The Information Context and the Formation of Public Response on Environmental
Environmental problems are global and manifest themselves in all countries of the world. However, until now, many people do not understand the severity of climate change and planet pollution. Some of them did not face an environmental problem and therefore, do not believe in their existence. However, most citizens, who do not understand the consequences of environmental issues, do not have enough information to realize the significance of the problems. This ignorance prevents them from associating unusual phenomena for their area with global environmental problems. However, although the lack of information is one of the significant challenges for citizens to understand and recall environmental issues, the spread of false news and the extremely high information flow have even more significant adverse effects.
The information-deficit model is one of the most often used approaches for understanding public response to environmental issues. This model explains that knowledge gaps between scientists and ordinary citizens prevent them from believing and perceiving information and increase their skepticism (Suldovsky, 2017). In an exaggerated form, this gap can be compared with a situation in which a modern person explains to a peasant from the Middle Ages about the possibilities of the Internet or traveling by car. The same phenomenon also prevents society from understanding environmental problems.
The lack of knowledge about the interaction of natural factors and the influence of humans on them, as well as the inverse effect of nature on the health of society interfere with the building of logical connection. If a person does not know about the emission of CO2 due to meat production, he or she cannot understand the link between his or her love for KFC and the melting of glaciers. This example is also slightly exaggerated, but it describes the basic principles of the model. A more specific example is statistics from a study by Shin et al. (2019), in which 40% of Americans do not associate the environmental problem with health risks. Thus, this model is straightforward for understanding the formation of public perception of environmental issues.
At the same time, this situation with the gap between scientists and ordinary citizens is quite easily fixable, which one can note even nowadays. The primary method of forming an adequate and realistic representation and awareness of the seriousness of environmental problems, which the , is the communication of scientists with society. The ways of such communication can be the adaptation of curricula in schools and colleges, television and radio shows, or , the publication of books, brochures, and other media materials (Suldovsky, 2017). For example, the dissemination of information about natural disasters, especially participatory information dissemination methods, significantly increased the level of preparation for them (., 2020). An effective way is also the practical or sensory perception of problems; for example, walking in the forest or seeing trash in the oceans (Eden and Geoghegan, 2017). Thus, the population will gradually gain enough knowledge to understand the warnings, forecasts, and suggestions of scientists, although at the same time they will not become experts in this field.
However, the simplicity and straightforwardness of the information-deficit model for understanding public response to environmental issues are reasons for its criticism. First, many scientists criticize the model because it does not take into account other factors that influence peoples opinions in addition to a lack of knowledge, such as political views or social influences. For example, McDivitt (2016, p.11) gives an example of a situation in which farmers continued to use soil and water in England after the Chernobyl accident in 1987, despite the warnings of scientists. Farmers feared that this change would affect their social position and lifestyle. This factor does not relate to the ignorance of farmers but to their skepticism and desire to protect their way of living.
Another example is the adoption of a position on climate change and the technology to address it, depending on the preferences of a political force or a particular politician. In addition, Simis et al. (2016, p. 409) note that the popularity of such a model in the scientific and political society remains high since it allows one to embrace and influence political decisions. For example, some bills may be adopted because the opinion of an ignorant population is less valued than scientists. On the other hand, the information deficit also explains that the level of knowledge determines the level of environmental support and the principles that govern political power (Ehret, Spark, and Sherman, 2016). Therefore, this criticism is quite ambiguous.
The next reason for criticism is that this model perceives ordinary people as ignorant and that knowledge can correct the situation. However, in the first case, Middlemiss (2018, p. 64) notes that her experience and education on environmental issues are high; however, her CO2 emissions remain above normal. Turnhout (2019, p. 93) also says that raising knowledge does not necessarily directly and completely solve the contradictions that exist in society since the fact that ignorance is their cause is ambiguous. Another point for criticism is that this model implies one-way communication from scientists, which may not be an effective method. Critics characterize this type of communication as a top-down approach, which emphasizes its hierarchy and the attitude of scientists towards people as ignorant (McDivitt, 2016, p. 11). Consequently, the model has many aspects of criticism, if one takes it as the main for understanding the response of society to environmental issues. However, in a system with other approaches, this model can have higher efficiency.
Nevertheless, the more dangerous challenge of the modern world is not the lack of knowledge but the dissemination of false information. Today, one can find many articles on various topics on the Internet as each expert can publish his or her work on social media. At the same time, as NASAs climatologist notes, the modern disinformation approach is to disseminate many confusing details so that people simply do not understand what source they can believe (FRANCE 24 English, 2019). However, even though modern society has enough such experts, there are still quite a few real professionals who can provide relevant information. For this reason, even reputable sources often make untrue statements (FRANCE 24 English, 2019). Consequently, such a challenge as fake news about environmental issues increases the level of public skepticism and prevents the solution of global problems.
Another problem of modern society is that information is often used as a weapon. For example, Weir and Denisov (2019, para. 3-4) demonstrate an example from the history of the war in Yugoslavia, in which environmental information was used to destroy important industrial structures in the country. In other words, information about the ecological situation or problems can be used for political purposes, which often creates the conditions for its distortion and manipulation. At the same time, a high level of data creation and dissemination impedes the understanding of knowledge reliability. In other words, although people gain new knowledge and form their view on environmental issues based on them, people cannot sort out the truth and lie, so they choose a more suitable option for them. However, Camper (2019) demonstrates that the solution to this challenge is, above all, the dissemination of fundamental principles for the critical evaluation of news. Hence, the most crucial knowledge in the modern information age is a critical assessment of information sources and their quality. In turn, this approach helps to obtain adequate data and reduce skepticism regarding environmental issues.