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Evaluating Arguments About Climate Change

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Perspectives on Scientific Argumentation

Abstract

Despite the overwhelming body of evidence showing that human activity is altering the global climate, debates about climate change are characterised by an enormous amount of uncertainty. Some of this uncertainty stems from the science itself: important questions about the extent and impact of climatic changes remain unanswered. More uncertainty arises from policy debates about what constitutes ‘dangerous’ climate change and what mitigation and adaptation measures will be required to prevent it. However, among ordinary members of the public, a substantial amount of uncertainty remains about the reality of human-caused climate change. Why is it that a significant proportion of international public opinion has not been persuaded by arguments about climate change? In this chapter, I will outline some possible answers to this question. With reference to analyses of popular climate change media narratives, empirical data on climate change argument evaluation and the first-hand experiences of climate change communication experts, I will examine the way that people evaluate arguments about climate change.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    That the experiment contrasted the prospect of people in Bangladesh losing their homes with people in the United Kingdom losing their homes does not indicate that the housing security of British citizens is of greater value than that of Bangladeshi citizens. Rather, it was an attempt to render the negative outcome not only more negative (in the sense that 10,000, rather than 1,000 people’s homes were at risk and in 5, rather than 50 years time), but also more relevant (based on the assumption that a typical 16–18-year-old British citizen has more empathy with the security of houses in their own country within the next 5 years than the security of houses in a foreign country within the next 50 years). Bangladesh was selected as a comparison country simply because as a geographically low-lying nation, it faces very real threats from rising sea levels attributable to human-caused climate change.

  2. 2.

    An additional difference between changing light bulbs and refraining from using aeroplanes (other than the magnitude of the sacrifice) is that they may impact on the prevention of the outcome in different ways. If people were to stop using aeroplanes, this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than swapping over to energy efficient light bulbs. This difference in the efficacy of the sacrifice is not present in the non-scientific argument – walking 2 minutes to the shop is no less effective as a method of buying batteries than walking 3 miles; it is simply more of a sacrifice. However, there are two indications that this potentially confounding effect does not seem to have influenced the outcome of the experiment. Firstly, if participants in the experiment were paying attention to this difference in efficacy, the arguments containing big sacrifices should have been rated as more compelling than the arguments containing small sacrifices. However, this was not the case. Secondly, no differences were observed in the impact of the level of sacrifice variable between the scientific and non-scientific arguments. It would seem, therefore, that participants treated the arguments as representing greater and lesser sacrifices, rather than more or less effective methods of avoiding the negative outcome.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Ulrike Hahn, who co-designed the experiment reported in this chapter, and Lorraine Whitmarsh and Rob Evans for helpful comments on earlier versions of this chapter.

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Correspondence to Adam Corner .

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Corner, A. (2012). Evaluating Arguments About Climate Change. In: Khine, M. (eds) Perspectives on Scientific Argumentation. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-2470-9_10

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