During the December holidays, some friends and I were debating the problem of global climate change, and in particular the value of mitigation policies that require people to change their behaviors and lifestyles. Is it worth trying to convince people to switch off their lights when they aren’t in the room, or would it be better for governments to spend their money on R&D in the hope of developing a new technological panacea, or on efforts to deal with the impacts of climate change when they happen? Is human-induced climate change even a real thing for governments to act on?
This discussion led me to start thinking about what drives people to ignore or disbelieve scientific evidence of the dangers of climate change induced by human activity. Recent opinion polls show between 50% and 80% of the general public in the US and UK believe in climate change and its likely anthropogenic causes (see this story from ABC news and this one from the Guardian). While some might criticize the inferences that can be drawn from such opinion polls, they provide a broad indicator of the general mood on climate change. It is comforting that a majority accepts the latest scientific consensus, but I think that if we are ever to achieve the pace and type of adjustments needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change, it is the remaining proportion of people who must be convinced of, or at least be able to tolerate, the need to act against this phenomenon (for links to a selection of arguments in the online world for and against believing in anthropogenic climate change, see the end of this post).
While I’m no expert on these issues, my coursework at Stanford has helped to bring together ideas from different fields that have provided unexpected perspectives on the problem. So as I attended a class here on social psychology, a subject completely new to me, I began to realize just how difficult it is to move someone away from their strong beliefs, and therefore just how difficult it would be to get people to meet half-way in the debate on anthropogenic climate change.
Both “believers” and “non-believers” are approaching the question of whether we have dangerous human-induced climate change with a particular frame of reference, as people tend to do when facing any matter of judgment. In their book “Problem solving, decision making and professional judgment” (2010), my professor at Stanford, Paul Brest, and Linda Hamilton Krieger, discuss the effect of schemas on our ability to frame and solve a problem:
“… A schema represents an individual’s accumulated knowledge, beliefs, experiences, and affective orientations toward the schematized construct…A particular frame [schema] inevitably provides only one of a number of possible views of reality and implicitly blocks the consideration of alternative perspectives with other possible solutions. When you are viewing a situation through a particular frame, though, it seems to provide a complete picture of reality. Indeed, the frame is often invisible: You have the illusion that you’re seeing the world “just as it is,” and it is difficult to imagine that there could be another way to view it.”
The bias that schemas create suggests one way of looking at “believers” and “non-believers” in the climate change debate. I use the terms “believers” or “non-believers” to refer to people who rely on others’ expert opinions to form their opinion on whether to accept (and therefore to act/allow others to act on) climate change. The issue of innate trust or mistrust of other people becomes important in this respect. The experiences of believers might lead them fundamentally to trust that most people have good intentions. The skepticism of non-believers may in part come from a basic mistrust in people. Non-believers might hear what climate scientists, policymakers and others who warn about the dangers of climate change have to say, and wonder about their ulterior motives – “Of course they will warn about climate change, they stand to make a profit from it!” is a common argument I’ve come across on online forums from the stauncher skeptics (for another take on trust and communication in the climate debate, see here).
The Brest and Krieger book mentioned above discusses Lee Ross’ concept of naïve realism, the idea that people regard their own views as reflecting some objective reality and tend to dismiss views that conflict with that reality. We also tend to have our stereotypes of the personality, motivations and actions of the types of people who disagree with us. For example, someone might think that as a believer I necessarily preach to anyone I meet about the virtues of conserving energy and recycling, while being hypocritical and using plastic bags while doing grocery shopping. If, I then discuss climate change with a non-believer, their pre-set schema about me might in fact increase the strength of their disbelief, regardless of the evidence. Brest and Krieger discuss a debiasing strategy based on “being asked to articulate the weaknesses of one’s own position,” but such strategies are often of limited effectiveness.
A related issue in the judgment and decision-making literature is the idea of “confirmation bias.” Often, people evaluate information presented to them selectively, such that it supports hypotheses they have made already based on their experiences, schemas or ideologies. In the climate change debate, for example, skeptics take news reports that some parts of the Northern Hemisphere are experiencing their worst winters to mean that global warming is a hoax; of course in this case the consideration that scientific studies refer to average global temperatures increasing is rarely taken into account.
Most of us, if we believed in weather forecasters’ scientific methods and good intentions, would take precautions such as carrying an umbrella if the weather forecast suggested a greater than 90% chance of rain today. It is the ‘if’ statement in relation to climate change predictions that’s causing the polarization between climate believers and non-believers. At this point, most countries (i.e. most countries’ policymakers) accept that it is very likely that climate change is caused by anthropogenic emissions; the ‘if’ statement holds true for them. Their task lies in educating and convincing the domestic public of its validity.
But as I’ve discussed, that might be difficult to do in the case of those who firmly believe the contrary. At the very least then, policymakers need to be creative with policymaking and with public relations strategies, to try to counteract some of the biases discussed above. One way of doing this could be to demonstrate to firm non-believers ways in which actions on climate change will not harm other interests (significantly), or how certain of those actions will help meet other goals irrespective of the climate issue. If the problem and its scope are correctly framed by policymakers, we may be able to choose courses of action that deal with multiple issues simultaneously, which might facilitate garnering more widespread support. For my take on how policymakers can frame the problem and what they can do, watch this space!
Climate controversy primer:
This Economist article discusses the recent cold weather spells and their connection to climate change.
The “precautionary principle” for dealing with climate change uncertainty is discussed on the Penn State blog on climate ethics.
For a discussion of the impact of solar activity on climate change, see here.
Himani Phadke is a first year student in the IPS program, studying Energy, Environment and Natural Resources.