Why we don’t worry about climate change as much as we know we should

“If we could invent one risk that bypasses all of our psychological alarm systems, global climate change would be it,” a psychologist explains.

SvdLYou’ve seen the projections, read the articles about record annual temperatures, rolled your eyes at climate change deniers. You know the threat of global warming is real. At least intellectually. But are you really worried about it? Probably not as worried as you know you should be. We asked social psychologist Sander van der Linden of Princeton University why it’s so hard for our brains to perceive climate change as a real threat and how we can motivate ourselves and others to action.

ResearchGate: Why is there a gap between recognizing the danger of climate change intellectually and feeling motivated to address it?

Sander van der Linden: Unfortunately, because climate change is a statistical phenomenon that cannot be experienced directly, it presents a unique challenge for the human brain. Showing people long-term trends in the average global temperature simply does not carry the same weight in our decisions as the type of strong emotional reactions we form through (negative) experiences. So-called affective cues—fast and associative judgments of things we like and dislike—are formed through everyday experiences, and they help us make judgments and decisions, especially about risks. Perhaps the most powerful way for you to intuitively understand the risk of touching a hot plate is to burn your finger. Our brains are equipped with a biologically hard-wired alarm system that motivates responses to immediate environmental threats. The problem is that because we cannot readily see, hear, or experience the risk of climate change, this affective warning system is not activated.

Moreover, our cognitive understanding of climate risks is often discounted psychologically by the fact that global warming has traditionally been conveyed as an impersonal risk that is likely to happen in other places, to other people, at some point in the distant future.

But even with the emotional and cognitive alarms deactivated, there’s still another way that we often learn about risks, and that is socially, through our conversations and connections with other people we care about. Yet, if our close friends and family also don’t seem overly worried about climate change, it is likely that our social alarms will not go off either. In short, if we could invent one risk that bypasses all of our psychological alarm systems, global climate change would be it!

RG: What would you advise those who want to “convince” themselves to take climate change as seriously as they know they should?

Van der Linden: First, learn about how climate change is already impacting your region and local community. For example, numerous studies have shown that climate change is exacerbating the drought in California and increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events around the world, such as floods and hurricanes. The human brain is much like a dual-core processor, which means that we learn best when abstract information is elucidated by real-word experiences. For example, although we cannot directly observe climate change, people can and do experience its impacts. What’s important, however, is that people are able to connect what they experience locally with what they already know “intellectually” about the problem.

It can also help to consider the moral components of climate change, which as the result of human decision-making is fundamentally a moral issue. The world’s poor will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, even although they contributed the least. Similarly, the choices that we make today will likely impact the quality of life of our children and grandchildren. While tons of psychological research shows that people are often intrinsically motivated to help others, if you want to convince yourself further, ask yourself this: knowing that we are all partially responsible, do you feel that you have a moral obligation to take climate change seriously?

“You might feel that your family won’t listen to you, but what people often don’t realize is that you have a special status with people you know.”


RG: What about those who want to motivate friends and family to change their behavior?

Van der Linden: I often tell my students that social influence is a part of everyday life; whether we intend to or not, we are constantly influencing the behavior of others, and others are in turn constantly influencing our own thoughts and actions. Because of this, we all have the power to institute or change existing social norms (the implicit rules that govern our social behavior). Social psychologists distinguish between two separate sources of influence, informational and normative. Informational influence simply involves providing people with information about the behavior of others, as people often use information about what others are doing to inform their own behavior. In this case, that would mean simply informing your friends and family about all the things you are already doing to help reduce climate change. Normative influence is more direct and includes telling friends and family what you think they ought to be doing to help. You might feel that your family won’t listen to you, but what people often don’t realize is that you have a special status with people you know. You are an in-group member, which means that even when your peers may not admit it, your opinion is given more weight than a stranger’s.

RG: Is it possible to worry too much about climate change?

Van der Linden: Yes, as with any type of risk, it is possible for people to worry so much about the issue that it paralyzes them. Worry is an active emotional state that often motivates people to find ways to mitigate a particular threat or problem (the adaptive response). Fear, on the other hand, often overwhelms people and can lead to inaction, denial, and other maladaptive responses. This has to do with the fact that the brain’s subcortical “fear center” (the amygdala) has more connections running to the higher-order prefrontal parts of the brain than vice versa, this is why it is often easy to be overwhelmed by fear but more difficult to consciously control it. So yes, a healthy amount of worry can motivate action, whereas too much worry can result in the exact opposite.

“Changing one’s perception of what scientists think is a non-identity threatening belief to change.”


RG: What’s going on in the brains of climate change deniers?

Van der Linden: I think it is useful to think of denialism as a spectrum, ranging from more extreme forms of denial on one hand, to more mild forms of skepticism on the other. For example, on the more extreme end there are vested-interest groups (e.g. the fossil fuel industry) who actively seek to misinform the public and oppose government regulation on climate change, because it is not in their economic interests. More generally, one factor that has proven useful in explaining climate denial is an individual’s ideological worldview, particularly a strong endorsement of a free-market ideology. A related construct is system justification, which refers to a tendency to rationalize and prefer existing social, economic, and political structures. Strong free-market endorsement, system justification, and political conservatism are all slightly different concepts, but what they have in common is an ideologically-motivated reason to deny climate science and resist government action. Ideologies are very inflexible type of worldviews that often cause people to filter information about the world in a way that is consistent with they already believe (confirmation bias) and make them likely to reject any information that challenges these beliefs (motivated reasoning).

RG: Is there any hope for convincing ideologically driven deniers to change their beliefs?

Van der Linden: One approach would be to emphasize expert consensus. In a complex and uncertain world where people are constrained by limited time and resources, we often use cognitive short-cuts, or heuristics, to help inform our decision-making. One such heuristic is expert-consensus. Consensus-heuristics condense a complex amount of information into a simple normative fact, reducing the cost of individual learning. For example, if nine out of ten doctors concluded that you that need urgent medical treatment, on average, it is probably wise to act on that medical consensus. Yet, although 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening, public recognition of the overwhelming degree of scientific consensus is generally very low.

Our research finds that people’s subjective perception of the level of consensus among scientists acts as a “gateway” to other key beliefs that people hold about the issue, such as the belief that climate change is happening, human-caused, and worrisome problem that requires policy support. What’s especially important is the finding that highlighting consensus seems to speak particularly well to those who are often skeptical (e.g., political conservatives). One potential reason for this finding is that changing one’s perception of what scientists’ think is a non-identity threatening belief to change. As such, it appears to be an attractive gateway to changing other personal beliefs. In short, emphasizing agreement may help reduce perceived conflict.

Featured image courtesy of John McQuaid