meaningful and a more powerful motivator than a seemingly distant and abstract risk such as climate change. The researchers sum this up by stating, “What guides individual risk perception, on this account, is not the truth of those beliefs but rather their congruence with individuals’ cultural commitment.”

So now what?

As an environmental educator, this research gives me pause. By providing climate science data and teaching about scientific thinking, have we been doing more harm than good? There is hope, however. These particular researchers offer a few suggestions:

  • Create a learning environment that presents data in a way that is not threatening to any particular worldview of set or values
  • Ensure educators represent culturally diverse perspectives and that their credibility is accepted among any given peer-group
  • Frame and introduce solutions that resonate with diverse worldviews

You can read the full journal article here, or check out the following resources for more information on the sociology of peer-group influence on environmental issues:

  • ABC News: Climate Change, Evolution: Here’s Why We Disagree”
  • The Washington Post: “How Peer Pressure Can Help Stop Climate Change”
  • Environmental Education Research: The influence of personal beliefs, friends and family in building climate change concern among adolescents”
  • Rare.org: “Can Peer Pressure Solve Climate Change?”

Normalizing Climate Solutions

Check out this TEDxYouth talk in which youth speaker Shanlea Tabofunda talks about how normalizing climate solutions can help move us forward:

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