Climate change has the clear potential to cause conflict, as migrants flee no-longer-habitable areas and nations fight over increasingly scarce natural resources.
But newly published research offers a more hopeful scenario. It presents tentative evidence that fears of a warming planet could bring earthlings together in a common cause.
“Increased awareness of the shared threat of global climate change can, at least under some circumstances, reduce support for war, and promote efforts at peaceful coexistence and international cooperation,” writes a research team led by psychologist Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The study is published in the American Psychological Association journal Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology. Its findings are particularly noteworthy because one of its three experiments was conducted in the ever-volatile Middle East, among Arab citizens of Israel.
The paper begins with a well-established equation: thoughts of our own mortality often lead people to cling more strongly to their own culture, and feel hostility towards those with opposing world views. For example, one study found thinking about one’s death increased support for the militarily aggressive policies of the George W. Bush administration.
In two experiments described in the new paper, this effect basically vanished when people were also asked to imagine the consequences of global climate change. One of the experiments specifically asked 56 American college students about their support for a possible war with Iran.
Those who had thought about their own deaths were, predictably, more supportive of military conflict. But this increased support disappeared when they were also asked to consider the possible global impact of climate change.
The experiment featuring 100 Palestinian citizens of Israel (all Muslim college students) was somewhat more nuanced. It was conducted in January 2009, during the Israeli invasion of Gaza—a time when the Arab world was expressing stronger-than-usual hostility toward Israel.
Half the participants were first asked to contemplate their own death. All then filled out a questionnaire measuring their support for peaceful coexistence and reconciliation with Israeli Jews. They expressed their agreement or disagreement (on a one-to-seven scale) of a series of statements, including: “As difficult as it is, we need to find a way to live in peace with the Jews.”
Finally, all of them filled out a separate, 11-item questionnaire measuring their sense of “perceived common humanity.” This involved giving their assessment of such statements as “All people are linked to each other in a shared human bond.”
Among those who scored low on the common-humanity scale, mortality reminders and thoughts of climate change “led to a marginal decrease in support for peace with Israeli Jews,” the researchers report. “This is consistent with previous studies showing that mortality salience often increases support for violent solutions to this conflict.”
However, among those with a strong sense of common humanity, that same combination led to increased support for peaceful coexistence. This suggests that even in a tense, hostility-filled environment, contemplating climate change can nudge at least some people in a cooperative direction.
“To the extent that public opinion influences the behavior of leaders and nations,” the researchers conclude, “these findings suggest that keeping people mindful of shared global threats might facilitate a more peaceful world.”
As the response to Hurricane Sandy proved yet again, when faced with an environmental catastrophe, people are able to put aside their disagreements and band together. This study provides hope that the looming threat of climate change may have a similar effect on a larger scale.