What retards action on climate change?

1 Feb

What makes governments, scientists and people believe or act on climate change? This is a question that is as polarised as the vigorous debates between advocates and sceptics of climate change.

In trying to understand the nature of this problem, Kari Marie Norgaard (2009) analysed a range of psychological, social psychological and sociological studies on peoples’ beliefs and attitudes on climate change issues and came to the conclusion that three broad factors impede their behavioural responses. They are psychological/ conceptual; social and cultural; as well as structural (political economy) and only applicable to people in developed countries (as the poor in the South are already facing problems with climate change effects) (Norgaard 2009, p. 33).

For example, the reasonable argument that people who know that climate change is human-induced are likely to advocate for sustainable actions may not be true in all instances. In a social psychology study on American’s public perception of climate change, it has been discovered that ‘people stopped paying attention to global climate change when they realize that there is no easy solution for it… many people judge as serious only those problems for which they think action can be taken’ (Krosnic et. al 2006 cited in Norgaard 2009, p. 14).

Similarly, it was also argued that people avoided climate change issues because they wanted to barricade themselves against these information in order to avoid negative emotions (such as fear, guilt and helplessness); abide by their cultural norms; and feel positive about their own and country (Norgaard 2009, p. 26). In her interviews with respondents, Norgaard discovered that people were guilty of broaching the topic with their children:

‘… In the words of one person who held his hands in front of his eyes as he spoke, “people want to protect themselves a bit.” They described feelings of guilt for their own actions and the difficulty of discussing the issue of climate change with their children’ (Norgaard 2009, p. 28).

Given the conflicting beliefs and emotions that climate change can provoke in lay people, it is perhaps illuminating to probe the attitudes of elites such as scientists and politicians who are reticent or skeptical. With the aid of computer simulation, Thagard & Findlay used the explanatory coherence theory to explain ‘how political and economic goals can bias the evaluation of evidence and produce irrational rejection of claims about global warming’ (2009, p. 2).

The authors also hypothesised that conservative politicians are more reluctant to act on climate change because of their fixation with free market ideology and a close shared history with oil corporations. When these factors are taken into consideration, ‘belief revision is retarded, so that more evidence is required to shift from rejection to acceptance of the hypothesis that global warming is being caused by human activities’ (Thagard & Findlay 2009, p.18).

These two papers infer that understanding climate science whether through the media or reading influential or scientific reports is not enough to explain why skepticism, apathy or inaction exists. In light of the recent controversies over the claims of climate science, be it the email leaks in University of East Anglia (on whether scientists suppress evidence) or the exaggerated assertions of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, the role of scientific communication becomes more crucial.

In a media-saturated world of information. mis-information and counter-information on climate change, it is increasingly pertinent to question not just the scientific content that is being reported. Activists and policy makers will need to understand what motivates people to act (beyond bombarding them with the latest scientific facts). If an individual’s inability to act is based on emotions of dissonance (for example, guilt), then the message has to be crafted towards resolving that dilemma.

Works Cited

Norgaard, K. M 2009, ‘Cognitive and behavioural challenges in responding to climate change’, Policy Research Working Paper 4940 – Background paper to the 2010 World Development Report, May.

Thagard, P & Findlay, S 2009, ‘Changing minds about climate change: belief revision, coherence, and emotion’ in E. Olsson (Ed), Science in flux: Belief revision in the context of scientific inquiry’, forthcoming, Springer, Berlin, accessed 31 January 2010, <http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/%7Epthagard/Articles/changing.minds.2009.pdf>.


3 Responses to “What retards action on climate change?”

  1. joni February 1, 2010 at 11:17 am #

    Very thought provoking and well structured article.

  2. Nature 5 February 1, 2010 at 3:12 pm #

    Yes it is a very good post.

    A minor point. Not sure I would have used this phraseology (“attitudes of elites such as scientists and politicians”) given recent political history with accusations of ‘cultural elites’ etc.

  3. Jarrod August 10, 2010 at 1:38 pm #

    This short film outlines some of the stark realities of climate change:

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