Features | Frightening the life out of the climate change movement

Laura Anderson investigates why North Americans ignore science at their own peril

December’s United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen brought together delegates representing 110 nations with only one issue on the agenda: cutting carbon emissions. With ever-mounting scientific evidence proving the severity of global warming and that humans are causing it, the existence and origins of climate change can no longer be credibly disputed.

Considering the stakes of this issue, the outcome of the Copenhagen conference was a disappointing one: an entirely non-binding agreement forged by only five states without significant reductions targets that leaves many details undecided. This vague agreement leaves developing countries – which arguably stand to lose the most from the consequences of climate change – particularly vulnerable.

When it came to deciding on emissions targets, the unfortunate reality was that climate change is just not a priority issue for many nations. However, there are numerous public opinion findings that suggest that climate change inertia is not exclusively due to bureaucratic considerations and obstacles particular to governments and politicians. It seems that despite ever-increasing public awareness of the issue, climate change ranks low on citizens’ priority lists.

International inertia
Prime minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly expressed that Canada will be acting in tandem with the United States regarding climate legislation – a decision that leaves the nation’s progress dependent on decisions from outside leadership. American public opinion will consequently have significant effects north of the border.

Findings from the acclaimed Pew Research Center, based in Washington, D.C., confirm that on average, Americans don’t feel very strongly about global warming. This is especially troubling considering that the U.S. has historically been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Public opinion polls over the past 20 years have consistently shown that about 35 to 40 per cent of the American public worry about global warming “a great deal” and only about one-third consider the issue to be “a serious personal threat.” When asked about the most urgent problems facing the country, very few responded that global warming was among the topmost concerns. Remarkably, public opinion has remained fairly stable regarding the issue throughout the past two decades, despite fluctuations in government attitudes and media coverage.

As scientific evidence becomes increasingly concrete, this rigid skepticism is puzzling.

Though there may be a debate about the existence of global warming taking place on the Internet and in the right wing press, there is not a parallel debate in credible scientific journals.

These statistics are derived from the American public, but the Canadian experience is not far off. Findings from the Environics Research Group suggest that the Canadian public’s concern about climate change is at an all-time low, although to a less severe extent than was found in the U.S.

Environics analysts assert that public interest in climate change has not been sufficient to place significant political pressure on the federal government and, by extension, on international agreements.

Mind games
In “Apocalypse Fatigue,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger assert that the the decline of public confidence in the existence of global warming in the face of peak media coverage and scientific evidence is a psychological phenomenon.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger explain that a source of the public’s weak commitment is climate change’s inherent qualities. The threat of climate change is a relatively distant one, in terms of both time and space, making it difficult to visualize and to comprehend in a meaningful way.

Perhaps more importantly, the steps needed to combat climate change can often be viewed as counter to the Western way of life. “The dominant climate change solutions run up against established ideologies and identities,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger say. For many, the change in lifestyle necessary to reduce one’s carbon footprint translates into an attack on a culture defined in many ways by consumption, perceived exceptionalism, and privilege.

Some argue that a concern for climate change is often pushed aside for issues more resonant with the public’s daily life. Presently, as the world deals with the aftermath of the most severe recession in decades, individuals will likely prioritize economic concerns over environmental ones, pushing concerns of climate change further down the priority list. For many, problems such as unemployment are much easier to conceptualize than an increase in the planet’s temperature. It may be in everyone’s best interest to work toward carbon neutrality, but when these interests are framed as a potential hindrance to economic growth, action becomes difficult.

In The Denial Justification, Sharon Tregaskis explains that while we may not refute evidence, we want to divert out attention. “Our inaction, in part, boils down to how we think. We, and our leaders, are easily distracted by closer issues – war, terrorism, disease, race relations, economic distress.”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger apply a concept from social psychology, system justification theory, to explain public ambivalence toward climate change. The basic idea – built upon earlier work on ego- and group-justification theories – is that many people possess a “psychological need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order, whatever it may be. This need manifests itself, not surprisingly, in the strong tendency to perceive existing social relations as fair, legitimate, and desirable, even in contexts in which those relations substantively disadvantage the person involved.”

John Jost, a prominent political psychologist at New York University, applies system justification to the ideological divide that plagues climate change issues. He explains that the combination of a low sense of imminent threat and system justification combine to make an individual resist any education and persuasive techniques that run counter to the set of ideals the individual identifies with.

Often, addressing climate change has been framed in terms of economic sacrifice and lifestyle changes that most people are reluctant to accept. Jost writes: “There are psychological obstacles to creating real, lasting change…in addition to all of the scientific, technical, economic, and political obstacles.” He continues: “Denial is far easier and more convenient than supporting a carbon tax, paying for high-efficiency technology, or giving up cheap goods shipped through elaborate, fuel-guzzling supply chains.”

