I can’t be­lieve it

The psy­chol­ogy of cli­mate change.

Element - - Contents - By Andy Ken­wor­thy

De­spite a wealth of ev­i­dence backed by the world’s top sci­en­tists, a star­tling num­ber of peo­ple still refuse to be­lieve that hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties are de-sta­bil­is­ing the world’s cli­mate. The ques­tion is, why?

An in­ter­na­tional re­search pa­per sur­vey­ing over 1300 cli­mate sci­en­tists found a con­sen­sus of 97.5% that cli­mate change was a). hap­pen­ing, and b). caused by hu­mans. Mean­while, a study con­ducted by Dr Chris Si­b­ley of the Univer­sity of Auck­land found that 74% of New Zealan­ders thought cli­mate change was real, but only 62% thought it was hu­man in­duced. De­spite a ver­i­ta­ble and con­stant cas­cade of peer-re­viewed and au­thor­i­ta­tive re­search all say­ing the same thing about an­thro­pogenic (caused by hu­man ac­tiv­ity) cli­mate change, the num­bers of peo­ple in Aus­tralia and the US who don’t be­lieve is ac­tu­ally on the in­crease. What gives? Is the prob­lem sim­ply too big? Too hard to ac­cept? Or is it just that deny­ing the prob­lem pro­vides an ex­cuse not to act on it? As the old say­ing goes, it seems it might all be in the mind. A 2010 Re­port by the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion’s Task Force on the In­ter­face Be­tween Psy­chol­ogy and Global Cli­mate Change gives a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the pos­si­ble psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­ri­ers to ac­tion on cli­mate change. It’s en­light­en­ing to work through those that re­late specif­i­cally to our abil­ity to ac­cept the prob­lem ex­ists.

Bar­rier 1: Ig­no­rance

Peo­ple can sim­ply be wrong: they may lack the cor­rect in­for­ma­tion or fail to un­der­stand it. This may be true of some, and would hardly be sur­pris­ing given that cli­mate change can be a com­plex sub­ject and there is a huge amount of duff in­for­ma­tion out there. But it would seem hard to ar­gue that prom­i­nent cli­mate scep­tic Dr Chris de Fre­itas, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of the school of the en­vi­ron­ment at the Univer­sity of Auck­land, for ex­am­ple, doesn’t un­der­stand at least the ba­sics of what he is talk­ing about. And a re­cent study con­ducted by the jour­nal Na­ture Cli­mate Change found that peo­ple with greater sci­ence lit­er­acy and tech­ni­cal rea­son­ing ca­pac­ity were not the most con­cerned about cli­mate change. In fact, it was in the more highly ed­u­cated group that con­tention was more likely, sug­gest­ing that de­nial can’t all be about ig­no­rance.

Bar­rier 2: Un­cer­tainty

At­tempt­ing to fore­cast the ef­fects of cli­mate change is an un­avoid­ably com­plex and un­cer­tain busi­ness. That’s why cli­mate mod­els and as­sess­ments of­ten in­clude phrases like “with a 90% de­gree of cer­tainty”. This leaves ‘wig­gle room’ for those who choose to be se­lec­tive with the ev­i­dence, dis­be­lieve it or ig­nore it, or fo­cus only on dis­crep­an­cies and dis­agree­ments be­tween one study and an­other. It should be noted that un­cer­tainty is also a core prin­ci­ple of sci­ence. The­o­ries are de­vel­oped to ex­plain the world around us as best they can, and tested to de­crease the mar­gin of er­ror. From there we choose to ac­cept them and work with them, or not. The the­o­ries are then re­placed if bet­ter ones are de­vel­oped, demon­strated, tested, and be­come ac­cepted.

Bar­rier 3: Mis­trust

It is one of the eas­i­est things in the world to dis­miss in­for­ma­tion we don’t like when it is pro­vided by some­one we dis­trust. Some cli­mate de­nial rhetoric is marked by a mis­trust of sci­en­tists or govern­ment of­fi­cials: claims that it is a ‘scam’ or a de­lib­er­ate fabri­ca­tion. But such wide­spread sci­en­tific sup­port and cross party po­lit­i­cal sup­port would seem ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to man­u­fac­ture and main­tain, given that both are com­pet­i­tive ac­tiv­i­ties where there are real ben­e­fits in ably dis­agree­ing with oth­ers.

Bar­rier 4: De­nial

There is of­ten a gap be­tween what peo­ple like to think they will do, what they say they will do, and what they ac­tu­ally do. Sim­i­larly, sup­port

for cli­mate change ac­tion has also been char­ac­terised as “a mile wide, but an inch deep”, and a re­cent sur­vey found that 75%-80% of US re­spon­dents said cli­mate change is an im­por­tant is­sue, yet placed it 20th out of 20 when com­pared to other is­sues. So­cial psy­chol­o­gists ar­gue that de­nial is of­ten a re­sponse to what is called ‘cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance’. The term was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, and is based on the ob­ser­va­tion that hu­mans have a ten­dency to keep their ac­tions and be­liefs rea­son­ably con­sis­tent. Once a per­son be­comes aware that their ac­tions have strayed from their ba­sic be­liefs they can ei­ther re­duce the im­por­tance of the be­lief, ac­quire new be­liefs that match their new be­hav­iour, re­move the old be­liefs or cease the be­hav­iour that is caus­ing the con­flict. Re­search has shown that it is far eas­ier and usual for some­one to change their be­lief to match their be­hav­iour, rather than change their be­hav­iour. This seems par­tic­u­larly true when it comes to cli­mate change, where the be­hav­iour that needs to change is so ex­ten­sive, and fun­da­men­tal to the way we have be­come ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing. It would also ex­plain cli­mate de­nial’s per­sis­tence, es­pe­cially in the well ed­u­cated. As this ev­i­dence con­tin­ues to mount up, peo­ple who fun­da­men­tally see them­selves as in­tel­li­gent and well in­formed while

