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Without understanding psychology, can we really understand climate change?

People won’t change their behaviour unless they have a mental model of a problem. ARM Climate Research Facility on Flickr

Most of us don’t really understand climate change, and for some of us that means we can’t accept it. Sure, the evidence is compelling, but sadly humans aren’t always interested in evidence when it comes to deciding what to believe and how to act.

So what does change our minds? And how can information about human psychology help to get the climate change message across?

What do you think of when you hear the words “climate change”? What about “global warming”? Are they the same thing? Can you describe how warming occurs, or the difference between “climate” and “weather”? Does it really matter if you can’t?

The vast majority (97%) of climate scientists say global warming is happening, we are largely responsible and action needs to be taken now. If policy was based on scientific expertise and not public opinion, then whether the public understands the science shouldn’t matter.

However, real progress in reducing carbon emissions will require most of us to be convinced of the need for action and to take action.

We will need to change the way we behave (transport choices, energy choices). Making those changes, or getting support for policies like a carbon tax that encourage change, will be much harder if we do not have a clear “mental model” of the problem. If we don’t understand the basis for proposed policies we are unlikely to vote for them.

Research shows that the best predictor of pro-environmental behaviour is accurate knowledge of the causes of global warming. Public understanding of global warming has remained at low levels for the past 20 years.

Scientists keep telling the story, but it just isn’t sinking in. This is a real problem because denying global warming does not make it go away any more than denying gravity as you fall from a cliff prevents you hitting the ground. There is an urgent need for psychological research to help improve the fit between the science and the message.

Why is this stuff so hard to understand?

Climate scientists are increasingly frustrated because significant sections of the media, politicians and public fail to grasp - or deliberately ignore - that climate change is happening. The scientists ‘do’ the science, analyze their results and draw their conclusions. For them the evidence is overwhelming; the nearest thing to an open-and-shut case that the scientific method can produce.

However, the way in which humans interpret, react to and form views based on evidence is not necessarily scientific. For most of us, it doesn’t matter how good the evidence is.

Even if the evidence is very convincing, and we know intellectually that it’s true, the fact that we can’t see global warming makes the whole thing very difficult to accept.

Carbon dioxide is colourless, odourless and tasteless: our senses can’t observe it. It is a natural gas at very low concentrations relative to nitrogen or oxygen, which makes it easy to argue (falsely) that it’s unimportant (even though we would panic if mercury was at a similar concentration in our homes).

Its effect on our climate takes decades - we may act to reduce the effects, but there is no simple or immediate way to know we’ve made a difference. We tend to discount impacts assumed to occur in the future and tend to put off solutions that will not solve the problem for decades.

All in all, carbon dioxide and global warming is a “diabolical problem” and almost perfectly tailored to be ignored while quietly and systematically it is changing the nature of our climate system, weather extremes, ecosystems and already demonstrably impacting on human systems.

Can anything be done?

Improving the fit

Traditionally, our approach to spreading understanding of climate change has been to keep providing information. There is a mountain of information on how climate change works, why it is happening, and what we can do to prevent it. And still, most of us don’t truly grasp what’s going on.

In the last 30 years or so there has been a growing body of research at the intersection of psychology and climate science. Understanding and taking advantage of certain psychological phenomena could help tailor the message to the nuances of human cognition.

The first hurdle to overcome is “sampling issues”. How do we decide which pieces of information we use to draw a conclusion? Are they from reliable sources, and are they representative of the larger body of evidence?

For example, if you read, or hear opinions from climate change skeptics about 50% of the time then this could lead to a bias in the perception of the balance of evidence in your mind – that is, that the science is only about 50% certain.

When we’re more aware of sampling issues, we are less likely to suffer “confirmation bias”; that is, seeking evidence that confirms rather than challenges our views. We can build up a more accurate representation of the evidence in our minds. Once the facts are more clearly established in the correct context we can reach a more reasoned conclusion.

The second phenomenon is “framing issues”. We are very sensitive to the ways information is delivered to us, and we judge the same information differently when it is delivered differently. Mathematical equivalence does not ensure psychological equivalence: 0.2 means the same as 20 out of 100, but the latter is somehow more concrete.

Likewise, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be described as 0.0384% by volume or as a single collapsed layer eight metres deep. Only the latter seems to promote imagery with the appropriate level of urgency. Both of these “framing techniques” are simple ways to bring the future closer and reduce the tendency to discount distant outcomes – something which is essential if we are to act now on climate change.

The third phenomenon is the importance of having correct mental models. By way of analogy, for many of us, our fragmentary knowledge of the links between cancer and smoking is enough to convince us of the risks. We do not feel a need to understand the precise biochemical pathways and genetic predispositions that associate smoking with increased risk of cancer. Yet, some people seem to want a deep understanding of the processes underlying climate change and they want it in a simple and brief form before they will support action.

Achieving such communication will require very careful education of our mental models of climate change. But this would be time well spent: understanding how and why an increase in atmospheric CO2 leads to warming and how and what we do as individuals and communities affects the composition of the atmosphere should lead to more support for carbon-reduction policies.

Recent research suggests that using simple analogies can help: imagine the CO2 in the atmosphere as the air in a leaky inner tube surrounding the planet – the trick is to maintain a constant pressure in the tube by balancing the input from the pump (emissions) with the losses from the leaks (absorption). Currently we are failing because the pumping is outstripping the leaking!

Finally, to “move forward” such that we resolve the global warming problem we need to ensure that we engage in successful consensus building. As much of the population as possible needs to come on this journey. Research on the psychology of group decision-making can help. If we can successfully pool information, have unbiased discussion and avoid “groupthink” tendencies it will help us reach effective, objective and transparent decisions. More than anything, a deep understanding of how humans absorb information on global warming, how it affects their decision making and judgment and how it can act to impede risk-based strategic decision making is vital if we are to get the message across.

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