Breaking Key Barriers to Thinking about Climate Change

It can be overwhelming to read the extensive – my goodness it is! – literature about the psychological barriers that prevent so many people from thinking clearly about climate change. For a variety of reasons, people resist accepting this “wicked” problem as deserving attention and action. In the face of such a thick stack of information about barriers, interested parties must think clearly to avoid either overload or pessimism.

What are the psychological barriers? Here are a few: human beings’ brains do a much better job responding to tangible, immediate threats than to long-term problems; the benefits of reducing carbon emissions seem to be in the distant future with little payoff today; many people trust their peer group(s) more than scientists or political authorities; large numbers of people are not willing or able to analyze complex problems carefully; ideology can and often does trump facts; the reasons go on and on. One article identifies 29 different barriers and classifies them into seven distinct “dragons of inaction.” A recent (2014) book about barriers (Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change) discusses dozens of others.

These psychological barriers are real and substantial. One prominent researcher says, “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis,” and the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is “deeply pessimistic” about humanity’s capability to pay attention and act in time to prevent catastrophe. A third expert notes, “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.”

So what’s a concerned, action-oriented person to think after reading such disturbing news? I believe that the most formidable psychological barrier of all is fatalism, the sense that “nothing can be done,” or its slight variation, “there is nothing that I can do.” That outlook, if widely adopted by individuals and policymakers, is a recipe for disaster. Therefore, appropriate messages of alarm need to be coupled with messages of hope. Humanity can reduce the long-term consequences of climate change with better short- and long-term policies and practices. Humanity can do a better job of mitigating consequences of climate change (such as rising sea levels) that are happening now and will continue in the future, if we enact and pay for appropriate steps. There are useful things that you or I can do.

However, observations about fatalism and hope still beg the question: how can more people be persuaded to take climate change seriously – seriously enough to do something about it? Although there is no single answer to this question, the literature suggests that “trusted communicators” are key to changing minds, and that these trusted communicators are often friends, relatives, neighbors, or respected people in local networks (for example leaders of local religious institutions). Many individuals will respond better to messages about climate change from the people they know and trust than to authority figures, or experts, appearing on TV or in the newspaper.

A group called Mothers Out Front, based in Massachusetts, provides a useful example of how structured small group work with friends and neighbors is able to move people to think about and act positively on the issue of climate change. The group’s principal activity is to hold “house parties” in living rooms, church basements, and community centers where participants learn basic information about the science and urgency of climate change, share personal stories, and empower mothers (and others) to work together in a variety of ways. Hundreds of homes have switched to “green electricity” as a result of these meetings. Concerns about climate change that had often been private can now be confronted, discussed, and worked on with other people.

Two “Global Experiments” about Climate Change

The following is what I posted to Concord Consortium’s blog on September 10, 2014.

In an earlier post on this blog I wrote about the need to increase our knowledge of how people think about climate change and then apply that knowledge to expedite policy changes. Subsequently I discovered that there is an active community of psychologists, experts in communications and other researchers who conduct valuable inquiries in this field.

Some of their findings are sobering, such as data from April 2014 showing that only one in three Americans discusses global warming with family and friends even occasionally. One of the many reasons this is true is that for more than five years, with little variation from year to year, only about one in three Americans have believed people in the U.S. are being harmed “right now” by global warming—despite Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, extreme drought in the West and other once-rare climate events. One does not wish for more droughts, extreme heat waves, superstorms or wildfires; however, those are the kinds of events that may, slowly, change opinions about climate change.

People who realize how threatening climate change is believe that we are conducting a risky “experiment” with the sensitivity of Earth systems to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. For example, we still don’t understand climate “tipping points” well; however, our global experiment is already teaching us about tipping points, like it or not.

Professor Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego—who was Coordinating Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report (2007)—wrote, in his 2006 paper called “Medical metaphors for climate change,”

“What is still not obvious to many is that all of us are now engaged in a second global experiment [emphasis added], this time an educational and geopolitical one. We are going to find out whether humanity is going to take climate science seriously enough to act meaningfully, rather than just procrastinating until nature ultimately proves that our climate predictions were right.”

