Why Some People Cannot “Believe In” the Science of Climate Change
When a certain relative visits my house, we tend to have late-night political discussions.
This is not something I recommend.
The most recent visit involved conversation around a Facebook meme that goes something along these lines.
Checking out at the store, a young cashier suggests to a much older lady that she should bring her own grocery bags.
“Plastic bags are not good for the environment,” the clerk scolds.
The older woman humbly apologizes and explains, “We didn’t have this ‘green thing’ back in my day.”
The young clerk snaps back, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.”
Then, the meme goes on to describe how the older lady totally schools this young punk hipster clerk.
The woman recounts how, back in her day, soda and beer bottles were returned to the store to be sterilized and refilled.
How all grocery bags were paper, and how those bags were reused for other things.
How they had smaller-screened TVs, how they padded things with old newspapers instead of styrofoam peanuts, how they cut the grass with push mowers.
(Have you seen this meme?)
How they exercised by working, so they didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.
How they washed the baby’s diapers because the throw-away kind hadn’t been invented yet.
How they dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine.
How they wore hand-me-down clothing, took the streetcar, and didn’t have their Mom driving them around to playdates in an SUV.
I found several different versions of the meme online. The icing on memes like this one are always in the comments section. This one was my personal favorite:
These dam whipper snappers need2 kno if it were not for the strong seniors ahead of then where would there azzez b?
I’m pretty sure that this meme is a prime example of fake news. Aside from the fact that I’ve personally never seen nor heard anyone of any age refer to “the green thing,” I don’t believe a young cashier would ever speak this way to a customer. I’ve never seen a young grocery clerk be anything but totally respectful of the people they check out at the store.
It did make me pause to think about my Grandfather though. All of his cars had carburetors instead of fuel injection, without environmental measures like PCV valves or catalytic converters.
How the industrial revolution, around the time he was born, had destroyed everything green within the city.
About how the Boomers, who strip-mined the entire U.S., introduced DDT until entire bird populations were wiped out, polluted things terribly until rivers were actually on fire.
(Are you thinking what I was thinking?)
How urban sprawl made us increasingly reliant on the automobile.
How Hiroshima and Bikini Island were bombed, leaving these places uninhabitable because of nuclear fallout.
How and when plastics and disposable everything started.
How the common household conservation measures like bringing bottles back to the store weren’t some attempt to save the earth, but simply their generation’s attempt to build a life for themselves and their families. To rise out of poverty, with what they had available to them. An honorable goal, but I’m betting it was few and far between that anyone considered the environment during those years.
My accusatory thoughts are exactly the problem with memes like this one. It creates a false narrative, an ideological warfare that pits one generation against another. It shuts down dialogue, and plants us solidly in our respective political camps.
Boomers might imagine that Xers or Millennials blame them for the current situation, and they’re feeling defensive about it. But for the most part, I don’t believe this judgment and blame exists. Until we see a meme like this one.
Climate Change Denial is a Studied Psychological Phenomenon
Instead of all the finger-pointing, I’d like to share some information that helped me understand that climate change deniers are neither mean-spirited nor ignorant.
It also helps me understand my own behavior; even though I know climate change is real, I am sometimes unmotivated to make real changes in my life.
Getting really curious about these psychological phenomena gives me hope that we may be able to move forward in what at first blush appears to be a stalemate.
The thing is, scientists are very sure that climate change is real, and that humans are the main cause. But four out of ten Americans aren’t convinced, or have convinced themselves they don’t need to pay attention.
Even among those who do accept climate change is real, most don’t seem to be doing much about it.
I started to get curious about why this happens.
Then, I remembered my own sales training, from back in the day when I was a software sales rep. It taught me that the things that really grab our attention and cause us to act have to do with pain.
As a salesperson, I learned that the best way to sell our product was to pitch it as a way to decrease pain, or help my customers avoid future pain.
PAIN theory was first described by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. PAIN is an acronym for Personal, Abrupt, Immoral, and happening Now.
All of these conditions must be met in order for people to act .
There must be a Personal threat. The threat must be Abrupt, disruptive. It’s something they find Immoral, reprehensible, or at least something with which they don’t want to be associated. The problems are happening Now. Not at some point in the distant future. The PAIN is unavoidable.
The problem with climate change or environmental degradation is that it always seems to be happening in the future, and to someone else. It’s easy to allow ourselves to believe that it will never impact us now.
Or maybe our belief system makes us think there are other things that are more important, like jobs, the economy. Our moral compass is not impacted by this far off, impersonal threat.
