Psychology and Social Science Reveal Deep Underpinnings of Climate Change Denial

Apr 21, 2014

The vast majority– an estimated 97 percent or more - of climate scientists are in agreement that the planet is warming and it's largely because of human activities. So why aren't Americans buying it?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, recently released a new report on the state of climate science. The conclusion? The evidence for climate change is unequivocal. Glaciers are melting; sea level is rising; heat waves, storms and other extreme weather events are becoming more common. And the IPCC says it’s 95 to 100 percent certain that human activities are the primary cause.

Still, the American public remains deeply ambivalent about the issue of climate change. According to ongoing research at Yale University, only about half of Americans are convinced that climate change is happening and caused by human activities. That number fluctuates - up when extreme weather strikes, down when temperatures are cool or the weather is benign - suggesting that, for many, belief is not rooted deep in the heart or mind.

There have been a variety of explanations for this failure to conform to the scientific consensus – propaganda campaigns, poor media coverage, scientists failing to explain their research clearly. And those are probably all part of the picture.

Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and a leading expert on public opinion about climate change, says that's not the whole story, though. Psychology and social science increasingly suggests that the human brain may be hardwired to reject scientific fact if it threatens our world view and deeply held beliefs in principles such as justice or independence. This phenomenon doesn't just apply to climate change; controversies over evolution, vaccines, and gun violence also bear the hallmarks of so-called cultural cognition.

And once someone is emotionally or otherwise invested in a certain point of view, something called motivated avoidance may kick in. As the name implies, our brain effectively downplays, filters out, or just plain old ignores facts that don't fit the view already in place.

It seems like an intractable problem, but research also shows that targeted communications strategies can overcome these obstacles. Presenting people with a message of hope and possible actions can counterbalance dire messages. And trusted messengers - those who share one's world view or, alternatively, are viewed as absolutely neutral - can challenge a person's beliefs more effectively than someone percieved as invested in a competing view.

Renowned children's book author and illustrator, Lynne Cherry, figured out much of this for herself just by interacting with kids. She's put what she's learned into action in her video series, Young Voices for the Planet. Success stories come first, followed by the hard facts, and then a renewed message of hope and action. These messages may be especially powerful coming from kids, essentially universal trusted messengers.

Lynne Cherry and Zoe Borden, one of the Great Barrington students featured in Longing for a Local Lunch, will be at the ninth annual Connecting For Change Conference taking place in New Bedford, MA, on October 25-26, 2013.