The Psychologist: Climate change denial factors

Professor Geoffrey Beattie is an academic psychologist, writer and broadcaster. He coauthored The Psychology of Climate Change (2019) with Laura McGuire. Here, he discusses the psychological barriers to climate action and how they might be overcome.

4 minute read

Professor Geoffrey Beattie
Geoffrey Beattie, professor of psychology at Edge Hill University

What are the psychological factors that influence the way people think about climate change?

The problem with human beings is we have this desperate desire and mechanism to stay optimistic about our future. When we are confronted with existential messages, we find a variety of means of dealing with them. One is to ignore them. When you ask people to read climate change messages and you measure their level of dispositional optimism, those who are more optimistic tend to read the messages more quickly and also focus on parts of the message that attack the science of climate change. There’s an unconscious intentional bias towards focusing on the good news.

While people may think climate change is happening, they think it is not going to happen to them

Another psychological mechanism is that, while people may think climate change is happening, they think it is not going to happen to them.

Some messaging campaigns have actually reinforced that. If people are sitting around reading stories about their children and grandchildren being affected, that emphasises this notion of temporal displacement. Images of polar bears on small icebergs don’t help either; they suggest it’s going to happen somewhere else.

Our bias towards staying optimistic affects memory, it affects processing of messages. And it seems like the people designing the campaigns around climate change are not considering these cognitive biases and building them into messaging campaigns. There is an inordinate emphasis on the future; it needs to be much more about the here and now.

Given this innate optimism, does there need to be a balance between emphasising the urgency of the problem and scaring people into paralysis?

Telling people their house is on fire isn’t necessarily great, because people find ways of dealing with it and, as I say, some will just ignore it. Or, they manage to deny it could possibly happen to them, and that in some sense helps them to get through their everyday lives.

You need to emphasis the positives of what a sustainable lifestyle could look like: the health benefits, the community benefits

The climate change discourse at the moment is really about doom and gloom. Greta Thunberg is extraordinary in getting people to talk about climate change, but the message has been so negative – “Our house is on fire” – without really addressing in a practical and thoughtful way what they can do about it.

You have to emphasise the positives of what a sustainable lifestyle could look like: the health benefits, the community benefits, and connect people in a communal way. You need to put much more focus on what people can actually do. If you can show people how the behaviours they engage in impact the environment, and encourage them to change those behaviours, then that could make an enormous difference.

Climate change denial is less prevalent than it was, but it hasn’t disappeared. What are the psychological factors at work in climate denial?

You can give the same message to different people and they’re going to interpret it differently. Take the recommendations from scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Not everyone understands terms like “extremely likely” or what the concept of scientific probability actually means; it’s not like death and taxes, science never gives you 100 per cent certainty. Then there are the “merchants of doubt”. Certain scientific facts have been manipulated by big companies with vested interests.

There's a complete misunderstanding of what climate is and the relationship between climate and weather

Part of it involves a complete misunderstanding of what climate is, and the relationship between climate and weather. Every time it gets really cold, people say, “Oh, I don’t really believe in global warming”. These conceptual terms don’t help. “Global warming” implies it’s getting warmer and warmer, and not that there is going to be more extreme weather; I sometimes like using the term “climate chaos”, because it better captures the fact there is going to be more unpredictability.

How can individual consumers be persuaded to make climate-friendly choices?

Part of the problem is that we’ve had decades upon decades of connecting emotionally positive things with a high-carbon lifestyle. You don’t get rid of that in an instant just because people recognise climate change is important. In all the research we do, everyone says they care deeply about the environment and their carbon footprint – and yet they remain emotionally invested in the high-carbon lifestyle. There seems to be a discrepancy.

Companies and governments need to really look at how to change people’s behaviours in a deep and meaningful way

I’ve worked with a few companies on this, including Unilever and Tesco. When Tesco introduced its carbon label scheme [in 2007], it was convinced it would work because people were telling the company they cared deeply about the environment. But it turned out people were not interested in the carbon label. That scheme was perhaps premature, but companies and governments need to really look at how to change people’s behaviours in a deep and meaningful way, by studying attitudes towards the environment and considering how to sell green lifestyles in a different way. You need the right information, the right primers and pointers, but you also need the right implicit attitudes as well, something that says: “Here’s a different way of thinking about things.”

Are there any examples of messaging campaigns that have successfully changed the way people think about an issue?

Anti-smoking campaigns were ludicrously effective. The pioneers of smoking campaigns were happy to talk about the underlying psychological motivations of smokers and tried to analyse what they were.

They recognised early on that what people said about smoking didn’t necessarily match with what they did. If you ask people why they smoke, they probably don’t know. All the campaigns were about influencing these underlying motivations.

With climate change, people aren’t quite sure what to do and what the impact of individual action might be

But smoking is relatively easier, because you know what you have to do: you have to stop smoking. With climate change, people aren’t quite sure what to do and what the impact of individual action might be. What do you do? Just leave your car in the garage and walk to work? This could be difficult. There is no basis for cooperative action, and as these are big issues to do with society and culture, you have to trust others to cooperate. Concerted action requires someone to take the lead, with no guarantee that others will do the same. We need informational campaigns about what’s possible to achieve and which provide a positive aspect to the whole issue as well as an idea of how, together, we can solve this.

What would be your advice to individuals who are struggling to make greener choices?

What we need to do as individuals, in terms of our behaviour as consumers, is to slow down our decision making. We have to be consciously aware and work out how we can influence the future through our patterns of action. And if we have to interrupt our ready-made implicit attitudes, then so be it. We need to be more reflective in our everyday actions 

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