The Optimism Bias
When we’re faced with uncertain threats about things that either may or may not happen in the distant future, our brain will make up all kinds of excuses about why we shouldn’t act today. This is called the optimism bias, our brain’s tendency to believe that we personally face lesser risks than others do.
This explains the idea that a car accident won’t happen to us. “Surely my child won’t get into drugs.” The next big hurricane won’t happen here. Bad things only happen to other people.
A 2018 poll by Yale University showed that 68% of respondents believed that climate change would harm future generations, while just 38% believed it would harm them personally.
The Confirmation Bias
We also have the tendency to cherry-pick evidence that supports our own beliefs. This is called the confirmation bias.
It doesn’t help that we’re becoming desensitized to many of the current rhetoric around climate change. Erratic weather, hurricanes, wildfires, ecosystem collapse, and melting polar ice caps are the norm on our news cycle these days. April 2018 was the 388th month in a row of higher than average temperatures. And the heat goes on.
To find a month when the global average temperature over the land and oceans was below average, you have to go all the way back to December 1984, according to the latest monthly analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Arctic air temperatures for the past five years (2014–18) have exceeded all previous records since 1900.
When I look at these stats personally, I find myself looking everywhere for some shred of hope, some silver lining. I might feel better if there’s a statistic showing some positives relating to the future of humanity on our planet. If I found even a tiny bit of hope, it would help me to be more positive about our future.
Which is actually the confirmation bias at work. For the sake of my mental health, I don’t want to take things as seriously, see them as dire, as they always seem to be.
The Scientific Concept of Uncertainty
Another factor that skews people’s psychology about global climate change is the way scientists talk about their findings.
Scientists talk about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. They’re used to working in the realm of theories, tests, and probabilities. But for the average layperson who’s not used to thinking this way, this language may sound as if the scientists are not confident about their conclusions.
Less than one in four Americans believe there is a scientific consensus about climate change. Yet, 97 percent of scientists are in agreement that climate change is happening, and that it has been caused by human activity.
There is a similar level of consensus around things like the earth is round, and that we are orbiting around the sun.
Most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.
Yet, we don’t apply this concept of uncertainty to other areas of our lives. A one percent chance of a terrorist attack, for example, has us lining up for airport security, taking off our shoes and dumping out our liquids.
The supposed scientific uncertainty is also a great talking point for politicians, who are masters of spin to win over public confidence and votes.
Predictions of gloom and doom about our environment are not ever going to win you a popularity contest.
“He made me feel like climate change isn’t really a thing. I’ll vote for him.”
A Finite Pool of Worry
Elke Weber’s research of attitudes towards climate change establishes that human beings have a “finite pool of worry,” which means we can only worry about a certain number of things. We’re unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem like a plunging stock market or a personal emergency happens. We focus on the immediate PAIN.
In order to operate in a sane fashion, we need to decide what we can safely ignore. We listen to cues from our political party, religious leaders, economic philosophies, our social “in-group.” Social conformity leads us to fixate on certain threats and de-prioritize others.
So, if you’re part of a group that says climate change isn’t real, you have two very real risks. The risks posed by climate change, and the risk of being shunned from your group if you dare to break from the party line. It’s about choosing not to notice or take action, so we don’t rock the in-group boat.
For example, when I’m around my yoga friends, I might carry my reusable grocery bag and drink coffee out of a travel mug. But at church, my fears about climate change might be supplanted by other, seemingly more urgent worries like global poverty.
The salience of these worries and fears really depends on how well my life is going. If I’m in a personal health or financial crisis, global warming and poverty are both going to decrease in salience. If things are going well, my dedication to different social causes may depend on how active I am at the yoga studio or church.
The Perfect Storm
Climate change is also incredibly hard to tackle because it is so all-encompassing. It’s a perfect-storm-combination of problems. Any decisions regarding how we tackle it involve technology, morality, human rights, ideology, and economics.
So how do we get people to act? How do we motivate ourselves out of complacency?
Child activist Greta Thunberg might have hit upon a solution.
She is giving a face to the future, giving a reason for all of us to care.
Even if we’re not 100 percent certain about what is happening, when, why and to whom.
In conversations with my relatives, this time, there was a glimmer of recognition that there might be a problem.
I have to believe that if we can find a way to cut through all the disagreement, we can make a difference. There are still things we can all agree on. Through patience and conversation, we can convince even the most adamant deniers to find it in their hearts to care. We can even motivate ourselves to change.