John Cook has worked to dispel myths about climate change for nearly a decade.
Early on, he learned that battle is best won by making climate science accessible to all, including non-scientists. Cook launched the popular Skeptical Science website in 2007, which debunks arguments spun by those questioning the validity of climate change and its root in human activity.
He was the lead author of a 2013 analysis that found 97 percent of all scientific papers expressing an opinion about climate change concluded it was human-caused. He has co-authored three books on the subject, including “Climate Change: Examining the Facts,” which he wrote with Weber State University professor Daniel Bedford.
Last year, he completed a doctorate degree in psychology with a focus on misinformation and how to thwart its effects.
Cook will host a workshop on misinformation at Weber State during the Intermountain Sustainability Summit on Thursday, March 16, and Friday, March 17. The summit is open to the public and has registration discounts for students. Cook and his co-author, Dan Bedford, will also speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at St. Joseph Catholic High School. Admission is free and open to the public.
Ahead of the event, Cook spoke with the Standard-Examiner about climate change confusion, the current political climate and how to counter alternative facts. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Do you worry with your books and website that you’re preaching to the choir — those who are already convinced climate change is real?
I guess there are two main audiences for my work. One is the “choir.” But it’s not preaching to choir; it’s more preparing and arming them with information they need to go out and talk about climate change to an audience I can’t reach myself.
The second is the undecided majority — people who are open to information, and when we talk about facts and data on climate change, that they’re wiling to entertain it.
Why have climate change deniers been so difficult to convince, given the overwhelming evidence showing global warming is real and human caused?
The problem is people whose beliefs are based on fact and evidence can be persuaded with facts and evidence. In climate denial, one of the biggest drivers is political affiliation — it’s who you vote for that matters more than even your science literacy. That means that people whose are more politically conservative are more likely to be dismissive. When you tell them the facts, they tend to not be persuaded.
How did climate science become political?
It didn’t used to be. George H.W. Bush said he was going to fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect in the 1980s. In the 1990s, conservative think tanks started turning into a political thing, producing misinformation.
Gradually, over the last few decades, that’s been successful. It’s become more and more politicized over time. People use groups they belong to to guide beliefs in climate change.
Here’s some misinformation that should maybe be clarified — there’s a statistic floating around out there that ‘97 percent of scientists agree’ on climate change. But your research has actually found it depends on the scientist’s area of expertise, right?
I think overall, the average consensus is about 70 percent of scientists agree on climate change, but that figure is even lower among economic geologists (47 percent) and people working in the petroleum industry.
But amongst scientists with the highest expertise in climate change, that’s where you get the 97 percent consensus. That’s important because attempts to cast doubt on the 97 percent consensus usually quote people who don’t have relevant expertise in climate science.
Are you frustrated that the public misinformation problem seems to be getting worse, not better?
It was getting better until November last year. There was a gradual improvement in public perception about climate change. Voices casting doubt on the science were becoming more marginalized.
But we’ve had a huge seismic shift. The people who have been denying science and generating misinformation are now gaining positions of genuine power in the White House and politically in general. It’s now a serious situation.
How much of a role does confirmation bias play — that people seek out information that agrees with their existing beliefs — in climate change denial?
It plays a huge rule. It’s really the main mechanism. When people receive information they find threatening to their ideology or social group, they fight against it. They think of ways to argue against it. On the other hand, when they encounter information that affirms their worldview, they welcome it.
Put those two together, and it’s so difficult to change the minds of those politically opposed to climate change.
What’s the best way for someone to engage in a productive conversation about climate change with someone who dismisses the facts?
You need to communicate the science in way that doesn’t threaten their ideology. You need to listen to people, find out where they’re coming from and find common ground — find ways to discuss issues related to each other. It could be talking about the local impacts of climate change or local issues like clean water and clean air. These are issues everyone can agree on.
These common issues can be a way to move on to a broader discussion. It’s tricky, though.
How can the media help dispel misinformation?
I think one of the most important things media can do is not present issues of scientific fact in a false-balance way. Traditionally, the media gives both ideas of a debate equal voice. In issues of politics and opinion that’s appropriate.
But with issues of scientific consensus, presenting “both sides” in that way actually is misinformation. The public think there’s a 50-50 debate on basic things, like whether humans are causing global warming.
Has the media done better is this regard?
Yeah, they’re definitely getting better at it. Studies have found over time, there’s been an improvement and false balance has dropped. Media coverage is better with coverage of scientific consensus. But it depends on which media. Print news has gotten a lot better, TV, not so much. And then you have the bigger issue of a saturated media landscape with cable channels expressing only one point of view, heavily slanted toward providing misinformation about climate change.
How can journalists gain the public’s trust that they’re reporting the truth about climate change, given recent anti-media sentiments?
Yeah, that’s a really tough thing. The media is crucially important to democracy. Current attempts to delegitimize the media are quite concerning. I mean, the media is going through what the climate science community experienced, an attempt to turn public trust against them.
How do you address that? I don’t know. I wish I had the answer.
What we’re looking at is the role of humanizing scientists — being more transparent, being more open and being viewed as more human. We’re sharing with the public how the science they’re researching affects them as people. I think it makes them more relatable and trustworthy. Maybe increased transparency with the media is a way to build trust.
A 2014 study found that Christians, particularly white Christians, are less concerned with climate change than the nation’s general population. You’re an Evangelical Christian yourself. Why do you think people of faith are less likely to be concerned?
I think there’s a couple of reasons. One is the big overlap between religious belief and political conservatism. Another reason, and this is more anecdotal based on people at my church I’ve spoken to, is I think there’s a distrust of scientists in general. They see science as threatening to their faith.
I think there’s also an element of the belief that god’s in control. They’re not really thinking humans could come in and disrupt the whole planet. The notion of climate change, it’s like we’re encroaching on god’s territory.
Are you hopeful about climate change comprehension and the future of the planet?
I’m less hopeful, to be honest, than I was late last year. There’s a lot I’m hearing that’s concerning about climate change, about the rolling back of progress we’ve made on climate action.
But I guess I’m also more determined than ever to continue communicating about climate change and communicating how to communicate about climate change to empower other people to talk about it in an effective way.