CLIMATE CHANGE is staring us in the face. The science is clear, and the need to reduce planet-warming emissions has grown urgent. So why, collectively, are we doing so little about it?
Yes, there are political and economic barriers, as well as some strong ideological opposition, to going green. But researchers in the burgeoning field of climate psychology have identified another obstacle, one rooted in the very ways our brains work. The mental habits that help us navigate the local, practical demands of day-to-day life, they say, make it difficult to engage with the more abstract, global dangers posed by climate change.
Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who studies the behavioral barriers to combating climate change, calls these habits of mind “dragons of inaction.” We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.
“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
Sometimes, when forming our opinions, we grasp at whatever information presents itself, no matter how irrelevant. A new study by the psychologist Nicolas Guéguen, published in last month’s Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that participants seated in a room with a ficus tree lacking foliage were considerably more likely to say that global warming was real than were those in a room with a ficus tree that had foliage.
We also tend to pay attention to information that reinforces what we already believe and dismiss evidence that would require us to change our minds, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Dan M. Kahan, a Yale Law School professor who studies risk and science communication, says this is crucial to understanding the intense political polarization on climate change. He and his research colleagues have found that people with more hierarchical, individualistic worldviews (generally conservatives) sense that accepting climate science would lead to restraints on commerce, something they highly value, so they often dismiss evidence of the risk. Those with a more egalitarian, community-oriented mind-set (generally liberals) are likely to be suspicious of industry and very ready to credit the idea that it is harming the environment.
There are ways to overcome such prejudices. Professor Kahan has shown that how climate change solutions are framed can affect our views of the problem. In one study, not yet published, he and his colleagues asked people to assess a scientific paper reporting that the climate was changing faster than expected. Beforehand, one group was asked to read an article calling for tighter carbon caps (i.e., a regulatory solution); a second group read an article urging work on geoengineering, the manipulation of atmospheric conditions (i.e., a technological solution); and a control group read an unrelated story on traffic lights. All three groups included hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians.
In all cases, the individualists were, as expected, less likely than the communitarians to say the scientific paper seemed valid. But the gap was 29 percent smaller among those who had first been exposed to the geoengineering idea than among those who had been prompted to think about regulating carbon, and 14 percent smaller than in the traffic light group. Thinking about climate change as a technological challenge rather than as a regulatory problem, it seems, made individualists more ready to credit the scientific claim about the climate.
Research also suggests public health is an effective frame: few people care passionately about polar bears, but if you argue that closing coal-burning plants will reduce problems like asthma, you’re more likely to find a receptive audience, says the American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet.
Smaller “nudges,” similarly sensitive to our psychological quirks, can also spur change. Taking advantage of our preference for immediate gratification, energy monitors that displayed consumption levels in real-time cut energy use by an average of 7 percent, according to a study in the journal Energy in 2010. Telling heavy energy users how much less power their neighbors consumed prompted them to cut their own use, according to a 2007 study in Psychological Science. And trading on our innate laziness, default settings have also conserved resources: when Rutgers University changed its printers’ settings to double-sided, it saved more than seven million sheets of paper in one semester in 2007.
Simply presenting climate science more clearly is unlikely to change attitudes. But a better understanding of our minds’ strange workings may help save us from ourselves.
Beth Gardiner is a freelance journalist.