Psychology and Climate Change

May 28th, 2014 by Andy Zucker

The Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, author of more than 50 books, had a rare talent for writing in different styles about a variety of people, from adolescent boys, to lonely old women, to kings and queens living on another planet. She had a brilliant novelist’s intuitive understanding of other people’s minds.

In her slender 1987 non-fiction book, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Lessing wrote about growth in scientists’ understanding of psychology, and the need to apply that knowledge to public affairs. Ever since, more and more high-quality popular books on psychology have been published, including Thinking Fast and Slow, The Righteous Mind, The Black Swan, and many others. Yet in the case of climate change, Lessing’s plea that we pay closer attention to psychology has grown more imperative. Humanity cannot address species-threatening climate problems without better understanding the ways we think.

As one significant example, earlier this month the New York Times reported that the West Antarctic ice sheet is not only melting quickly, but, according to two scientific papers, the melting appears to be irreversible. Over time – fortunately, the time scale is likely to be centuries – sea level will probably rise ten feet or more due to the melting of this single ice sheet. Simultaneously, other climate-related changes will also contribute to rising sea levels. Sea level is about to increase three or four feet in this century alone.

This once-in-a-geological-epoch news item about Antarctic melting ought to have caught the attention of people everywhere. Earth’s population will be in for a rougher ride than expected – and climate scientists have been predicting a rough ride for years. Yet the news of irreversible Antarctic ice melting probably passed unnoticed by a majority of Americans.

At almost the same time, a likely contender for the Presidential nomination of a major political party said that he does not believe human activity is causing climate change, a statement that may seem less shocking when one realizes that fewer than half of Americans think human beings are the primary cause of climate change. What strategies – other than waiting for more climate disasters to strike and hoping that politicians will accept facts – will work best to persuade the public and its representatives that action is needed now? Are there perhaps key groups, such as religious leaders, who are not the typical audience for scientists’ press releases, who might accelerate public understanding and acceptance of climate change?

It is easy to call climate change skeptics ignorant, or worse. But name-calling is seldom the best strategy for changing people’s minds and, what is more, modern psychology has demonstrated that virtually everyone’s thinking is badly flawed in certain situations. To take one example, airplane pilots must be taught to trust their instruments instead of their senses when they cannot see the horizon, and yet every year some crash because they did not learn this lesson. To take another example, some scientists’ first reactions in 1980 to scientific papers about the extinction of the dinosaurs by a giant meteor striking earth – calling the authors “arrogant,” “ignorant,” and “all wrong” – demonstrated prejudices rather than open minds.

Developing a better understanding of the science behind climate change is essential. There is also some work under way to develop better communications strategies, and those efforts are laudable. But mankind is not likely to change its behavior rapidly enough to prevent disaster if we do not learn more about how people think about global warming and apply that knowledge to quicken public action.

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