The psychology of climate-change denial — we’re all on the spectrum

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Research by University of New South Wales psychologists linking perceptions of the risk posed by climate change to willingness to act on factors that will reduce emissions gives pause for thought on the role of leadership, the window of opportunity opened by Australia’s spring/summer bushfire crisis, and the potential that individuals have to influence action and outcomes.

Commenting on Friday in an article on UNSW’s website, Belinda Xie, a doctoral candidate in the university’s School of Psychology and one of the authors of the study Predicting climate change risk perception and willingness to act, said, “It is important to acknowledge that we are all climate deniers to some extent, and then understand how and why we reached this point”.

Xie’s group of researchers extended previous work by Sander van der Linden at the University of Cambridge which established the Climate Change Risk Perception Model (CCRPM) in 2015 and tested a representative sample of the UK population to find a variance of 68% in their perception of the risk posed by climate change.

Which means that the UK sample entertains a wide spectrum of belief in the validity and urgency of the climate-change threat.

Van der Linden’s research was designed to agglomerate known influences in people’s perceptions around climate change. His model identified four key factors — sociodemographic, cognitive, experiential and socio-cultural factors — that underpin climate-change risk perception; to which the UNSW researchers added prioritisation of free-market ideology and “beliefs about the efficacy of climate change mitigation action”. 

Xie tells pv magazine that her impetus for expanding on van der Linden’s model and applying it locally is that, “In Australia we are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as we’ve just seen with the bushfires, and at the same time our political situation is such that we constantly fail to do anything about it.”

Factors on the road to responsibility

Xie’s group designed a survey, based on van der Linden’s but including questions around their additional factors, and collected responses from 921 Australians representative of the general population in terms of age and gender.

In essence, she says, “We looked at demographic factors, people’s knowledge about climate change, broad societal values, and also social factors such as what your friends and family think,” to determine not only risk perception but “behavioural willingness” to act.

The survey was completed in 2016, and the results published last year identified the three most significant factors influencing our perception of climate change risk as:

  1. Feeling negatively about climate change — “The worse or the more anxious it makes you feel, the more likely you are to want to do something about it, which makes sense,” Xie explains.
  2. Belief that mitigation is ineffective — Xie says, “This was interesting because we hear a lot from Australian media and the government that mitigation should not be implemented, that it can’t be implemented, so it’s unsurprising that a lot of Australians have these views and that these have a big impact on their subsequent willingness to act.”
  3. How much friends/family do about climate change — this has to do with the social norms which influence you, says Xie, “If your friends, family and other people who you think are important are taking action, then you’re more likely to.”

The catastrophic bushfires Australia has bee experiencing since spring, says Xie offered “a rare opportunity” for people to feel united in pushing back against climate change and ineffectual policy. The fact that city dwellers in eastern states were affected by poor air quality due to smoke haze, should have given many more people than were affected by the fires the sense that their way of life is under threat.

“We know from our research that personal experience with extreme weather events does increase people’s concern about climate change and how much they want to act on it,” says Xie, “But it’s key that people make the connection between that extreme weather event and climate change.”

Obfuscation and media muddying

She refers to misinformation — such as blaming arsonists for the fires, or the assertion by politicians that Australia has always been prone to bad bushfire seasons, rather than acknowledging the blazes’ exceptional ferocity as having been fuelled by climate change — as confounding and confusing factors in people’s willingness to act.

This exposes an even greater failure in Australia’s Government than lack of policy development; that is the failure to articulate truthful and consequential information to the electorate.

In an environment of Federal Government obfuscation, a fractured news cycle could also derail the sense of urgency accorded to climate change. Xie cites heavy rains currently falling on parts of Australia’s east coast and extinguishing many fires including the destructive Currowan blaze which had burned for 74 days, as well as the threats posed by the coronavirus as psychologically distracting to individual and community resolve on climate change.

“Acting on climate change is a bit like cutting back on junk food. We all know it’s right to act but we seem to be very good at making excuses not to do it,” says Xie.

The power of the collective

She says campaigns such as Warringah’s Roadmap to Zero — initiated by independent MP for the Federal seat of Warringah, Zali Steggall — tap into the motivation that groups of partially like-minded people can exert on one another to reinforce their resolve and their ability to make a difference. 

“Humans are social beings and a lot of what we do or think is motivated by other people, so turning this into a collective, group action I’m sure will encourage more action and more long-term action than if any of those individuals were to try to make these changes by themselves,” she tells pv magazine.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his party are expected to further promote technology and market forces as the best means of responding to the threats posed by climate change: Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister, Angus Taylor, was reported by The Weekend Australian newspaper on Saturday as saying, “Technology now needs to be a centrepiece of the international approach to climate-change action … The lesson from the United States is that technology and capitalism offer the way forward in making the energy transition.”

Xie and her colleagues included in their survey six items to “measure the relative priority placed on a system that supports an unrestrained free-market compared to a system that sustains environmental quality”.

Their study found that greater prioritisation of an unrestrained free market “was associated with less willingness to take personal action or support societal interventions to combat climate change”.

As political discourse, Morrison’s proposed solutions to climate change contribute to the sense that personal actions against climate change have no efficacy, which in turn reinforces people’s feeling that it’s challenging to live without having an impact on the environment.

“Australia is a wealthy nation with high emissions, so it’s difficult to live here without being some sort of hypocrite and engaging in action that involves emissions,” she commented on the UNSW website. However, she adds that it’s important to recognise this and take action to move beyond our own climate denialism and urge others to do the same.