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The psychosociology of climate change

The psychosociology of climate change

Christian Oltra, Centre for Energy, Environment and Technology Research (CIEMAT) and Universitat de Barcelona.

Andrew J. HOFFMAN. How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015

George MARSHALL. Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Nueva York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2015

Why are some groups in confrontation over climate change while the majority of the population is paying scant attention to the problem? It might appear that the debate boils down to a question of gases with a greenhouse effect and models of circulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but this perception changes upon reading these two books by Andrew Hoffman and George Marshall respectively.

Climate change is, as the Americans say, a “wicked problem”, one that it is difficult or even impossible to solve, in which any intervention can generate new problems and whose solution requires, for example, that a large number of people change their behaviour. There are no (scientific) doubts regarding the causal mechanisms that link the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels with the increase in the global temperature. Nor regarding the origins of the depletion of the ozone layer or acid rain. But tackling the causes of climate change, minimising global warming or adapting to its consequences are challenges of major complexity. We are faced with a complicated problem and, consequently, the solutions to it are not usually a case of true or false, but of better or worse. It is here that the debate on climate change becomes even more controversial.      

As with any other environmental or technological risk, as soon as a problem abandons the “laboratory” and enters the public sphere, the debate regarding the problem ceases to be a technical-rational question to become one of values and lifestyles, of cultural orientations, of political identity and emotion. The initial controversy on climate change, related with our values and views of the world (What must be done to fight climate change? Is it our fault? Should we do something about it?), and tackling its causes and its solutions involves recognising practices and intervening in social institutions, taking into account the values and beliefs of individuals, cultural groups, organisations, communities and societies. The debate about how nature functions is transformed into a debate about how we must manage our relationship with nature.

In How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, Andrew Hoffman, business and sustainability professor at the University of Michigan, summarises the knowledge accumulated by the social sciences regarding the reactions of individuals faced with the threat of climate change: what perception do they have of the risk of climate change? What attitudes do they have towards it? What do they feel? What do they believe they can do? What conducts do they deploy to mitigate or adapt to the problem? Hoffman starts out with a precise question: Why do some individuals accept the existence of climate change while others reject it? Why does polarisation arise in the public debate around climate change? The answer, as we will see, is not simple and far different from the type “people are ignorant of the facts” and is related to the deep functioning of our brain, our mind and our social life. 

In Hoffman’s judgement, there are four elements that polarise people’s reaction to climate change. Firstly, the existence of cognitive biases in our perception of risk. Our perception of the natural, interpersonal and social reality is mediated by cognitive risks or distortions. Our everyday reasoning resorts to the evidence, but it is rather a motivated reasoning: we use reasoning as a medium to achieve a goal, motivated beforehand by our ideological and self-defining positions and our cultural values. As affirmed by University of New York social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as individuals we believe in something and then we think: “can I believe in this?”, which forces us to seek elements of proof that support our belief.

Secondly, identity has an important weight in the formation of our attitudes towards any risk. Identity usually implies the defence of a set of values and lifestyles by an individual against different identities, perceived, on occasions, as enemy identities. It is not that we are purely tribal and irrational, but it is true that rationality is limited and it is conditioned by our emotions and our surroundings. Combating climate change implies, for certain cultural groups, an attack on certain values that should be protected (such as individual freedom and market freedom or, alternatively, equality and care of the ecosystem), something similar to what is occurring with the controversy regarding genetically modified foods. Scientific consensus indicates that consuming such foods is safe. However, there is great polarisation in the public debate. The cultural group that rejects the science related with climate change defends, in this case, the science of the safety of GMO (genetically modified organisms). And the groups that question the safety of GMO products support the science of climate change.

Thirdly, what happens is that information does not always reduce the weight of cultural identity in our decisions. To the contrary of what we usually think, information alone is insufficient to change the attitudes of individuals. On occasions, even, having new and varied information on climate change, such as that usually provided by the media, can produce greater polarisation of attitudes, as the information is processed asymmetrically by those who believe that climate change is the responsibility of human beings and those who do not believe in the science of climate change, as shown by the recent study by Cass Sunstein et al, titled «How People Update Beliefs about Climate Change: Good News and Bad News».

Finally, the polarisation is reinforced by the existence of groups and organisations with an interest in confounding and radicalising the debate around climate change. The actions necessary to mitigate climate change imply that the interests of certain organisations and collective actors may be affected. Thus these actors tend to amplify and polarise the debate, and to attenuate the risk of climate change to protect their interests, producing changes in the cover by the media, in the attitudes of the general public, in the consumer markets and in the policies of governments. 

Therefore, contrary to what may appear to be the case, the debate on climate change is more a question of cultural “tribes” and clashing political identities than of any public understanding of science.