It is far eas­ier for some­one to change their be­lief to match their be­hav­iour, than change their be­hav­iour.

con­tin­u­ing to deny that cli­mate change is a prob­lem may ex­pe­ri­ence in­creas­ing cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. The ef­fect might be seen in the way some of those who deny cli­mate change is an is­sue seem to shift seam­lessly from one ar­gu­ment to an­other: from “the planet isn’t get­ting warmer” to “the planet is get­ting warmer, but we aren’t caus­ing it” when chal­lenged. Of course, this is likely to get worse the longer it goes on, as the gap be­tween re­al­ity and be­lief con­tin­ues to grow and chang­ing tack be­comes more em­bar­rass­ing. And, as we have seen, this kind of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance may play a role in cre­at­ing cli­mate de­nial in the first place. It may sim­ply be psy­cho­log­i­cally eas­ier to deny cli­mate change is a se­ri­ous is­sue than it is to ac­cept that it is while do­ing noth­ing about it. The afore­men­tioned Dr Si­b­ley of The Univer­sity of Auck­land says: “Peo­ple can be re­sis­tant to agree­ing with mes­sages that have scary im­pli­ca­tions, and be­liev­ing that cli­mate change might be caused by us, rather than just a nat­u­ral cycli­cal phe­nom­ena, can be quite a threat­en­ing mes­sage to get across. And we don’t like to be­lieve things that con­flict with what’s easy to be­lieve or what we want to be­lieve to be true.” It is this kind of think­ing that prompted Dr Ja­son Clay, se­nior vice pres­i­dent for mar­ket trans­for­ma­tion at WWF-US to quote a Su­danese farmer. When asked why rich peo­ple were not do­ing more to help his drought-stricken com­pa­tri­ots, the farmer said: “You can’t wake a per­son who is pre­tend­ing to sleep.”

Bar­rier 5 and 6: Judge­men­tal Dis­count­ing and Place At­tach­ment

Nu­mer­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies have shown that hu­mans have a ten­dency to un­der­value fu­ture or dis­tant risks, es­pe­cially when com­pared to those that are more im­me­di­ate. Cli­mate change tar­gets and warn­ings tend to be about dates in the fu­ture: 50% cuts in emis­sions by 2050, or 50cm sea level rises by 2090. For most of us they are also about other peo­ple in other places: drown­ing peo­ple in Bangladesh or starv­ing peo­ple in Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. This does not mean peo­ple will nec­es­sar­ily deny that cli­mate change is an is­sue, but they may be­lieve it is not an is­sue for them in their im­me­di­ate fu­ture. Or it may mean that con­cern about cli­mate change is sim­ply crowded out by more im­me­di­ate con­cerns, like a per­son’s health or pay­ing off their mort­gage.

Bar­rier 7: Habit

The study of hu­man ‘be­havioural mo­men­tum’, or habits, goes back to the an­cient Greeks. Where in­for­ma­tion con­flicts with our ha­bit­ual be­liefs or ac­tions we have a high ten­dency to dis­miss the in­for­ma­tion rather than al­ter our habits. This is be­cause, as study by MIT in the US demon­strated, re­peated thoughts or ac­tiv­i­ties ef­fec­tively cre­ate well trod­den paths in the neu­ral path­ways that we think with: neu­ral ‘ruts’ it is hard to break out of and easy to slip back into. A 2011 study from the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy, North­west­ern Univer­sity found that “fram­ing a com­puter task as a ‘Con­sumer Re­ac­tion Study’ led to a stronger au­to­matic bias to­ward val­ues re­flect­ing self-en­hance­ment, com­pared with fram­ing the same task as a ‘Cit­i­zen Re­ac­tion Study’. Con­sumer cues also in­creased com­pet­i­tive­ness and self­ish­ness… cues that are com­mon­place in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety.” In other words, our cul­ture pro­motes self­ish and ma­te­ri­al­ist habits of thought that be­come a bar­rier to un­der­stand­ing shared en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems like cli­mate change. But, in­ter­est­ingly, an­other 2011 study Dr Si­b­ley was in­volved in sug­gests oth­er­wise. In look­ing at how per­son­al­ity traits af­fect de­ci­sion-mak­ing, it found that “a high level of ‘Open­ness to Ex­pe­ri­ence’ is re­lated to an in­creased recog­ni­tion that cli­mate change is most likely real. How­ever, Open­ness is not the strong­est pre­dic­tor of an in­creased will­ing­ness to change be­hav­iour in order to ad­dress such con­cerns. Here, a high level of Hon­esty-Hu­mil­ity seems more im­por­tant.” This leaves us with three very im­por­tant in­sights. Firstly, open-minded peo­ple tend to be­lieve cli­mate change is real. Se­condly, peo­ple who deny cli­mate change is a real is­sue aren’t nec­es­sar­ily nar­cis­sists who do not wish to co-op­er­ate with oth­ers. And fi­nally, and per­haps most im­por­tantly, it is hon­esty, hu­mil­ity and will­ing­ness to co-op­er­ate that is re­quired to tackle this together for the ben­e­fit of all.

Above: The Nasa Time Ma­chine charts the vari­a­tions in tem­per­a­ture. Here it is shown in 1907 and 2007.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.