Scaring away support
The body of research present on the psychology of global warming would suggest that efforts to educate and inform the public might have a counter-intuitive effect.

“Apocalyptic threats, when their impacts are relatively far off in the future, difficult to imagine or visualize, and emanate from everyday activities…are not easily acknowledged and are unlikely to become priority concerns for most people,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger explain.

They suggest that the practical result of greater well-meaning attention from activists and an increased media spotlight may be a further polarization of the issue, often serving to push politically conservative, and even moderate individuals, away from the cause.

By this logic, increasingly dire prognoses meant to motivate the public to take action have the opposite effect. In some cases, they could lead people to climate skeptics, who question the scientific validity of global warming. Attempts to make the problem a material reality by invoking images of melting icecaps and drowning nations may be overwhelming. Such tactics could make people reject the idea of climate change altogether, rather than change their behaviour.

A survey by American Environics revealed that the public increasingly perceives the threat of global warming to be exaggerated, giving robustness to the claim that dire and apocalyptic warnings invoked by proponents of change may be causing a rise in the existence of public skepticism.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger address this point: “Having been told that climate science demands that we fundamentally change our way of life, many Americans have, not surprisingly, concluded that the problem is not with their lifestyles but with what they’ve been told about the science.”

Deadly defense mechanism
Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist, sociologist, and psychiatrist, as well as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, claims that “the essence of normality is the refusal of reality.” Harkening back to Freudian theories that assert that repression is a natural self-protection mechanism, Becker claimed that a fear of death drives us to protect ourselves from experiences that remind us of our own mortality.

It would follow, then, that the human response to being confronted by apocalyptic images is a buffering of one’s worldview – and subsequently a rejection of the people and ideas that pose a threat to it. This hypothesis is called the Terror Management Theory (TMT). The irony of this mechanism is that by suppressing messages of mortality, people may actually expose themselves to greater physical danger. Despite its counter-intuitive nature, TMT has purportedly been supported by more than 3,000 empirical studies that have aimed to test its predictions within both Western and non-Western societies.

Becker connected the denial of death to “a broad suite of behaviours enacted in defense of a cultural world view, placing his [or her] ideas within the context of Western society’s increasingly distant relationship to nature and rejection of death as an integral part of life.”

In light of these assertions, it is worth taking note of the recent onslaught of apocalyptic images in popular entertainment. One example: the 2009 blockbuster 2012, which depicts a series of catastrophic natural disasters devastating the earth as a result of the rapid heating of the earth’s core. It is not a stretch to view these images as analogous to many of the worst-case scenario depictions of the effects of global warming. Although the effects of apocalyptic images in entertainment on public opinion are unclear, Becker’s TMT would imply that exposure to such images increases denial and inaction when it comes to climate change.

An analysis of Becker’s work, “The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change,” carried out by biologist Janis L. Dickinson, connects it directly to the issue of climate change, suggesting that people’s natural response to the climate crisis may be an unproductive one. She claims that individuals “may actually increase consumption as well as raise antagonism toward environmentalists and scientists. The message, after all, presents a lethal threat to the central immortality project of Western society: perpetual economic growth, supported by an ideology of entitlement and exceptionalism.”

Inciting change
Addressing the problem is a difficult one. After Copenhagen, it is clear that even policy proposals that rest on a sound scientific basis may be insufficient to overcome opposition.

Internationally, pressure to move forward with a credible commitment is likely to increase as time goes on, as evidence of climate change makes itself more immediately felt. The question that remains is how long it will take before this pressure takes effect, and whether at this point an effective solution will still be reachable.

However, many theorists are offering solutions to the public’s apparent apathy. Nordhaus and Shellenberger conclude that despite waning public interest in climate change, citizens are still prepared to support “reasonable efforts to reduce carbon emissions,” if the issue is framed the right way.

Finding a means to integrate environmentalism into the existing worldviews of individuals, rather than setting up climate change as antagonistic to those ideals, could lead to a more effective outcome.

A key consideration to keep in mind is that public attitudes matter: a committed public has the potential to encourage governments to come up with solutions. Calls for change are by no means scarce, and clearly a base of individuals solidly committed to change already exists. The protests that filled the streets of Copenhagen during the climate conference are just one example of a growing sense of urgency.

Although it is likely that climate change will ultimately be mitigated through shifts in policy and technology, further investigation into the psychological issues that underlie public opinion will be important in designing effective strategies for education and advocacy. By reconfiguring the strategies used to promote advocacy, public opinion could serve as a powerful tool to push for change.


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