“The French remain in doubt about climate change”

With the “Fake and Reasons” series of interviews, 20 minutes sheds light on issues surrounding conspiracy, fact-checking, and democracy. 20 minutes gives the floor to researchers, associations, experts or other members of civil society to open the debate.

Although 2022 was the hottest year recorded by Météo-France in mainland France, we spoke to Laurent Cordonier, PhD in Social Sciences and Associate Researcher at Sorbonne University. With the Descartes Foundation, where he is research director, he recently published a study on climate information and engagement, focusing on perception, information and misinformation about climate change.

Laurent Cordonier, research director of the Descartes Foundation. The latter was established in 2019 and focuses on issues related to information and disinformation. – Antoine Beyeler

2022 was the hottest year ever recorded in the French capital Meteo France. Do the French still doubt climate change?

That’s a good question, especially since we took the survey in the middle of a summer heat wave and it was also a dry spell, with a lot of media coverage. It appears that pure and hard climate skepticism is relatively low. It’s numbers roughly speaking what other studies have found: we have at most 7% of people who think climate change doesn’t exist. Climate skepticism is more prominent in other countries, such as the United States.

But the French have some sort of skepticism about climate change. to the question: “Are we experiencing global climate change?” “, 41% of the population probably answered yes. 47% say absolutely yes. But this “probably” is interesting because for scientists there is no doubt. Some French people are less ambitious than scientists.

Similarly to the origins of climate change, another big ally of climate skepticism, one-third of the French answer that climate change is caused by human activities as much as by natural phenomena. It is also in stark disagreement with climate scientists who hold that all climate change is anthropogenic.

Why do these doubts persist?

On the one hand, there might be a bit of a voting effect, it’s quite common that people don’t like to overreact. But I think that there is a tradition of climate skepticism in France that speaks for itself in the big media and takes this argument about the naturalness of climate change much further. Claude Alègre, who had a good public image, did a lot to convey this message.

Today, this argument of a natural phenomenon continues to be exposed regularly, sometimes in harmless forms, on social networks. For example, during the heat wave we saw a lot of posts from people concerned about the extreme temperatures and below, while others replied “yes, it’s a hot summer” to return what we’re experiencing to something normal and natural.

These are disinformation arguments that are easy to make because it is a geological reality, that our Earth has sometimes experienced very significant temperature changes throughout its history. But what is not taken into account is the speed of the event we are experiencing. Climate change is occurring at an unprecedented rate, paleoclimatologists tell us. This speed is a signature of human activity.

The 1976 heat wave This summer has also been very reminiscent of the fact that we have already experienced heat waves and they are not so serious.

Absolutely. This is something we see very often: we will find older extremes. The argumentative strategy of climate skeptics consists of finding extreme events in the past, while forgetting the increase in the frequency of these extreme episodes, as the IPCC clearly points out.

What are the profiles of climatoseptics?

They are older people, politically they are on the right or extreme right of the political spectrum. In addition, climate ignorance is more noticeable among people who regularly receive information about climate through social networks.

In our study, we conducted a climate knowledge quiz on very factual questions and found that people who said they learned about a topic on social media did, all other things being equal (age, gender, socio-professional category, etc.). ), lower scores than others. Conversely, those who claim to receive information regularly through mainstream media are the best.

Is this a surprising result?

Yes, I did not expect to see such a negative effect: the use of social networks gives wrong information, lowers skills in these matters. I did not expect this for two reasons, firstly, I did not oppose the information channels in the survey: a person could declare that he regularly receives information about the climate on social networks, and at the same time, the general media.

The second reason is that on social networks you can also find a lot of good information about climate, for example, IPCC climate scientist Valerie Masson-Delmott’s Twitter account is popularizing it. I expected this to reduce the potential negative impact, but it didn’t. It’s a matter of statistical probability: if you learn about climate through social media, you’re more likely to encounter poor quality, misleading, or manipulative content. Today, however, you are unlikely to find any outright climatosceptic or anthropomorphic comments in the mainstream media in France.

It’s also new because the mainstream media hasn’t always been good about it. Journalists also felt they were doing their job well by voting for each side. We had such a phenomenon that we still observe in other debates today, that the minority position from a scientific point of view had the same representation as the consensus opinion on the issue in the debates covered by the media. And so there was a biased representation of knowledge in the public as all parties were equally promised. In this regard, the media has progressed and become more competent on climate issues. We can see this from the emergence of journalists specializing in these issues.

Who do the French trust with climate change information? Is media included?

No way. Mainstream sources of information, including the Internet, remain common media, but the French do not trust this source at all. It is a common paradox. Out of the ten groups examined, journalists come last. The first were CNRS scientists, then IPCC scientists.

How does information or misinformation about climate change affect the behavior of the French?

Being regularly informed about the climate, regardless of the channel, increases the willingness to act on the climate and the willingness to take mandatory measures. Why? What is important is not the detailed knowledge, but the interest and sensitivity to the topic that will motivate people to take action.

Other factors are key: the first and the fact of judging that the measures proposed so far are effective in favor of the climate. If we want people to accept restrictive measures, we need to demonstrate their climate effectiveness. If this is not done, they have no chance of being accepted. The influence of this factor is great. The yellow vest movement is ignited by the fuel tax. There was no explanation from the government when this tax was imposed. It is not necessary to communicate, it is necessary to demonstrate and convince that it will be useful for something.

A second factor that emerges very strongly in our research is that restrictive collective measures are rejected if respondents feel that they are too socially unjust, that is, that these measures will affect low incomes as much or more. Another lesson to be learned is the need for compensation mechanisms, as these restrictive measures will increase the prices of CO2 emitting goods and services. At the same time, the population should be informed about the existence of such networks and how they will work.

These two conditions are absolute sine qua non and it is inevitable that, if this is not done, no action will be taken.

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