Hearts and minds - the psychology of climate change scepticism

6th April 2010

Hearts and minds

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The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was a failure, says Ian Hamilton, because too many people remain sceptical about climate change to force political change.

As we all seek to apportion blame for the inability to reach a binding agreement on emissions reduction at Copenhagen, observers should look beyond the politicians. Scepticism about global climate change could actually have been the greatest barrier to success.

According to The Times only 41% of people in Britain think that climate change is largely human-made, and even more worryingly, only a quarter of those surveyed think it is a serious problem.

The newspaper suggests that this demonstrates a failure on the part of politicians to persuade the public, but do politicians manipulate public sentiment or merely reflect it?

Recently, Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Sceptical Environmentalist, wrote in The Spectator that even the environmentally-friendly Australians rate the problem as less serious and pressing than they had previously.

Indeed their new opposition leader Tony Abbott has been very outspoken against action on climate change.

But surprisingly, in the notably sceptical United States, and despite the urgings of many high profile deniers such as Sarah Palin, as many as one third of Americans think that humans have made a contribution to climate change. This is fewer than in the UK, but not by much.

So why do a majority refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence that climate change is happening? And why do so many people prefer to believe that humans are blameless?

Simplistically, by rejecting the notion of human-made climate change, an individual may feel absolved of responsibility. If he or she sees climate change as a myth, or even if they accept it but regard it as a natural change, they can argue that there is nothing to be done.

Indeed, people in the West seem to regard their use of energy as an entitlement to continue with business as usual, rather than accepting a responsibility to conserve it. The consumptive practices of people in our society lies at the root of carbon emissions.

Businesses will always act to meet market demands, and politicians seldom actually influence opinion; they merely represent what they hope will be the views of their constituents. If levels of climate change scepticism are running high, it would be unrealistic to expect our political leaders to reach agreements that would disenchant domestic voters.

Hearts and minds

So if we want to see real change in emissions levels, we will have to influence the minds and deeds of voters themselves. In Copenhagen, much of the debate centred on financial instruments and emissions targets that would have enormous financial implications.

At the same time, proponents of technological solutions, such as Bjorn Lomborg, argued for investment in environmental technology. However, it will be difficult for either or both of these solutions to succeed without the hearts and minds of the majority of voters.

People will have to want to change rather than having change forced upon them. But how can that be achieved? Surely people read the papers; they watch the news; hasn't the message been delivered clearly enough already? So maybe clarity is not the only criterion.


Psychology has a great deal to offer in terms of understanding how and why people think and behave the way they do. It has taught us that behaviour is motivated and influenced by our core beliefs and attitudes.

What this tells us is that behaviour will not change unless we accept the rationale for change at the level of our core beliefs and in a way that allows our emotional reactions to be consistent with these beliefs.

But core beliefs are not simply rational, evidence-based concepts. They are a mixture of attitudes and emotions that are usually reinforced by a subjective and convenient interpretation of the "facts". The healthy mind needs core beliefs; they anchor our personality and guide our behaviour.

Cognitive dissonance arises when we have conflicts between thoughts and behaviour. This is a feeling of unease about the inconsistency, and it can be experienced as anxiety, anger, guilt, or even shame.

Such negative emotions are unpleasant and so there is an automatic motivation to reduce them. Take a simple, everyday example: you buy something that you believe to be a bargain only to discover that you have paid too much.

As a rational person you don't want to think you have been misled or swindled, so you seek to diminish the feelings of foolishness or annoyance by creating a rationale for the decision: the shop has better after-sales service, or the sales person was attractive, etc.

That way you can acknowledge the "mistake" but justify it in terms that allow your self esteem to remain intact.

Making excuses

By accepting the reality of human-made climate change we might argue that a rational person will logically feel compelled to do something to lessen the problem. But do what? Recycle? Cycle to work? Turn off the lights or the central heating? Make young children walk to school?

All of these options and others are possible and easy to do; however they may have consequences for our everyday life that involve increased effort, stress or inconvenience.

So, we may perceive these activities negatively and feel that the situation is unfair if we accept our green responsibilities whilst those around us continue to ignore them.

Indeed we are all governed by our sense of identity and our desire for a certain lifestyle. If we expect people collectively to change to a more sustainable form of living we need to help them by making the arguments for doing so connect with their motivations and sense of self.

The conditions for behavioural influence are strongly affected by the emotional salience of arguments.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the denial of human-made climate change is that the arguments that deny it have more emotional salience and are more powerful than those that urge action.

Indeed some of the resistance to climate change arguments arises from the fact that much of the information people receive comes from a media perceived to be alarmist and politicians who are distrusted. In addition, people perceive the risks to be distant in time and in place - change will take decades and if it does come, it will only affect other countries. Local impacts should be emphasised more strongly.

In addition, the perception of the effects of climate change is also affected by our belief in the impact of action; people fail to see how local action can help with a global problem.

Most people see governments and others as more responsible for dealing with the consequences of climate change and many adopt a subjective position, somewhat selfishly refusing to take action until other people do.

To boot, the arguments for human-made climate change are typically presented in the statistical and qualified language of science. This may be technically correct but lacks emotional impact and may not be accessible to all.

Scientists do not, generally, resort to scare tactics; in contrast the arguments of denial are charged with emotion. They often include unfounded claims such as the "greenies" want to stop you having fun in your SUV, or green taxes will lead to greater unemployment.

The arguments against human-made climate change also exploit in-group/out-group prejudices. Action on climate change is portrayed as "lefty", radical and reactionary. Most Britons are (small "c") conservatives who prefer compromise and moderation rather than major change.

They also seize on any equivocation in the scientific message (such as the recent email leaks from the University of East Anglia) to demonstrate the ‘weakness' of the scientific case. So it is easy to see why the case for denial appears to be winning.

Climate change scepticism is also emotionally attractive; if there is no climate change or if human behaviour is not involved, then current lifestyles can be maintained free from guilt.

Clearly it is necessary to connect with the personally emotive aspects of the arguments in order to help people to accept personal responsibility for action on environmental issues.

If psychology and a deeper understanding of human behaviour and emotions are employed in the promulgation of messages for positive action to mitigate climate change, then acceptance of the need for action could become the majority view.

And if the sceptics become the minority, the work of the politicians will be greatly simplified and they will become empowered to make the decisions that are necessary to prevent serious climate change - and future summits may be regarded as a success.


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