Should We Tackle Climate Change With Values Above Science?

Melting Ice

By Maura Forrest

October 30, 2014

Off the top of your head, how many climate policies can you name? Chances are, not many.

new study has found that three out of four B.C. residents can’t name a single provincial climate policy in an online survey, and most of the rest can only name the province’s well-publicized carbon tax.

But the authors conclude that “low levels of policy awareness and knowledge” don’t make people less likely to support policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They challenge the assumption that “more public knowledge and support is necessary for climate policy implementation.”

Even after respondents were given information about the effectiveness of the province’s various policies, including increases in energy efficiency and decreases in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels, their level of support for those policies changed very little.

In other words, giving people the facts may not make them care.

study published earlier this year found that public interest in climate change has declined steadily over the last several years, despite extensive media coverage of global warming. And major events related to climate science produce little change in the way the issue is perceived.

“We found that intense media coverage of an event such as 'climategate' was followed by bursts of public interest, but these bursts were short-lived,” said Gregory Goldsmith, one of the study’s authors, in an interviewwith Science 2.0.

The results of this latest research suggest that good climate policy doesn’t need public awareness to do what it’s supposed to do. The province’s clean electricity standard, which requires that 93 per cent of new electricity come from zero-emission sources, will eliminate up to 16 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year by 2020, and hardly anyone knows it exists. B.C.’s controversial carbon tax, in contrast, has been frozen at $30 per tonne since 2012 as part of the Liberal Party’s election promises, even though fuel use has dropped by 16 per cent and taxes have been cut since it was implemented. 

On the other hand, the study’s authors show that pre-existing beliefs are a much stronger predictor of climate policy support than knowledge. And they conclude that, instead of focusing only on information, we need to “integrate pre-held values and beliefs into policy-making.”

But that raises a question: Do we want our climate policy to be based on beliefs over facts? Are the best climate policies the ones that are most effective, or the ones we feel the best about?