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Here’s how the experts get us to re-think the climate issue


In both poor and rich countries, well-educated people are receptive to the knowledge of climate experts. Expert knowledge can make people see climate change as a shared, global problem even though it affects different parts of the world so differently. This is shown in a dissertation by the political scientist Monika Bauhr at Göteborg University in Sweden.

You often hear that climate change is a global problem. At the same time, political and economic differences lead to differences in how much people are affected in different parts of the world; they contribute to it in varying degrees and have varying capacities to take measures to reduce emissions or adapt. And cultural factors make us perceive the climate issue in different ways, according to Monika Bauhr.

In her dissertation Our Common Climate.How Consensual Expert Ideas Shape Global Public Opinion, she shows how information campaigns based on expert knowledge can affect people in a surprisingly similar way in different parts of the world. This information influences people’s knowledge and confidence in institutions that are important in climate work. Moreover it prompts people to support political measures even though they have such radically different responsibility for the problem and even though the climate issue is perceived is such differing ways in different cultural contexts. The findings are based on interviews, questionnaires, and experiments carried out in Sweden and Tanzania.

This shows what an important role is played by major international organizations in global developments regarding the environment. Here Monika Bauhr studied the UN panel on the climate, IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). These organizations are charged with compiling the state of our knowledge about climate changes and making this knowledge usable in political decision-making. Similar organizations exist in many other areas involving environmental policies. Our knowledge of how these organizations influence public opinion is very limited, even though these organizations are major power brokers in the international system. The dissertation makes an important contribution in this regard, according to Monika Bauhr.

The findings also raise questions about how we want to deal with climate issues in the future. Campaigns can apparently get people to want to do something about climate change. But is it reasonable and right for people in different parts of the world to take the same responsibility for the problem, when their capacity to take such measures differs so greatly? For instance, does it make sense that support for energy-conserving measures is increasing among people who hardly use any energy?

Expert information helps make people want to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, but does not necessarily contribute to a fair distribution of measures, according to Monika Bauhr. And even though expert knowledge influences people in a similar way in different parts of the world, the dissertation also explains the differences that do exist. For one thing, it seems that the more personal commitment is required on the part of the public to change their opinion, the greater the differences are between different contexts. For example, information that is explicitly mentioned in informational material affects people’s knowledge in a more similar manner in the two contexts. Knowledge based on “constructing” your own conclusions or deducing on the basis of the information is not necessarily influenced in the direction the experts would suggest, nor in similar ways in different parts of the world. This is of great importance not least considering the limited amount of new information that people are prepared or able to absorb.

These differences illustrate how not only institutions but also people’s life experiences influence public opinion and how it changes. When Tanzanians are exposed to information about the climate issue, their confidence in environmental organizations grows, as does their support for measures both in everyday life and in politics. Swedes, on the other hand, develop greater confidence in authorities and in political measures, whereas they are not much inclined to change their everyday lives.

Title of dissertation: Our Common Climate. How Consensual Expert Ideas Shape Global Public Opinion

Eva Lundgren | alfa
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