Advent of geoengineering may help lower temperature of debate over climate change

February 10, 2015

Geoengineering, an emerging technology aimed at counteracting the effects of human-caused climate change, also has the potential to counteract political polarization over global warming, according to a new study.

Published Feb. 9 in the journal Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the study found that participants—members of large, nationally representative samples in both the United States and England—displayed more open-mindedness toward evidence of climate change, and more agreement on the significance of such evidence, after learning of geoengineering.

"The result casts doubt on the claim that the advent of geoengineering could lull the public into complacency," said Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School and a member of the research team that conducted the study.

"We found exactly the opposite: Members of the public who learned about geoengineering were more concerned and less polarized about global warming than those who were told of the need to reduce as a way to reduce climate change," he said.

As defined by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), "geoengineering" refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of Earth's environment in order to offset some of the harmful consequences of human-caused climate change. Potential examples include solar reflectors that would cool global temperatures by reflecting more sunlight away from the Earth and so-called "carbon scrubbers," which would remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Both the NAS and the Royal Society, the preeminent association of expert scientists in the United Kingdom, have issued reports calling for stepped-up research on geoengineering, which also was identified as a necessary measure for counteracting the impact of global warming in the latest assessment report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In the study, researchers divided the 3,000 participants into groups, providing some with information on geoengineering and others with information on proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions. They instructed the participants to read and evaluate actual study findings offering evidence human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, was heating the Earth's temperature and creating serious environmental risks including coastal flooding and drought.

"The participants who learned about geoengineering were less polarized about the validity of the evidence than were the ones who got information on carbon-emission limits," said Kahan.

"In fact, the participants who read about carbon-emission limits were even more polarized than subjects in a control group, who read the information on the evidence of global warming without first learning about any potential policy responses," he said.

This result was consistent with previous research on a dynamic known as "cultural cognition," which describes the tendency of individuals to react dismissively to evidence of when that evidence threatens their values or group identities.

"The information on geoengineering," said Kahan, "helped to offset bias by revealing to those study participants with a pro-technology outlook that acknowledging evidence of does not necessarily imply the 'end of free markets' or the 'death of capitalism,' a theme that some policy advocates emphasize."

Kahan added that the significance of the research extended beyond the issue of whether the advent of would stifle or promote public engagement with climate science.

"What's important is that people assess information about science based not only on its content but on its cultural meaning or significance," explained Kahan. "The study supports the conclusion that science communicators need to broadcast engaging signals along both the 'content' and 'meaning' channels if they want their message to get through."

Explore further: A multi-model geoengineering assessment looks at potential climate effects

More information: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, DOI: 10.1177/0002716214559002 , http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1981907

Related Stories

Survey finds public support for geoengineering research

October 24, 2011

Research on geoengineering appears to have broad public support, as a new, internationally-representative survey revealed that 72 per cent of respondents approved research into the climate-manipulating technique.

Geoengineering our climate is not a 'quick fix'

November 26, 2014

The deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system is not a "quick fix" for global warming, according to the findings of the UK's first publicly funded studies on geoengineering.

Recommended for you

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
5 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2015
Let's be careful with this geo-engineering, eh?

Since AGW is a fraud, we wouldn't want to change anything would we? Especially since we won't know the outcome of our meddling until it is too late to put the genie back into the bottle.

"the polar bears will be fine" - Freeman Dyson.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.