Understanding the psychology of climate change scepticism

Ian Hamilton, Technical Director of Human Engineering, Lloyd’s Register Group

Rarely before has political opinion been so unified on one specific environmental issue… the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was a failure.


Ian Hamilton, Technical Director of Human Engineering, the human factors and ergonomics consultancy of the Lloyd’s Register Group. Ian is a Chartered Psychologist who believes that psychology can help us to understand climate change scepticism.

About Lloyd’s Register
Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance (LRQA) is a member of the Lloyd’s Register Group. Lloyd’s Register is an independent risk management organisation that works to help improve its clients’ quality, safety, environmental and organisation performance throughout the world, because life matters.
“Lloyd’s Register stands apart: independent, objective, experienced and uncompromising in our commitment to help clients produce an overall positive impact on society and the environment.”

Human Engineering is one of the world’s leading human factors and ergonomics consultancies, with offices located throughout the world. The company’s human factors specialists (psychologists and ergonomists) understand people, their physical attributes and their behaviour, and these skills are employed to support the design of equipment and systems to improve safety, health and performance.

As politicians seek to apportion blame for the summit’s inability to reach a binding agreement on emissions reduction, observers should look beyond the politicians – global climate change scepticism could have been the greatest barrier to success.

According to The (London) Times only 41% of people in Britain think that climate change is largely man-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, 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 out-spoken in opposition to climate change action.

Surprisingly, in the notably sceptical United States, 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 Britain, but not by much. So why do a majority refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence that climate change is happening? (See Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Climate change – Is time running out? published by Bloomsbury in 2006.) And why do so many people prefer to believe that humans are blameless?

Simplistically, by rejecting the notion of man-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.

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. 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 and if levels of climate change scepticism are running high, it would be unrealistic to expect our political leaders to reach agreements that would disenchant their domestic voters.

If we want to see real change in emissions levels, we will have to influence the minds and deeds of voters.

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.

Professor David Uzzell (Psychologists argue behaviour change can help halt climate change) speaking at a special event on climate change hosted by the British Psychological Society said that: “Neither technological fixes nor financial instruments alone will suffice. Even when these can play a role, their effectiveness is usually mediated by the way the public understands, interprets, engages with or responds to such actions.”

People cause emissions through their insatiable use of energy, but it is important to appreciate that energy consumption is essential to life as we know it and 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.

The Lloyd’s Register Group has built an unparalleled worldwide reputation for helping organisations to reduce risks and protect people and assets. In order to achieve this, it has been necessary to develop a deep understanding of how humans behave and the insight that this provides can help us to understand climate change scepticism and thereby to find ways to deal with it.

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. In fact the success of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Stephen Briers, Brilliant Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: How to use CBT to improve your mind and your life, published by Prentice Hall in 2009.) rests on the very principles that express how our attitudes and perceptions give rise to thoughts and emotional responses. Thoughts cause emotions and emotions cause thoughts. 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.

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. When there is a deviation between core beliefs and behaviour we can experience stress and anxiety. If unchecked this can lead to depression and other forms of mental ill health. In fact there are inbuilt defence mechanisms to nudge us back and to keep behaviour and beliefs aligned.

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.

By accepting the reality of man-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 and those around us continue to ignore them. As David Uzzell says, “…we can’t expect people to change their behaviour without changing the conditions that influence behaviour.”

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 connect with their motivations and sense of self. The conditions for behavioural influence are strongly affected by the emotional salience of arguments.

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.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the denial of man-made climate change is that the arguments for it have less emotional salience than the arguments against.

The arguments for man-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 man-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) 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 emotionally attractive; if there is no climate change or if human behaviour is not involved, then current lifestyles can be maintained free from guilt.

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.

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 the Copenhagen Summit may, in the future, be regarded as a success.

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2 Responses to Understanding the psychology of climate change scepticism

  1. Walt Boyes says:

    I encourage you to read “Climate Balance – A Balanced and Realistic View of Climate Change” by Steven E. Sondergard. I heard him speak at PlantSuccess last week, and bought and read his book. Much of what he says, I had already concluded independently by discussion and study.

    I am not a climate change denier. I am a climate change causality skeptic. There is a significant difference, and it has nothing to do with the pop psychology you quoted. My skepticism is fact-based, not based in some emotional response. It is clear that there has been a major climatic shift since the end of the Maunder sunspot minimum in about 1715 (before the accepted start of the Industrial Revolution). Before that, the climatologists call the period the Little Ice Age. Since the end of the Maunder minimum, temperatures have been steadily warming, and since the warming started well before the current industrialization of the West, and the rest of the world, there is some evidence that global warming is at most only partly caused by human activity.

    In fact, since 2008, we appear to be entering another sunspot minimum, which would, based on the historical record, imply that we were about to enter a period of global _cooling_.

    There are some REAL issues buried in this socio-political mess.

    1. Human activity IS having a serious negative effect on species diversity. This is undeniably true and requires much more attention than carbon trading.

    2. Energy is not an infinite resource. Even absent climate change, of whatever type, sustainable use of energy and other resources is simply good socially and good business.

    3. Corporations and governments do what they are forced to do. And sometimes they do stupid things in the name of doing good. The big danger in the rabid “humans are bad because they caused climate change” movement is not that the science is flawed (which it is) nor that the motives are not pure (which they are not – the anti-Western bias is notable) but that they may force governments and corporations into doing economically unsustainable things in the name of sustainability and climate change control.

    Mt. Eylahoweverthehellyoupronounceit in Iceland released more greenhouse gases in a single week, from a single point source than all of the greenhouse gases emitted by human habitation since 1980. So, why are we working up to banning cows because they emit methane?

    The fact is, and the very good thing that has happened, is that the economic calculus is in the process of being widened (as it was in the 1960s for environmental pollution) so that governments and corporations can legitimately do things to make their businesses more sustainable, without defaulting on their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders and voters.

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