Elke Weber

“Giving the Future a Chance: A Different Look at Climate Change” is the Thursday, November 19, 10 a.m. Zoom talk presented by the 55PLUS group of Princeton.

The featured speaker is Elke U. Weber, a Princeton University professor with expertise in energy, psychology, and public affairs.

In a statement on her presentation dealing with a pressing national issue, Weber says, “We humans are creatures of bounded rationality and finite processing capacity, and it is understandable that we thus focus attention first on the here and now. And yet, many individual and social issues (from sufficient pension savings, to healthy eating, to sustainable living on our planet) require increased attention to the future costs and benefits of possible courses of action. Climate change is the most recent and arguably the most urgent and difficult challenge for individual and collective decision making. To make wise decisions we need to fully and justly weigh the immediate and certain costs and benefits of action (be it business-as-usual or greenhouse gas mitigation efforts) against their delayed, risky, and often disputed costs and benefits.”

A noted expert dealing with perception and science, Weber shared some observations on how people — with a special attention to Americans — approach thinking about climate change — as demonstrated in the following excerpt from her study “What Shapes Perceptions of Climate Change?” published in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change:

Despite its environmental, social, and economic importance, climate change is a phenomenon that is not easily and accurately identified by the lay public, using their normal tools of observation and inference.

Climate is a statistical phenomenon, a term that describes average weather conditions or their typical range for a region. Climate change in the meteorological sense refers to systematic (yet usually gradual) changes in average conditions, i.e., to reliable trends embedded in the random fluctuations of conditions that can be expected for both stable and changing climates. Observations are spaced in time, and memory of past events can be faulty.

As a result, climate change is not easily detected by personal experience, even though it appears to be open to personal observation and evaluation, as most people consider themselves to be experts on the weather and do not differentiate very strictly between climate (the statistical expectation) and weather (what we get).

The climate of a region (and changes in its climate) obviously determines weather. People often falsely attribute unique events to climate change and also fail to detect changes in climate.

Expectations of change (or stability) play a large role in people’s ability to detect trends in probabilistic environments . . . In (one) example, farmers in Illinois were asked to recall salient temperature or precipitation statistics during the growing season of seven preceding years. Those farmers who believed that their region was undergoing climate change recalled temperature and precipitation trends consistent with this expectation, whereas those farmers who believed in a constant climate, recalled temperatures and precipitations consistent with that belief. Both groups showed about equal amounts of error in their memory for salient weather events, but the direction of the errors was biased to be in line with farmers’ beliefs and expectations.

Recently, behavioral researchers have shown differences in the way people learn about uncertain phenomena or environments from personal experience versus from being provided with a statistical (typically numeric or graphic) description of possible outcomes and their likelihood. This distinction between learning from experience versus learning from description has received much attention because ostensibly the same information about events and their likelihoods can lead to very different perceptions and actions.

Learning from repeated personal experience with outcomes involves associative and often affective processes, which are fast and automatic. Learning from statistical descriptions, on the other hand, requires analytic processing that needs to be acquired and requires cognitive effort.

When given the choice between attending to information provided in the form of statistical summaries or to information provided by personal experience, personal experience is far more likely to capture a person’s attention, and its impact dominates the often far more reliable and diagnostic statistical information.

Because climate change is so hard to detect and judge accurately based on personal experience, one might argue that its detection should be left to experts, namely climate scientists, and to their social amplifiers, the media and educators.

Such delegation makes climate change a phenomenon for whose existence and likely magnitude and time course people have to rely on their beliefs in scientific observation and modeling, in expert judgments, and/or on reports about all of these in the mass media.

Indeed, most people’s knowledge and exposure to climate change has been almost entirely indirect and virtual, mediated by news coverage and film documentaries of events in distant regions (such as melting ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica) that ascribe these events to climate change, events and arguments for which people’s personal experience does not provide concurring evidence. Reliance on external sources of evidence and expertise to form beliefs about climate change raises two important issues, attention and trust.

Attention is a very scarce cognitive resource. Unlike money or other material resources, which can be saved or borrowed, the amount of attention available to anyone to process the vast amount of information potentially available on innumerable topics is small and very finite.

Statistical evidence provided by scientists and anecdotal accounts of climate change provided by the media only become information that influences subsequent perceptions and behaviors when the general public attends to them. Everyday life provides plenty of competing targets for attention, such as economic survival or family problems. Climate change typically ranks low to last among the concerns that Americans are questioned about.

People’s fundamental values and worldviews influence which phenomena and risks they attend to and which they ignore or deny.

(Two investigating researchers) identify five distinct ‘cultures’ or distinct interpretive communities (labeled hierarchical, individualist, egalitarian, fatalist, and hermitic, respectively) that differ in their endorsed patterns of interpersonal relationships in ways that affect perceptions of risk.

Perceptions about the existence of climate change, its causes, and likely consequences are socially constructed within these communities that are predisposed to attend to, fear, and socially amplify some risks while ignoring, discounting, or attenuating others.

A second important issue related to learning about climate change from external sources is that of trust. People pay attention to information about climate phenomena and incorporate it into their decisions and actions, if it comes from a trusted source.

The importance of trust for the use of climate information has been well documented in the context of climate variability, where seasonal to interannual climate forecasts are often provided by multiple (commercial as well as non-commercial) sources, and are only used when provided by trusted intermediaries. Different user groups put their trust into different organizations, from national meteorological services to independent farm organizations.

Both learning from personal experience and vicarious learning from statistical description contribute to people’s perceptions of climate change.

A better understanding of the mechanisms and challenges in both types of learning helps explain both the generally low level of concern about the phenomenon, as well as cultural and other group variations in perceptions and concerns.

Differences in climate change perceptions have been documented between climate scientists (and other scientists) and the general public. A Pew Research Center poll, e.g., found that while 84 percent of scientists said the earth is getting warmer because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels, just 49 percent of the general public agreed. These differences can be attributed to both learning mechanism.

Climate scientists often have personal experience with climate change in connection with their research activities that take them to regions of the world where climate change is apparent. In addition, by virtue of their education and training, climate scientists and other scientists, more generally, can also be expected to rely more on their analytical processing system than members of the general population, and put greater trust and weight on extrapolations from statistical evidence and model outputs, that will thus make them more likely to consider global climate change to be a more serious risk than typical nonscientists.

For others, including the general public and politicians, variation in climate change perception seems to be associated with political beliefs and other deeply held values in ways that go beyond simple personal and strategic concerns. These cultural values and allegiances influence information processing and causal attribution processes by guiding attention to messages and shaping trust in the messengers.

Analogies from failures to fully understand and take action in other domains provide hypotheses about cognitive and motivational challenges that need to be overcome. Tests of these hypotheses applied to climate change are starting to emerge, though much work remains to be done to illuminate the special questions and challenges related to cognitive and emotional shortcomings that the proper understanding of the anthropogenic causes of climate change and their action implications bring.

The 55PLUS meets twice a month to provide a venue for interested persons to interact socially, attend lectures on interesting topics, and become involved in a variety of community activities.

Open to all genders, ages, races, and religious affiliation, the group normally based at the Jewish Center of Princeton — but now meeting only online — has no officers, no board, no dues, and no formal membership. A $3 donation per session is requested.

While Weber’s session is on Zoom, organizers say their license limits the number of viewers. For information on how to join the organization or information on the program, go to princetonol.com/groups/55plus.


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