The psychology of climate change

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The psychology of climate change

Mischa Wilmers writes about why people don’t believe in climate change, and what we can do to stop others agreeing with them.


Fikret Onal under a Creative Commons Licence

Not many climate activists were surprised when a survey (by Yougov poll in September) said that the British public are not worried about global warming.

Only 39 per cent said that they think climate change is a serious problem for the whole world. 61 per cent said poverty is a serious problem and 77 per cent said terrorism. Only 6 per cent of people in the survey said they think climate change is the most serious global problem.

But Ban Ki-Moon (UN General Secretary) two days after the survey said that humanity has never had a more serious challenge than fighting climate change.

When he opened the UN climate summit in New York, he said that the human, environmental and financial cost of climate change will soon be almost impossible to bear.

A month later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published their report – from thousands of climate scientists.

The report said that if we continue to produce greenhouse gases, the climate will become warmer and change the climate system. It is very likely that there will be very bad effects for people and ecosystems. If we want to limit climate change, we need to reduce greenhouse gases a lot. This, with adaptation, can limit the risks of climate change.

So why is there such a difference between what the experts think and what the public think? And what can we do about this? Are humans not able to face the idea of the terrible things that will happen if global warming continues?

A new book by climate activist George Marshall Don’t Even Think about It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change talks about this. The book says that society is not so worried because of the media. The media doesn’t show climate change as a very big problem like terrorism.

But Marshall does not believe that we are incapable of thinking about or understanding the problem.

‘… The problem with climate change is that because it is not so immediate, so it doesn’t work like a threat,’ he explains. In contrast, Marshall talks about the sensational media stories about immigration. Millions of people in the UK read them. This has made UKIP more popular.

‘I live in a rural part of Wales, where a lot of people worry about immigration – but there are almost no immigrants here,’ he says. ‘Immigration is a very powerful story in society. It is difficult to make climate change such a powerful story.’ Stories about immigration and terrorism are real experiences of real people in the real world. But stories about climate change are usually about predicted events. Maybe they will happen in the future.

Temperature rises and changes in climate patterns are because of anthropogenic (caused by humans) global warming. But it is not possible for scientists to show a direct link between climate change and individual extreme weather events.

And the victims of such events often do not want to accept that anthropogenic climate change is real.

Marshall spent time with people who survived floods and hurricanes in the US. And he found that many of them only wanted to get their life back to how it was before the storm. They really did not want to think about the need to change their lifestyles so we don’t have disasters like that in the future.

Marshall says that people who are socially liberal like reading about climate change, but people who are socially conservative don’t. People need to create stories that everyone will like.

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

‘Climate change to them is a threat to freedom, the landscape and culture, not to polar bears. For example, someone who campaigns against abortion can see climate change as a threat to the unborn child.’

There is a lot of research to support this. There is a strong link between people’s politics and what they think about global warming.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Bristol) has done a lot of research on the psychology of climate change: ‘I can ask people four questions about the free market and if the answers show that they really care about the free market as the best way for society, then I can be almost certain that they will also say climate change isn’t happening and is nothing to worry about.’

Many people who support of neoliberal economics see that a solution to climate change would affect global markets. This solution, they think, is more dangerous than the problem.

The way people answer questions about climate change are also very different depending on the wording of the questions. ‘You have to ask people in a way that doesn’t make them think about politics,’ says Lewandowsky.

‘When you ask questions that way, 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 talk about climate change in a way that makes it more urgent and real. But maybe there are psychological dangers in this too.

CRED (the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions) says that there is more scientific evidence now to show that if you try to make people do something because they are afraid, this has the result of more people not believing in climate change.

‘When people try to make people afraid in a campaign, they always offer a solution to the problem too,’ says Lewandowsky. ‘This can be very effective if they give the solutions.’ When the media tries to make people afraid about ISIS in the middle-east, for example, they then talk about the bombing that will happen there. The solution looks easy (but maybe not effective or moral). With global warming, Lewandowsky says, the solutions are complicated and difficult to understand.

The green movement is taking notice of this. Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, says that people in the environmental movement are moving away from trying to create fear. They are now talking about what people are most worried about.

‘It is not useful to make people afraid. It’s very important for the Green movement to talk about how we can have a better quality of life, because people feel insecure and we’ve got to provide solutions for that. For example, we can do something about fuel poverty (not enough money to pay for heating) with things like using less energy in the home, home insulation and other things,’ 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.

In surveys, about 70 per cent of people in Britain now believe that what humans do makes the climate change. But a lot of the media do not believe this.

She also says that politics at the moment makes it easier for politicians like her to say this. ‘I think it’s so much easier now than before 2007. People can see now that the system we have is broken in many ways,’ she explains.

‘There are many problems that make people open to new ideas and new ways of thinking: economic and social inequality, not many jobs for young people. In 2007, people felt quite comfortable and safe about the economy and their jobs. So it was more difficult to say: “We’ve got to change everything!”’

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).