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Blanket metaphor helps convince people climate change isn't natural, finds study

Researchers found basic information about the human causes of climate change can convince people people across the political spectrum.
coal fired UK plant
Emissions from a coal plant blocks out the sunrise.

No matter what your political leanings, a metaphor can be a powerful tool to help people understand a changing planet. 

In a recent study published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning, researchers measured the power of explaining the science of climate change.

Scientists have known for more than a century that the human habit of burning fossil fuels and changing the way land is used have drastically increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Those greenhouse gases, in turn, have acted like a blanket, vaulting the world on slow march toward higher temperatures and increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather. 

Yet as of 2022, more than 40 per cent of Americans — as well as a small but significant proportion of people from other countries across the world — don’t understand that human activities are driving all the observed spike in global temperatures over the past 100 years. 

Enter the power of persuasion. In a study drawing on U.S. participants from across the political spectrum, individuals were presented with the following blanket metaphor: 

“Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat and warms the Earth, like a blanket traps heat and warms your body. 

“Since the mid-1800s, humans have been burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) to make electricity, heat and cool buildings, and fuel our transportation systems. 

“Burning fossil fuels has released billions of tons of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere, making that blanket thicker and trapping more heat, leading to global warming." 

Some of the participants in the study were also offered an explanation about how scientists know climate change is not naturally caused; others were given more information about the impacts of climate change. 

A third group was given the metaphor and information about climate change solutions, while a fourth was exposed to the metaphor, the impacts of climate change and its solutions. 

In all four cases, 70 per cent of the participants said global warming was due to human activities. 

In a control group presented with an unrelated statement about artificial intelligence, only 65 per cent of participants said global warming was caused by humans. 

“Importantly,” concluded the study, “the treatment effects are consistent across political party, with no backlash effects among Republicans.”

“This suggests that when informed about climate change causes, impacts and solutions, most Americans can update their own climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, and policy support.”

The study said more research is required to understand which is more effective — the blanket metaphor or explaining the physics of global warming.

It’s also not clear how such explanations would convince people outside of the United States. 

What is clear: “providing basic information about the human causes of global warming improves public understanding of the problem.”