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The psychology of climate change


Fikret Onal under a Creative Commons Licence

Few climate activists were surprised when a Yougov poll published in late September confirmed what many had already suspected: the British public are not particularly worried about global warming.

A minority of 39 per cent responded that they believed climate change posed a serious problem affecting the world as a whole, compared to 61 per cent for poverty and 77 per cent for terrorism. When asked which issue they believed presented the gravest global threat, only 6 per cent of those polled selected climate change.

Contrast this with the words of UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon who, just two days after the poll was released, warned that humanity has never in its history faced a challenge greater than that of confronting climate change.

‘The human, environmental and financial cost of climate change is fast becoming unbearable,’ he declared in his opening address to the UN climate summit in New York.

A month later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its most comprehensive study to date - a collaboration between thousands of climate scientists drawing together all the available evidence in one synthesized report.

‘Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks,’ the report concluded.

The contrast outlined above poses some obvious questions. Why does the disparity between expert opinion and public concern over climate change remain so great and what can be done to address it? Are humans psychologically incapable of facing up to the horrific likely consequences of global warming as described by scientists?

These are the themes explored in a recently published book by climate activist George Marshall, titled Don’t Even Think about It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. The book argues that society’s apparent lack of concern over global warming is largely down to popular narratives which portray the issue as less immediate than other problems like terrorism.

The title of the book, Marshall concedes, is slightly misleading, since he doesn’t believe that we are innately incapable of paying attention to or comprehending the issue.

‘It’s not so much that we’re wired to ignore climate change… The problem with climate change is that because it does not have immediacy, it’s not something that readily works with our inbuilt threat detectors,’ he explains.

To give a contrasting example, Marshall cites sensational media stories about immigration which have captured the imagination of millions of people in the UK and fuelled the rise of UKIP.

‘I live in a rural part of Wales, where there’s quite a lot of concern about immigration, despite the fact there are virtually no immigrants here,’ he says. ‘Immigration is a very powerful socially conveyed narrative. The issue is that there are things about climate change which make it hard to form a compelling social narrative.’

Whereas stories about immigration and terrorism involve real experiences of real people living in the real world, stories about climate change tend to involve predicted events which could possibly occur to people living in a hypothetical future.

Although temperature rises and changes in climate patterns over the long term can be attributed to anthropogenic global warming, scientists are unable to draw a direct link between climate change and individual extreme weather events.

Furthermore, the victims of such events – who would make compelling protagonists – are often unwilling to accept that anthropogenic climate change is real.

After spending time with survivors of floods and hurricanes in the US, Marshall found that many of them were understandably intent on restoring their lives to the way things were before the storm and were hostile to narratives which focussed on the need to change their lifestyles in order to avoid similar disasters in the future.

Marshall says that the dominant narratives on solving climate change tend to appeal to socially liberal people meaning that those with socially conservative values are quickly turned off. The key, Marshall argues, is to create narratives which speak to the full spectrum of human values and concerns.

‘A lot of my work at the moment is to work with people with right wing political values and see what climate change would look like from their point of view. And it looks very different,’ he says.

'70-80 per cent of people know exactly that climate change is occurring, that it’s a real risk and that it’s going to get worse' - Professor Stephan Lewandowsky

‘Climate change then isn’t a threat to polar bears, but it’s a threat to their landscape, their culture, their sense of continuity, it’s a threat to freedom. I quote for example, an anti-abortion campaigner who has taken climate change as being a threat to the unborn child.’

Marshall’s observations are backed up by wealth of research which shows a strong correlation between people’s political affiliations and attitudes to global warming.

‘People’s world view is clearly the strongest predictor of their attitude towards climate change,’ says Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, of the University of Bristol, who has conducted extensive research on the psychology of climate change.

‘I can ask people four questions about the free market and if they tell me in their responses that they really care about the free market as the best way to distribute goods in a society, then I can be almost certain that they will also say climate change isn’t happening and is nothing to worry about.’

Many supporters of neoliberal economics recognize that any solution to climate change would have to involve greater interference with and regulation of global markets – a solution which, to their mind, is more dangerous than the problem.

Responses in climate change polls also vary widely depending on the way the questions are phrased. ‘The tricky thing is that you have to ask people in a way that doesn’t trigger their political identification,’ explains Lewandowsky.

‘When you do that, you find that 70-80 per cent of people know exactly that climate change is occurring, that it’s a real risk and that it’s going to get worse.’

But how do you get people to care? Marshall wants us to rewrite the narratives in a way that makes climate change appear more urgent and real. But there may be psychological dangers in this approach too.

According to CRED – the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions – a growing body of scientific evidence shows that attempts to scare people into action with fear-based appeals actually result in increased climate scepticism.

‘Anybody who runs a fear campaign will always combine that appeal to fear with a presumed solution to the problem,’ says Lewandowsky. ‘Fear campaigns are very effective if they offer you the solutions.’

A fear campaign over the spread of ISIS in the middle-east, for example, will swiftly be followed by a proposed bombing campaign in faraway lands. Regardless of whether the strategy is effective or morally virtuous, the solution appears simple. In the case of global warming, Lewandowsky argues, the solutions are complex, nuanced and less easily digestible.

There are some signs that the green movement is taking note of this. Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, says that over the years there has been a gradual shift within the environmental movement, away from fear-based appeals and towards a greater focus on people’s primary concerns.

‘Putting more fear into the system really isn’t a constructive way forward. It’s very important for the Green movement to talk about how we can have a better quality of life, because people are living with a sense of insecurity and we’ve got to provide solutions for that. For example, fuel poverty can be tackled by things like home energy conservation, home insulation and other measures,’ she says.

Climate activists clearly face a number of challenges in communicating their message. But looking forward, Bennett is hopeful that attitudes to global warming will improve.

She cites polls which show that around 70 per cent of people in Britain now believe that human activity is contributing to climate change despite large sections of the media remaining skeptical.

She also insists that the current political climate makes it easier for politicians like her to deliver this message. ‘I think it’s so much easier now than it would have been before 2007, in that people really are acknowledging that our current system is broken in all sorts of ways,’ she explains.

‘The economic and social inequality, the fact that young people can’t get jobs they can build a life on. That actually makes people much more amenable to new ideas and new ways of thinking. If you go back to 2007, people were feeling relatively comfortable and safe about the economy and their jobs and that made saying: “Right! We’ve got to change everything!” a lot more difficult than it is now.’


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