This educational experiment—where education is broadly defined and includes more than what is taught in schools—could hardly be more important. It will take a concerted effort, over many years, by formal and informal institutions, political leaders and organizations, TV stations, museums, churches and others, to increase knowledge and a sense of urgency among policymakers and the public. The Concord Consortium’s High Adventure Science (HAS) project is one element in this long-term effort.

The Next Generation Science Standards include climate change as an important topic for instruction, which is significant because more people need some understanding of the science behind climate change. But the “educational experiment” the world is conducting requires policymakers and the public to learn far more than science. Better understanding the economics, political, regulatory, governance, diplomatic and technology issues needed to address climate change will be vital, as will an emphasis on ethics and values. It would be interesting to know how, and how often, climate change is a topic of study in other subjects taught in schools, colleges and universities (including social science classes, like Psychology), or whether it is addressed almost exclusively in “hard science” courses.

Psychology and Climate Change

The following is what I posted to Concord Consortium’s blog on May 28, 2014.

The Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, author of more than 50 books, had a rare talent for writing in different styles about a variety of people, from adolescent boys, to lonely old women, to kings and queens living on another planet. She had a brilliant novelist’s intuitive understanding of other people’s minds.

In her slender 1987 non-fiction book, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Lessing wrote about growth in scientists’ understanding of psychology, and the need to apply that knowledge to public affairs. Ever since, more and more high-quality popular books on psychology have been published, including Thinking Fast and SlowThe Righteous MindThe Black Swan, and many others. Yet in the case of climate change, Lessing’s plea that we pay closer attention to psychology has grown more imperative. Humanity cannot address species-threatening climate problems without better understanding the ways we think.

As one significant example, earlier this month the New York Times reported that the West Antarctic ice sheet is not only melting quickly, but, according to two scientific papers, the melting appears to be irreversible. Over time – fortunately, the time scale is likely to be centuries – sea level will probably rise ten feet or more due to the melting of this single ice sheet. Simultaneously, other climate-related changes will also contribute to rising sea levels. Sea level is about to increase three or four feet in this century alone.

This once-in-a-geological-epoch news item about Antarctic melting ought to have caught the attention of people everywhere. Earth’s population will be in for a rougher ride than expected – and climate scientists have been predicting a rough ride for years. Yet the news of irreversible Antarctic ice melting probably passed unnoticed by a majority of Americans.

At almost the same time, a likely contender for the Presidential nomination of a major political party said that he does not believe human activity is causing climate change, a statement that may seem less shocking when one realizes that fewer than half of Americans think human beings are the primary cause of climate change. What strategies – other than waiting for more climate disasters to strike and hoping that politicians will accept facts – will work best to persuade the public and its representatives that action is needed now? Are there perhaps key groups, such as religious leaders, who are not the typical audience for scientists’ press releases, who might accelerate public understanding and acceptance of climate change?

It is easy to call climate change skeptics ignorant, or worse. But name-calling is seldom the best strategy for changing people’s minds and, what is more, modern psychology has demonstrated that virtually everyone’s thinking is badly flawed in certain situations. To take one example, airplane pilots must be taught to trust their instruments instead of their senses when they cannot see the horizon, and yet every year some crash because they did not learn this lesson. To take another example, some scientists’ first reactions in 1980 to scientific papers about the extinction of the dinosaurs by a giant meteor striking earth – calling the authors “arrogant,” “ignorant,” and “all wrong” – demonstrated prejudices rather than open minds.

Developing a better understanding of the science behind climate change is essential. There is also some work under way to develop better communications strategies, and those efforts are laudable. But mankind is not likely to change its behavior rapidly enough to prevent disaster if we do not learn more about how people think about global warming and apply that knowledge to quicken public action.