The Psychology of Climate Change Denial

When asked if climate change is real, we’re much more likely to say “yes” if it’s hot outside that day. In fact, if you are holding a hot beverage when someone is discussing climate change, you’re more likely to be a believer as well.

People’s beliefs can be fickle that way.

I spoke with Dr. Michael Ranney, psychology and education professor––and cognitive researcher––at UC Berkeley, who looks at what specific factors make someone accept or deny climate change. With a background in physics and biology, and years as a cognitive researcher, he feels a moral duty to help tackle the problem of climate change denial.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Dr. Ranney:

Belief in climate change often comes down to money – that is, if we’re personally financially affected.

Here’s one good example: Due to sea level rise, flood-prone US property is noticeably dropping in value relative to less flood-prone and more inland property, including within Miami-Dade County.

This fact tends to be more convincing to those who are often among the most intransigent climate change deniers – fiscal conservatives – than stats about species extinctions or the rapid melting of ice caps.

Why poke the bear?

I modify the focus of my talks depending on my audience. In my upcoming talks in Kansas and Missouri, I may not name the Koch brothers. Why poke the bear, you know?

My approach with conservative audiences – and this is an earnest approach, not a rouse – is to begin by saying that “I so wish that global warming weren’t true, and I’d be very delighted and relieved if anyone can show me the errors in my thinking.”

In fact, virtually every human, let alone most countries and many companies, would like to disconfirm human-caused global warming, because it’s a very unfortunate reality.

If someone could disconfirm climate change, that person would win the Nobel Prize.

The fact that no one has disconfirmed it so far should even further increase our acceptance that it’s happening.

To claim that scientists prefer that anthropogenic global warming is occurring is, I believe, libel.

What’s critical is that most Americans simply don’t understand what is causing the planet to heat up. In our first study, we interviewed about 300 adults and zero could explain the fundamental mechanism that is generating Earth’s warming.

The “Wisdom Deficit” 

A simple lack of accurate scientific information is definitely a component in climate change denial.

Many researchers don’t realize or accept this “wisdom deficit” because they think that climate change denial is essentially based on politics or culture, but that turns out to be only partially true.

In order to remedy this basic lack of scientific knowledge, on our website, www.howglobalwarmingworks.org, we offer a handful of important pieces of information that, alone or in combination, we find to be the most effective at reducing climate change denial:

1)  We list seven critical statistics of evidence that the climate is changing,

2) We show that the graphs of earth’s temperature-increase and the stock market’s (inflation adjusted) value-increase, both since 1880, are essentially indistinguishable,

3) We provide written scripts of various lengths to explain the basic physical and chemical mechanism that causes global warming, and

4) We provide videos of various lengths that articulate this same physical and chemical mechanism.

We find, simply, that when someone is exposed to one or more of these four sources of information (and two new ones we’ve just assessed), this dramatically boosts the chances that they will indeed accept global warming and climate change as occuring.

It’s all about the Hamiltons

And by the way, the narrator of the videos on our site happens to be Daveed Diggs, Tony Award winner and original cast member of Hamilton and now a star of the TV show “Blackish.”

He did our narrations before he got famous, of course, so I like to think that we were integral in launching him to stardom (laughing).

Perhaps surprising is how strongly tied climate change denial is to what I call “super-nationalism” in an individual.

That is, if someone believes that the US is essentially superior in nearly every way to other countries, that person is much more likely to deny climate change.

Those with a more realistic, balanced, and hold a less super-nationalist view of America’s many strengths and occasional shortcomings, tend to be more open to the idea that the climate is changing.

Drill, baby, drill

This may be sourced partly in the commingled 2008 presidential campaign slogans “America First” and “Drill, baby, drill,” but that’s just an educated guess at an explanation. And let me be clear, I truly love being an American and love living here.

Few people root for the US more than I do!  I just have found in my research that those with a more super-nationalist view of America tend also to deny climate change. So that is important to address in order to foster, for instance, international agreements.

I see climate change denial like a table with several legs underneath it that support it. If you can present someone with solid scientific stats that prove climate change, that might remove one leg supporting their denial.

Then if you explain the mechanism of global warming, that might kick out another leg. Eventually you’ve taken away enough legs that their denial can no longer be supported and it collapses.

$125 trillion is worth it, believe me

Humans subsidize fossil fuels at $5.3 trillion a year, but data from Mark Jacobson’s team at Stanford suggests that about $125 trillion would be enough to convert the entire world and its infrastructure to renewables, which is relatively inexpensive considering its implications.

And for those who see it as expensive?

What if when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we said, “well, fighting back and entering this war would be very expensive, so let’s just stay out of it and concede Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, etc., to the Japanese. It will be so much cheaper!”

And besides, it’s just the initial conversion to renewables that will be a bit expensive. Once the infrastructure is in place, it will be astronomically cheaper than fossil fuels and it will pay for itself within a few decades.

Switching to sustainable fuels is a win-win-win-win-win on five separate dimensions – in terms of health and economic effects.

The answer is in the fourth dimension

Most people get perhaps the largest amount of their information from their formal education and the media. I think these play a gigantic role in climate change acceptance.

One of the biggest complaints about both media and education is that we’ve reached a point in our history in which stories and information lack, in essence, “four-dimensional breadth.”

If a media outlet publishes a stat that the temperature in Peoria, Illinois in 2017 is lower than it was on the same date in 2016 as suggesting that global warming is not happening, that’s faulty reasoning called “cherry picking.”

What we need is more “global” or inclusive statements such as: The average temperature since 1900 over the entire earth has increased approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

That is a more accurate and holistic representation of the truth.

We need to disseminate galvanizing global warming scientific information to wake people up. If there’s little motivation, people won’t change.

But if there is extreme motivation, such as possible but scary apocalyptic predictions – yet people don’t realize how readily we can address the situation – then that transforms into what’s called ‘learned helplessness’ and people give up and say, “we’re screwed.”

What pushes your buttons? 

I used to do animal behavior studies. I never shocked animals myself, as I only used rewards.

If someone shocks animals immediately after a certain cue, their behavior adapts to the cue, such as by trying to escape the shock.

But if you shock them randomly, they experience that learned helplessness and they eventually just cower in fear because they feel they have no control.

Humans can act similarly.

So changing people’s climate-related behaviors is a subtle game in a way, but with massive consequences. And I feel part of the responsibility to help.


Learn more about the work that Dr. Michael Ranney is doing to dismantle the wall of climate change denial on How Global Warming Works.

Share his quick and dirty videos with the nearest skeptic, and let us know if it works.

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