I can’t believe it
The psychology of climate change.
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.