However, although polarisation in the debate on climate change is a serious problem in the United States, where we find bands, lobbies and part of the population in confrontation, the majority is situated between these two radicalised views of the problem, and is barely worried about climate change. This is where our perception of risk enters into play. Climate change is a complex, global and interpersonal problem. It is a risk that is different to any that we have tackled previously and it may be that our psychological tools are not completely appropriate for assessing it, as affirmed by some researchers interviewed by George Marshall in Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

To look in depth at these psychological tools, both authors devote several sections to research into risk perception. As we know from dozens of studies, our intuitive perception is not derived from expert probabilistic models, but it is determined by numerous factors related with the qualitative characteristics of risk (such as familiarity, voluntariness or its catastrophic potential), our emotions and affects, the processes of amplification and social attenuation of risk, confidence in the organisations that manage risk or our pre-existing cultural orientations.

For this reason, as George Marshall exemplifies, it is not surprising that hundreds of residents stage an indignant protest against the installation of a mobile telephone antenna in their neighbourhood yet have barely discussed climate change with a family member at any time in their lives. It is not a case of individuals lacking the necessary scientific knowledge, but of how our emotional intelligence works. Those risks that are personal, specific, immediate and indisputable tend to generate a strong perception of risk and indignation. And climate change is not one of these.

Researchers interviewed by Marshall such as Paul Slovic, Daniel Gilbert, Dan Kahan and Daniel Kahneman conclude that climate change, unlike certain technological risks, does not generate an emotion of imminent threat among a significant part of the population. Only individuals with an inclination towards seeing climate change as something that is dangerous, due to their pre-existing values, or their political or cultural identity, really do perceive it as a danger. Whether we like it or not, this is how we tend to perceive risk. We donate more money in the face of a catastrophe when we identify with a single victim than when we are aware of the statistic of thousands of deaths. The possible impact of an asteroid or the potential harm caused by a food preservative can generate greater anxiety among us than global warming. 

And the fact is that climate change seems to combine various factors that reduce the possibility of us as individuals moving to take action: the fact that it is considered an inevitable condition, the uncertainty over its future evolution (which may be used as an excuse not to act), the fact that it is not a personal risk; or the fact that it is not a risk with one specific, concrete origin (since it is a consequence of the very functioning of society itself). The issue is that it is not easy to involve our emotional intelligence in climate change in an effective way. And given that people’s capacity to worry is limited and therefore we ration it (we possess, in the words of researchers Linville and Fischer, “a finite pool of worry”), those risks that are not an immediate concern for us, such as climate change, tend to produce indifference.  

The polarisation of the debate over climate change is, for the authors, another element that hinders individual and collective action. Climate change activism is monopolised, as affirmed by one of the authors, by ecologists and their view of the world, which cuts off a part of the public. Messages of fear and the language of urgency do not help to favour the implication of all kinds of public (classified in the book as alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive). A lack of trust in the organisations and people promoting action against climate change also hinders action. This is further delayed by our low perception of self-efficacy, the moral licence that leads us to undertake a pro-environmental action and then continue with our lifestyle, fatalist messages, individuals and governments reluctant to incur costs in the present in exchange for higher costs in the future or the defence of the status quo by organisations with interests in the energy industry. In short, due to all these factors we have not managed to convert the prevention of climate change into a social norm, into a visible standard practice, or into a habit of our societies.

Are we, therefore, destined to inaction against climate change? It doesn’t have to be that way. As both authors highlight, there is evidence of significant changes in the attitudes and practices of individuals and organisations in our societies in the recent past. During the summer of 2011, for example, after the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Japanese reduced their electricity consumption at peak times by 20%. The combination of a disaster, a call to collective identity and an informed solution (reduce personal electricity consumption) converted into an active and effective social standard, led the Japanese population to pursue the collective good as opposed to personal interests. We know that after a disaster, as individuals we become more cooperative and pro-social. But also that, once the stress peak has passed, we tend to return to our routines and inertias. Will we be capable of converting climate change into a trigger for social change?

Climate change appears to be designed to put to the test the capacity for response of any modern society. Andrew Hoffman concludes that, unlike less convoluted problems such as the depletion of the ozone layer, climate change poses a challenge as complex for society as the abolition of slavery was. Stabilising the global climate implies transforming our economic system, our infrastructures, our consumption and transport patterns, and our attitudes. As the authors remind us, our present and future answers to the risk of climate change maintain a closer relationship with the politics of identity that characterise our social life than with the probabilistic models and the circulation of gases in the atmosphere. Understanding the psychological and social dynamics of the risk can help us to tackle the challenge of climate change. Both books offer a good introduction to all these issues.   

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