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InPsych 2013 | Vol 35

Psychology in current issues

Insights into public perceptions of the science of climate change

If 97.1 per cent of climate scientists agree that human behaviour is causing climate change (Cook et al., 2013), why is the public not yet completely on board and demanding policy change and urgent action?

Who better to help answer these questions than three of the world’s most experienced climate change psychology researchers, brought together at the recent APS Conference in Cairns to present in the climate change symposium. Two are Australian psychologists – Stephan Lewandowsky, cognitive psychologist from the University of Western Australia (and newly-appointed professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Bristol) and Professor Joseph Reser FAPS, a social and environmental psychologist in the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University. They were joined by the esteemed Professor Jon Krosnick from the Psychology Department at Stanford University.

Scientific surveys of climate change attitudes

Jon Krosnick is a leading scholar on attitude formation, climate, public opinion and political psychology. His expertise in survey methodology (e.g., question wording, mode of data collection) makes him an authoritative voice on the validity, reliability and credibility of surveys on issues like climate change. For the past 16 years, he has surveyed climate change attitudes in America. His results reveal remarkable stability in the distributions of people’s opinions about climate change – every year, more than three quarters of representative samples of Americans have said that they believed the planet has been warming and that human behaviour has been causing this warming. His analysis shows consistent support for action on climate change. As Krosnick says, “These are gigantic majorities. Americans can’t seem to agree on anything – except this!” (Krosnick, 2010).

Joseph Reser and colleagues, undertaking comparable national survey research in Australia, report similar figures. Eighty-seven per cent of 4,347 people surveyed in 2011 agree that some level of human causality is implicated in climate change (Reser et al., 2012).

Stephan Lewandowsky’s colleagues John Cook et al. (2013) analysed the results of over 11,900 papers published on climate change or global warming between 1991 and 2011. Amongst the articles expressing a position on anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, 97 per cent endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.

US public (representative samples) 82%
Australian public (representative samples) 87%
Climate change scientists (across 12,000 articles [1991-2011]) 97%

Reporting in the media

Clearly, the science is in on human-caused climate change, and reliable surveys demonstrate that the public knows this, but that’s not what you hear through the media. Over the past five or six years there has been a significant underestimation in the media of how concerned the public is about climate change and the level of concern at scant government action.

Reser’s Conference presentation critiqued recent Australian surveys reporting climate change findings and how these are communicated to the public. He argues that different ways of asking questions generate different answers. Survey results depend crucially on the questionnaire that scripts the conversation. The problem is partly that the media does not discriminate between social science-based surveys undertaken by expert researchers and opinion polls. Many surveys are not adequately designed to properly measure such things as level of concern, underlying beliefs and desire for action.

Yet problematic single climate change items embedded in non-research polls draw media attention and headlines which can completely misrepresent where the Australian public is at. And cherry-picking genuine research data can also misrepresent overall findings in the story being told to the public. Responses to a poorly-designed question can give very misleading answers that, if reported alone, can communicate much lower levels of climate change concern than might be the case if the survey results were considered as a whole. Reser’s take home messages included the need to improve the survey research literacy of journalists and other end users, and the need for researchers not to abandon their research care and expertise in measurement when using surveys to document important psychological changes and impacts relating to climate change.

This misreading of the public's response to climate change has serious implications. Governments are more likely to pass strong climate policy if they think the public will support it, and people are more likely to behave in pro-environmental ways if they think ‘being green’ is normal (Cialdini, 2003). And the converse, of course, is the problem.

If you ask the general public what proportion of people they think believe in anthropogenic climate change, they say about 50 per cent. This is a significant under-estimation. (If you ask climate deniers, who make up about five to six per cent of the population either in UK, USA or here in Australia, they also estimate about 50 per cent of the people agree with them – a major attribution error in the opposite direction!) The awareness that a large majority of the general public believes in anthropogenic climate change is very important, both for policy makers and for the community. And if the public is not totally on board with these issues, and still not quite ready to support policy and action, we need to ask why not? Back to the APS Conference for more insight into the complexities of how people make sense of the science on climate change.

The impact of uncertainty in climate change communications

One of Krosnick’s recent projects (yet to be published) explored scientists’ communication strategies. Does the way the communicator expresses a message influence the way the audience accepts that message? Social psychology has been studying persuasion and related issues for well over 70 years. But Krosnick introduced new elements by focusing on the certainty with which scientists express their predictions about the future. Usually, the more certainty with which a message is communicated, the more persuasive it is. But scientists can rarely speak with such certainty when predicting the future.

