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.


4 thoughts on “Psychology and Climate Change

  1. But is this only an issue of strategy of communication? Would that it were so. While I think your suggestion re religious leaders is well worth pursuing I also fear that there is a strong fundamentalist streak that ascribes all misfortunes to God’s judgements. Plus (or maybe it’s the other side of the same anti-rationalist coin) a terrific cynicism re all “experts” including scientists. As if a way of asserting ones freedom is to refuse to defer to any evidence but one’s desires plus immediate sensory input .


  2. Gary, thanks for submitting the first comment. I agree with you: people find many reasons for rejecting climate change, including cynicism about experts (see later posts on this blog). But even conservative Christians are not a monolithic group (see Young Evangelicals for Climate Action on the web as an example) and politics can — sometimes needs to — create strange bedfellows.


    1. So well written, Andy. I was shocked by the statement that, “fewer than half of Americans think human beings are the primary cause of climate change.” Good grief. I’d be very interested to see an analysis of who those deniers are demographically. Do you know? And do you know who did the study or poll?

      Why are people deniers? Many reasons, of course. I think many people are so wrapped up in the present, or rather ‘their’ present, that they don’t make the effort to look at the big picture. Probably a good number of those people are devoting their energies to simply trying to survive, with little time to contemplate the ‘big picture.’ Conversely, I believe that many of the people who are now flourishing financially don’t want to rock the economic boat with the radical changes needed to address climate change. Greed in the present trumps logic about the future. Their short term goals are better served by denying climate change. What stumps me about them, though, is what they think will happen to their children and grandchildren. Perhaps they believe that money will save them.

      I also think that long term planning is not an American strong suit. Many people have a hard time planning or saving for their own retirements, let alone thinking a generation or two ahead.

      Another thought is that in our culture, where people seem generally to have such difficulty dealing with death and dying, contemplating massive suffering and deaths and devastating changes to life as we know it is simply too frightening. Much easier to bury one’s head in the sand.

      That all said, what do we DO to change minds? I wonder what we can learn from Europe, where there seems to be a much greater awareness of our precarious ecological position in the 21st century. Do you know if there have been studies to see why they are so much more pro-active ecologically than we Americans? I also believe that we Must overturn the Citizens United ruling to make any progress in many areas, including our transition to renewable energy. If politicians are educated, and aren’t ‘owned’ by corporations, they can move our country in the right direction.


  3. Yale and George Mason U. have done a series of surveys of Americans’ opinions about climate change, such one from April 2014. Their surveys are my source of information about what Americans believe. (I included a link to this study in the next blog post, Two Global Experiments about Climate Change.)

    There are many reasons for Americans’ lack of understanding. The Yale/GMU researchers developed a taxonomy of six “types” of Americans, based on their beliefs about climate change, and suggested different communication strategies to reach each type of person. E.g., for those you mentioned those who are too busy, and including some people who may not be great analytic thinkers, messages need to be short and easy to remember. (Contrast that others who have lots of detailed scientific questions about climate change.) Changing minds is a slow process that requires many approaches.

    Short-term thinking is a well-known problem in democracies; long-term planning doesn’t fit election calendars or many voters’ attention spans and interests. Europeans are more concerned about a balanced life (e.g., longer vacations; fewer working hours) than Americans and less likely to accept technological and economic progress as necessarily a good thing. The U.S. is also more affected than Europe by economic free-market zealots who believe nearly all regulations are harmful because the free market is sufficient.

    Lastly, I would mention that there has been a well-funded climate skeptic/denier campaign, which first became active long ago denying that tobacco was harmful (many of the same people and organizations). I will write a post on this topic. A frequent mantra of the organized skeptics is “scientists are not sure; we need to learn more.” IPCC climate scientists are honest and provide probabilities — we are 99% sure about this or that — which leaves manipulative people an opening for saying, “Look, scientists are not sure,” which sticks in many people’s minds. The American adult population is not very scientifically literate, nor good with probabilities.


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