How to Counteract Climate Change Inaction and Denial

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Two new studies offer ideas that go beyond the conventional wisdom.

By Tom Jacobs

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Icebergs in Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland. (Photo: United Nations Photo/Flickr)

While more Americans than ever believe climate change is a real threat, genuine consensus on the all-important topic remains elusive — as does motivation to make a difference. Two new studies look at this problem from different angles, and offer unconventional potential prescriptions.

One finds that appeals that emphasize collective responsibility for the environment are, surprisingly, much more effective than those focusing on individual actions.

The other points to the often-overlooked issue of “system justification” — the propensity of many people, especially political conservatives, to defend and protect the status quo. It suggests this tendency, which strongly discourages behavioral changes, can be negated by assurances about the strength of our economy.

The first study, by University of California-San Diego political scientists Nick Obradovich and Scott Guenther, challenges an approach commonly used by environmental organizations: emphasizing what steps individuals can take to help combat climate change.

The researchers asked 1,215 Audubon Society members to write a short essay on (a) The extent to which they personally engage in behaviors that produce greenhouse gases; (b) How climate change is exacerbated on a societal level, such as through the pervasiveness of fossil fuels; or (c) Their daily routines.

They were told that one out of every 100 participants would win $100, and asked what percentage of those winnings they would donate to a climate change-oriented non-profit.

In the journal Climatic Change, the researchers report that those who wrote about collective societal causes of climate change pledged seven percent more money than those in the other two groups. Moreover, when the researchers repeated the experiment with 304 Americans recruited online, that number increased exponentially, with such people pledging 49 percent more than their counterparts.*

In a follow-up study of 451 Americans recruited online, those who wrote the collective-problem essay were also the most likely of the three groups to state their intention to change their behavior in a green direction.

If you have a strong psychological need to keep things as they are, you’re likely to reject information that, if true, strongly implies the need for major change.

The results suggest “highlighting personal responsibility for climate change provides insufficient motivation for actual behavioral change,” the researchers conclude. “Presenting climate change as a collective problem, with ways to individually contribute to its solution, proves to be more persuasive.”

The second study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, began with the observation that concern about climate change fell sharply between 2008 (when 66 percent of Americans felt a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of concern about the subject) and 2011 (when that number stood at 51 percent).

It has since recovered to 64 percent, according to Gallup. But why?

“Individuals are not merely ignorant of the evidence for climate change,” writes a research team led by psychologist Erin Hennes of Purdue University. “Rather, they may be motivated to manipulate their informational landscape in a manner that fulfills the need to maintain and justify the societal status quo.”

The good news: That dynamic virtually disappears when people are convinced the economy is strong.

The researchers describe three studies, the most telling of which featured 234 undergraduates from New York University. One-third listened to a podcast suggesting the United States’economy was still in recession. Another third listened to a podcast suggesting it was in recovery, while a final third heard neither. All then watched a six-minute documentary from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration about climate change.

Afterwards, participants were asked to recall specific pieces of information from the video, and asked the degree to which it shifted their beliefs. Finally, they took a survey designed to measure their need to justify our political and economic system, which asked them to respond to statements such as “If people work hard, they almost always get what they want.”

Participants who were invested in justifying the current system were more likely than the others to recall details that “indicate climate change is a less-serious problem.” This, in turn, was associated with “an increase in skepticism about the existence of climate change.”

This makes sense. If you have a strong psychological need to keep things as they are, you’re likely to reject information that, if true, strongly implies the need for major change.

But that stasis-favoring dynamic evaporated when such people were told the economy was healthy. Armed with that information, they showed the opposite tendency, “recalling the evidence for climate change in a manner that increased its severity.”

In other words, “when they were led to believe that the economy was strong and stable, high and low system justifiers no longer differed in their recall of information about climate change.”

Hennes and his colleagues conclude that “linking scientific information to statements about the strength and stability of the economic system” may be more effective than simply repeating frightening statistics that people are reluctant to take in.

Belief in a strong economy apparently satiates their need to justify the status quo, meaning they no longer feel the need to summarily reject news of how serious the threat really is.

So when Donald Trump insists the economy is terrible, he’s not only boosting his own political prospects; he is increasing climate change skepticism.

Something else to thank him for.

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*Update — May 20, 2016: This post has been updated to correctly identify the name of the journal in which the referenced study appeared.

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