Krosnick’s research looked at two different kinds of uncertainty expressions which are common in climate change communications. 'Bounded uncertainty' is when a prediction about the future has limits around it, for example, “Scientists expect sea level will probably increase 1 metre, but it could be as much as 2.2 metres and displace about 8 million people [partially bounded uncertainty], or as little as 0.2 metres and displace about 1 million people [fully bounded uncertainty]”. 'Unbounded uncertainty' is when a prediction is accompanied by an acknowledgement of uncertainty but without any specified limits.

In a real world example, Krosnick studied research participants’ levels of acceptance of the sea level rise message, and their trust in the scientists, depending on whether the message was partially or fully bounded, under several conditions. His results showed that expressing fully bounded uncertainty led to the most persuasion. The public was more trusting of scientists and were more likely to accept science when they provided limits around the level of certainty of their predictions. Expressing unbounded uncertainty undermined scientists’ persuasiveness. Krosnick suggested several explanations for these findings. Perhaps there is a trade off between honesty and trust, with mild uncertainty being best, he suggested. If a scientist predicts the future without acknowledging uncertainty, the listener may think that he or she is dishonest or naïve; if a scientist expresses too much uncertainty, message recipients may wonder about the scientist’s competence.

Understanding the rejection of science

Lewandowsky’s current research interests are on the rejection of science. Like Krosnick and Reser, he understands profoundly the harm done to the community (and indeed the future of the planet) from climate science denial, mis-representation of people’s beliefs, and more. “Science denial kills”, begins Lewandowsky in a recent paper examining climate denial from two perspectives (Lewandowsky, 2013c). First, on the supply side, ‘dis-information’ is deliberately disseminated by people and organisations, usually through the cherry-picking of data to provide facts which support a more convenient argument than the inconvenient truth, thereby casting doubt on the existence of climate change.

But the other side is also interesting. Why are people susceptible to misinformation? Experts in human cognition, like Lewandowsky, have several answers. They know that people are swayed by irrelevancies and anecdotes; for example, research has shown that people are more likely to believe in global warming if there is a dead plant in the laboratory; even more if there are three dead plants; and more still if it is a hot day.

Lewandowsky has studied what variables influence how susceptible people are to misinformation. The first and most powerful is people’s ideology or worldview, and the most influential belief is in an unregulated free market. Research consistently shows a very high negative correlation (-.87) between free market endorsement and acceptance of climate science (Lewandowsky et al., 2013a). This is important research because ideological thinking is a self-sealing bubble in which providing people wih more data and facts has no effect. Ideology is a wedge that drives people apart.

Lewandowsky’s most recent research examines the pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science (Lewandowsky et al., 2013b). When told such a consensus exists, and that it is in the order of 97 per cent of climate scientists, the vast majority of people accept the science.

A further study reveals a causal role of perceived consensus, where acceptance of anthropogenic global warming increases when consensus is highlighted. Consensus information can also neutralise the effect of worldview. In other words, telling people about consensus reaches even those who would normally tune out to evidence alone. “Telling them about this numeric fact about agreement in the scientific community does make a difference. That’s quite remarkable because few things work”, says Lewandowsky.

So we end with the take home message about how important it is for scientific communicators and journalists to tell their audience the reality that the vast majority of climate change experts accept that human activity is forcing global warming. And that they are extremely worried!

Given the predictions of 4-6 degrees warming by the end of the century on business-as-usual models, these climate psychologists we heard at the APS Conference are arguably doing some of the most important research in the world right now. As psychologists, we need to use our understanding of science to heed the warning that 'science denial kills'.


  • Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P., Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters, 8. 024024. http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024
  • Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105-109.
  • Krosnick, J. A. (2010). The climate majority. Op-ed in the New York Times, June 9, 2010.
  • Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E., Oberauer, K. (2013a). The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. PLoS ONE, 8, 10. e75637. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075637
  • Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E. & Vaughan, S. (2013b). The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science. Nature Climate Change, 3, 399-404.
  • Lewandowsky, S., Mann, M .E.., Bauld, L., Hastings, G., & Loftus, E.F. (2013c). The Subterranean War on Scienc., APS Observer, November 2013. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/november-13/the-subterranean-war-on-science.html
  • Reser, J. P., Bradley, G. L., Gendon, A. I., Ellul, M.C. & Callaghan, R. (2012). Public risk perceptions, understandings, and responses to climate change and natural disasters, 2010 and 2011. Gold Coast, Qld: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. http://www.nccarf.edu.au/publications/public-risk-perceptions-second-survey

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on December 2013. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.