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Psych! Climate change messes with our heads

model-headThe old Mark Twain-ism, “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one can do anything about it,” also explains a lot about why people view the threat of climate change in so many different ways.

“(T)he public’s apparent apathy regarding climate change is actually paralysis at the size of the problem,” states a new report from the American Psychological Association (APA) that looks at how global warming affects the way people think, and vice versa.

“Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges” was prepared by the association’s Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. Among its findings:

  • We tend to underestimate the risks of small-probability events like droughts or floods … unless we’ve recently experienced one, in which case we “vastly” overestimate the risk;
  • The media we choose to watch and the people we hang out with influence our perceptions, because most of our encounters with climate change aren’t experienced directly but represented by other sources;
  • Our tendency to base behaviour on past experience doesn’t apply in the case of climate change: “We can … expect to be surprised by climate-driven events, possibly including having to experience events that science has not yet even warned about. Many of our expectations about climate may be outmoded because global temperature is moving outside the range within which it has fluctuated throughout recorded human history. Climate change is also accelerating and does not necessarily following linear trends, so recently experienced events may be bad guides as to what to expect.”;
  • Because climate change is a trend in averages in a system that has lots of variability, we find it hard to identify the signs of it personally;
  • Our existing beliefs about climate affect how we perceive change. One study, for example, found that farmers in Illinois remembered more weather extremes if they believed in climate change, and fewer extremes if they didn’t. The new APA study cites a similar misunderstanding from the past: “English settlers who arrived in North America in the early colonial period assumed that climate was a function of latitude. Newfoundland, which is south of London, was thus expected to have a moderate climate. Despite repeated experiences of far colder temperatures and resulting deaths and crop failures, colonists clung to their expectations based on latitude, and generated ever more complex explanations for these deviations from expectations.”;
  • Living in areas that already are feeling the most dramatic impacts of climate change — places like Florida or Alaska, for example — makes us more likely to want to take action against the problem;
  • Political ideology explains not only why the average US resident is less concerned about climate change than people in other parts of the world, but makes us more or less likely to be a naysayer. How the problem and its solutions are framed also affect the difference between a Republican’s and a Democrat’s response. For example, one study found that 65 per cent of Republicans said they’d accept a carbon offset fee added to the price of an airline ticket, but only 27 per cent approved of such a surcharge when it was described as a carbon tax;
  • The non-scientists among us also perceive risks differently from scientists, with the way a problem is framed again affecting our response. Most people, for instance, fear “mad cow disease” more than “bovine spongiform encephalitis” or “Creutzfeld-Jacob disease” (all names for the same malady);
  • We also tend to assume that climate change will be simple and gradual, so we can act in the future if things get bad where we live — i.e., “I’ll move from Miami to Vancouver when things get too hot or dangerous in Florida.” In real life, though, that doesn’t always happen: people continue to live in southern California even though the region has experienced repeated devastating wildfires over the past several decades.
  • Believing we have no control over climate change can foster feelings of denial; and
  • All folk wisdom to the contrary — “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today” and “A stitch in time saves nine” — we still tend to view future costs and benefits, especially those in the distant future, as being less important than those today.

The APA report’s authors suggest that some of the psychological barriers to effective climate action might be overcome with campaigns similar to those that helped reduce smoking in the US:

“To the extent that people’s assessments of the future risks of climate change can be changed to become similar to those of smoking (with the aid of educational efforts or the reframing of choice options), people might become more willing to undertake lifestyles changes that lead to mitigation,” they write. “As for other analogies used to motivate research hypotheses or possible intervention strategies, the devil is undoubtedly in the details of such translations, and research is needed to work out such details.”

1 Comment

  • Tony
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    If the APA thinks the public’s apparent apathy regarding climate change is actually a paralysis at the size of the problem, they are deluding themselves as much as those people who believe every word uttered by Al Gore.

    It is more a recognition that climate change has always taken place and always will and all this fuss is completely out of proportion to the effects that could result. Why should people get excited about a mere hypothesis where none of the projections has been borne out by actuality? Where exactly is the problem?

    We were bombarded with dire warnings of runaway global warming, but the warming of the last 30 years has been wiped out by the cooling over the last decade – despite CO2 levels increasing. Doubtless this will result in yet another change of tack as some other pretext for action is identified and adopted and CO2 is quietly dropped as an issue, just as ‘climate change’ replaced ‘global warming’ as the problem.

    The only people hyping climate change as a problem are the green lobby who have found it fits nicely with their agenda of reversing industrialisation and technological advancement, and professional campaigners jumping on the latest bandwagon whose CND and leftist political ambitions also failied to resonate with a public that saw through the hype.

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