The Psychology of Climate Change

Words | Louise Angrilli

Illustration | Charlotte Franks 

Research shows that 97% of climate scientists agree that not only is Earth’s overall climate warming up, but that humans are fundamentally responsible for the rapid acceleration of this warming. Therefore, it can be difficult to understand why climate change skepticism is so rife.  We might feel inclined to claw at our hair and scream, “How can people be so blind?”

As humans, we like to think of ourselves as inherently rational beasts. It can therefore be surprising, even unsettling, to realise that the veneer of human rationality glosses over a deep foundation of unconscious psychological motivation. Climate change could well be one of the most difficult global problems to solve due to a myriad of interlocking psychological biases. Humans are wired to ignore climate change.

It’s not a coincidence that the climate change debate has a political edge. It’s an issue that people wear as a badge to proclaim their worldview. “Climate change denial has become what some people call the ‘litmus test’ to be a part of certain conservative groups,” says Troy Campbell, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Oregon. He suggests that it’s not the climate change science by itself that’s the problem, but rather to a certain degree, the solutions proposed to counter it.

“When we pair global climate change science with solutions that are less aversive to conservative ideology [e.g. free market solutions], conservatives are more likely to agree with the climate change science. This suggests that the denial of climate change science is not, at least completely, due to other factors, such as exposure to information, skepticism of science in general, or differences of fears about the problems and their magnitudes, but [is related to] the solutions that have been associated with climate change.”

When those with conservative, market-driven politics hear suggestions of government regulation and reduced consumption, they are motivated to disbelieve the very existence of the climate change problem, as a form of ideological protection. This triggers a strong ‘us against them’ tribalism, with members of the ideological divide resorting to stereotypes in order to discredit the opposition.

“I think one of the hardest things is trying to engage the public on the streets,” says Mia Papp from Fossil Free RMIT. “People have a perception that you’re uneducated. It’s really hard when someone just yells something at you and then walks off. You can try and say, “No, listen, this is true” but once they see you like that, they’re not going to believe you.”

Nicholas Dureau from Fossil Free RMIT agrees, “It also sounds a lot like what an extremist left group might say. They think, ‘This is just that same rhetoric around the world is about to explode.’ That’s just crazy. I’m more central. I’m just staying with the mainstream”. In fact, the mainstream tends to be a very comfortable place to be, as reflected by ‘system justification’, our inclination to maintain the status quos. Climate change science is complex, seeming even impenetrable without a science degree, while the success of the solutions it proposes can be uncertain. ‘Wait and see’ is sometimes the easiest choice.

‘Wait and see’ also applies when considering the effect of bystander apathy. Climate change is a global problem. No single person or country can solve it. We need a collective solution. However, the ‘bystander effect’ demonstrates that the more parties that witness a crisis, the more diffused the responsibility becomes of any one party to jump in and take action, so we all wait for others to do it first.

Fossil Free RMIT has struggled with this hesitation when it comes to recruitment. Papp says, “I feel like they don’t have that urgency that some people have. Climate change has always been a very important issue for me, but if you don’t think it’s super important, you’re not going to come to a meeting.

“After I’ve had a few drinks [with friends] I get even more passionate, but there’s this feeling of people just not caring. They say, “Listen, Mia, I care about the environment. I just don’t have time”. You’re actually offending them because it’s a sore spot. They know they should be doing something.”

Fossil Free RMIT has been campaigning over the last three years for the university to divest their investment portfolio of fossil fuel producing institutions. Recently, progress has been made with the establishment of the Responsible Investment Policy, but there are still concerns. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but there is a fear of greenwashing,” says Papp. The university’s current policy lacks a timeline and a target for divestment, and risks falling prey to ‘tokenism’ by feeling good about making a relatively small change.

While climate change resistance presents a messy psychological conundrum, that doesn’t make it insurmountable. Research and experimentation (such as that by Campbell) can pull us closer, little by little, to a framework for change. If an understanding of unconscious psychological motivation can help reduce littering, road death and tobacco use, then there’s no reason to believe that psychology can’t reduce our carbon impact as well.   

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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