Is It All in Our Heads?
As high temperatures and drought blanket the country, Americans are witnessing more and more extreme weather this year, on top of the multiple billion-dollar disasters we experienced last year. It is becoming increasingly apparent that climate change has indeed played a role in some of the extremes we’ve witnessed in recent years (see past blogs) and that more and more Americans are beginning to see the link as well (see previous blog). But there are still many people who don’t believe the climate is changing, who think it’s changing but don’t believe it is a pressing issue, or who believe it’s a pressing issue yet are still not compelled to take any actions themselves. Why, in spite of all of the evidence warning of serious impacts if we don’t act soon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, do some people still not feel the urge to change?
There are many theories as to why this is. The most common and traditional explanations include political affiliation, ideology, and hesitancy to change lifestyle. But researchers have begun thinking about these questions from a different perspective, that of a moral and mental viewpoint. According to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, “you almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology” (NYTimes).
Climate change is a very “future” concept to a lot of people, which makes it difficult for them to change their lives now for a problem they view as years away. The New York Times article offers several other explanations, such as our desire to not deal with complex problems, our inability to confront long-term problems when we have the practical demands of day-to-day life to deal with as well as short-term emergencies, and our difficulty in sacrificing something today in order to gain something in the future. These mental roadblocks in the human psyche make it difficult to invoke any sense of urgency in people when we’re dealing with such a global and long-term issue.
A study came out recently in Nature Climate Change outlining “six psychological challenges posed by climate change to the human moral judgement system” (see figure). The authors deliver some very interesting theories to explain, from a moral perspective, why we as humans lack motivation to deal with climate change issues. For example, when people feel guilty about something, they try to minimize those feelings and avoid responsibility by blaming others. In regards to climate change, many people see messages that provoke feelings of guilt by holding them accountable for the emissions of greenhouse gases that lead to climate change. To avoid responsibility, people tend to blame inaction on others and shift attention toward the costs of mitigation.
Other moral roadblocks, according to the authors, include our sense of blamelessness when we’ve performed unintentional actions (greenhouse gas emissions are an unintentional side effect of our energy industry), our habit to think wishfully when faced with uncertainty (such as the uncertainties when predicting the effects of climate change), and our lack of moral obligation to help people far away or far in the future. They also describe the idea of moral tribalism, how “the politicization of climate change fosters ideological polarization”—climate change tends to fit with the ideals of liberals, and in so doing repels conservatives.
Taking this idea of political ideology a bit further, the New York Times article describes the idea of confirmation bias; how people tend to take in information that reinforces their beliefs and dismiss other information that would require them to change their minds. But recently, someone did change his mind, in a very public manner. Richard Muller, a physicist at UC Berkeley, now refers to himself as a “converted skeptic” because he used to have doubts about the existence of global warming. However, after heading a study by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (of which he founded), he has changed his mind.
Muller designed a study to address his and other “skeptics’” concerns about the validity of climate change data. He felt that previous climate studies contained problems that cast doubt on the occurrence of climate change. He argues that his study reduced human bias and addressed other biases caused by urban heating and poor station quality. In the end, Muller was surprised to find that the Earth’s land has warmed about 2.5 degrees F over the past 250 years, and that it “appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases,” confirming the results of multiple other climate studies (NYTimes).
I have mixed feelings about Muller’s revelation. On one hand, we learned nothing new after a high-level scientist from a reputable university spent time, manpower, and money to show what climate scientists have been telling us for years: the climate is warming and we are the cause. On the other hand, I wonder if maybe this study and the fact that Muller himself changed his mind will change the minds of at least some others and ease their doubts. According to an article in The Guardian, however, it seems that some climate change skeptics are unlikely to accept Muller’s results, citing issues with his methodology—a prime example of confirmation bias.
Even with all these mental and moral hurdles, over 80 percent of Americans believe that global warming has been happening and over 70 percent believe that it is at least in part caused by humans (see previous blog). After witnessing Muller’s very public conversion, it appears that more and more people are joining the majority of Americans. Now, to quote Muller, “comes the difficult part: agreeing across the political and diplomatic spectrum about what can and should be done.”