Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thin ice: the psychology of climate change scepticism

Today I participated in the local march to coincide with the climate talks at Paris.

What does psychology have to say on climate change? Clearly, behaviour change at an individual level will be hard-pressed to address the problem. Why change our behaviour in the sense of making large individual sacrifices when we can work as a society to make the things we enjoy renewable? Nonetheless, such change takes political will, and this is driven by social psychology. 

While working towards a PhD at Cardiff I became aware of the research of psychologists such as Nick Pidgeon and Lorraine Whitmarsh, who were working to gain a greater understanding of people's attitudes towards climate change. One aspect of public attitudes towards climate change they have looked into is scepticism towards anthropogenic climate change (no doubt a roadblock to political will to fight climate change).

Research by this team at Cardiff found that people who held sceptical attitudes towards climate change assimilated information in a given article differently from those with less sceptical views. A fairly classic result, although interestingly the attitudes of the two groups did not become polarised (i.e. the scepticism of the sceptical group did not increase more markedly). Another study indicated that levels of certainty on this issue were higher among "believers" in climate change compared to those holding more sceptical views, suggesting that the sceptics may be more amenable to change their viewpoint. However, it should be noted that levels of scepticism were low in the (British) cohort studied. 

Work done across Europe and the USA has brought home the idea that climate change is often secondary to other issues and concerns in people's lives. Efforts to build support for fighting climate change may have to frame concerns about climate change in a manner that chimes with other localised concerns (flooding in Cork?) to actually generate political will. Recent research from Australia*, which I dare say has broader applicability, has indicated that people with a stronger sense of global attachment have lower levels of scepticism around anthropogenic climate change compared to those with a stronger place attachment at a national level. Interestingly right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance seemed to mediate the effect of national place attachment on climate scepticism. (I wonder where these nationalistic climate deniers are going to send asylum seekers when Nauru is underwater, but I digress).

Clearly such scepticism is in the interest of those who gain from fossil fuels. Perhaps the biggest issue is to create more motivation/incentives to get more people moving us faster toward 100% renewables? As one speaker at our local event noted, if/when we make enough renewable energy to do everything we want to do, then much of this fight will be over.

*Australia has been found have a higher level of climate scepticism than either the US or the UK.

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