The human brain is arguably the most complicated
machine on Earth. It’s capable of amazing feats of creativity, emotion and insight.
There’s no single factor that drives our attitudes and beliefs about climate change.
The human brain is not that simple. Nevertheless, our brain hasn’t evolved much in tens of
thousands of years. We’re much the same as our early ancestors struggling to survive
in Africa 50,000 or more years ago. Our chief concerns were immediate dangers that affected
our own, small group. However, climate change is unlike any threat
humanity has ever encountered. It involves gradual changes across the whole planet over
decades rather than immediate danger from predators. People think of climate change as affecting
other people in far away parts of the world, or not affecting people at all. Thinking about
what might happen to some other group in a distant part of the world, decades into the
future, just doesn’t come naturally to us. Of course, the reality is climate change is
affecting all parts of the world right now. But that’s not how most people think about
the issue. It turns out there are a number of psychological
barriers preventing people from acting to prevent climate change. Robert Gifford at
the University of Victoria calls these dragons of inaction. Let’s have a look at some of
these dragons. Firstly, when events seem far away, people
tend to discount them. One study of 18 countries found that people thought that environmental
conditions were worse in other countries. Of course, people in those other countries
also thought the same things about different countries. When it comes to climate risks,
the grass is greener on our side. Secondly, people tend to be overly optimistic
about climate change. One study found that people systematically underestimate the risk
they face from environmental hazards. “Nah, climate change won’t happen to me!” is
the prevailing attitude. So people tend to be overly optimistic about climate risks. On the other hand, a third dragon of inaction
is pessimism about our own ability to make a difference to climate change. Avoiding the
worst impacts of global warming requires big changes to how our society produces energy.
In the face of such a global, complicated problem, many people believe they personally
can’t make a difference. This feeling of helplessness prevents people from making changes
to their behaviour that will help avoid climate change. Fourthly, the behaviour of people around you
is an extremely powerful motivating force, more powerful than most people realise. If
you look around and see that your friends and family aren’t doing their part, then you’re more likely to not bother either.
“Why should I change if they won’t?” A fifth dragon of inaction is when people
do act for the environment – for instance, change their lightbulbs or recycle– but
then they think “well, I’ve done my bit.” Unfortunately, these token actions are often
relatively easy but don’t have much impact compared to more difficult, long-term behaviour
changes. Finally, a growing body of research has identified
our sixth dragon of inaction, which is particularly significant and damaging. In fact, it’s
two dragons combined – we’ll come back to that in a moment. In recent years, a number
of studies have identified that perception of scientific agreement is a key gateway belief.
When people realise there’s strong agreement among climate scientists that humans are causing
global warming, this influences a range of other climate beliefs, including acceptance
of climate change and support for climate action. But if you ask the public to estimate how
many climate scientists agree about human-caused global warming, they say around 50 to 60%.
The public still think there’s a 50:50 debate among climate scientists. In contrast, 97%
of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. So there’s a gaping
chasm between public perception and the 97% reality. This is the “consensus gap”.
Because perceived consensus has such a big influence on other climate attitudes, the
consensus gap is an important dragon of inaction. But I mentioned this was a result of two dragons
of inaction. What are they? Let’s have a look at some experimental data I’ve collected
which gives the answer. This graph shows the results of a survey I ran with a representative
sample of Americans. I asked participants to estimate how many climate scientists agree
that humans are causing global warming. I also asked about their support for free, unregulated
markets, which is a measure of political ideology. This graph shows that perception of consensus
decreases as you move to the right, which equates to more conservative people with higher
support for free markets. In other words, political ideology plays a big part in increasing
the consensus gap. This result has been found in many studies, which find that political
beliefs are one of the biggest influences on our attitudes to climate change. But even for people at the other end of the
political spectrum, with very low support for free markets, there was still a large
gap between perceived consensus and the 97% reality. I call this the “liberal consensus
gap”. There’s no political motivation for a liberal to think that there’s a low
consensus among climate change scientists. So two possible contributors to the liberal
consensus gap are ignorance, in other words, a deficit of information, or confusion arising
from misinformation. There are many psychological barriers that
prevent concern about climate change. Some are based on confusion and misconceptions.
That is something that we can do something about.