Illustration: ©Igor Kopelnitsky
As the climate changes, what changes people’s minds?
By Sarah DeWeerdt
Many climate scientists and climate-change communicators have recently been broadcasting a message that boils down the state of things to just 12 words: “It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. We can fix it.”It’s a clear and simple formula and also an evocative one: five stages of climate-change understanding that mirror the five stages of grief. And that raises the question: Just where are various sectors of the public on that pathway? How far has opinion moved from climate-change denial toward acceptance and, ultimately, action?
A look at the scientific literature on climate psychology published over the past several years offers reason for optimism—as well as cautionary notes. One survey of 509 German adults revealed that members of the public have a pretty decent grasp of the basics. (1) They know the climate is changing and that human activities are responsible. But they have a harder time identifying false statements about climate change than true ones. For example, 84 percent of the public correctly identified that the statement “the increase of greenhouse gases is mainly caused by human activities” is true; but only 54 percent recognized that the claim “the 1990s was the warmest decade of the last 100 years” is false.
That difficulty is worrisome because those wishing to sow doubt about climate change tend to convey their disinformation with absolute confidence. Yet there may be a way of circumventing this false certainty. An online psychological experiment suggested that when people are told about the types of false arguments used by climate-change deniers, they are less likely to believe those arguments when they encounter them in the wilds of social media and the Internet. (2) The researchers suggested this communications strategy could act as a kind of “vaccine” against climate denial.
Small actions to reduce personal carbon footprints can cause people to overestimate the progress being made and “crowd out” support for climate policy.
Scientists are getting better and better at climate attribution—that is, linking individual instances of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, and heat waves to climate change. This trend has also influenced climate-psychology research. Various studies tracking public opinion before and after extreme weather events suggest that living through these experiences can increase people’s concern about climate change and, consequently, their support for climate-change adaptation measures—although these effects may wane with time. (3)
Intriguingly, direct experience of a weather disaster isn’t always necessary to spark climate-change concern. Researchers who studied the aftermath of severe flooding in Colorado found that people who lived in the hardest-hit neighborhoods were more concerned about climate change than those who lived in less-affected areas—but whether or not a person’s own home had been flooded didn’t make a difference. (4)
But not every weather disaster becomes a springboard for climate-change conversations in affected communities, as researchers found when they reviewed local news coverage and conducted interviews with community leaders. (5) Their analysis showed that the practical concerns of recovery and political polarization around climate change sometimes prevent such conversations from taking root. And other work suggests that what counts as extreme weather may itself shift with time. (6) As climate patterns shift, previously remarkable temperature extremes come to seem ordinary within just a few years, which could make it harder for people to recognize climate change and muster the urgency to take action to address it.
Many climate-psychology researchers have tried to peel back the layers of circumstance and motivation to understand what impels people to take action. Some climate advocates have argued that it’s more effective to scare people into action against climate change; others counter that this just paralyzes people with fear and that messages should emphasize hope instead.
The scientific evidence suggests that the most constructive approach is a nuanced one. One study based on online survey results revealed that the people most likely to support climate policies and express willingness to take action themselves were those who believed that we can stop climate change—but that we aren’t yet doing enough and might fail. (7) That is, both hope and fear are necessary. Another study suggested that taking climate action reflects a psychological coping strategy that helps people deal with their environmental worries—action is a form of hope, a bulwark against fear. (8)
Climate action requires an emotional connection: people need to care about something that’s threatened by climate change. But similar to studies of extreme weather events, there’s also evidence that this “something” need not be nearby. A study of Australian tourists found that iconic places such as the Great Barrier Reef can inspire climate-change concern, even among those who hadn’t actually visited the reef. (9)
But there are pitfalls on the way to climate action, too. Social norms—the tendency to go along with what others in our community are generally doing—can be a barrier to the behavioral changes needed to reduce emissions, one study showed. (10) And small actions to reduce personal carbon footprints—such as turning off the lights during daylight hours—can cause people to overestimate the progress being made and “crowd out” support for climate policy, according to a study conducted in Japan. (11)
Asking where we are on the path from climate denial to effective climate-change action requires defining just whom we mean by “we.” Many climate-psychology studies focus on the United States, where political polarization—conservatives mostly doubt climate change and oppose climate action, while liberals accept climate science and support action to reduce carbon emissions—is particularly acute.
Some of these studies suggest that there may actually be common ground across the ideological spectrum, though. One survey revealed that both liberals and conservatives want a decarbonized energy system in 2050, with more solar and wind power and less reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas. (12) However, they differ in their vision of how to get there. Another study showed that the Green New Deal, a comprehensive set of policies to decarbonize the economy and promote green jobs, enjoyed bi-partisan support when it was first introduced in late 2018. (13)
What changed conservatives’ minds on the Green New Deal was media—specifically, right-wing media such as Fox News. A broader global look at climate-change media coverage showed that while coverage varied by country, the best predictor of how stories are framed was a country’s wealth. (14) Climate coverage in wealthier countries tends to focus on science and domestic policy, while coverage in countries with less resources is dominated by international relations and weather-related disasters. What’s common across countries, though, is a lack of stories about the possibilities for improving people’s lives while addressing climate change at the same time—a missed opportunity, perhaps, to foster the kind of constructive hope that leads to climate action.
Fischer H, Amelung D, and Said N. The accuracy of German citizens’ confidence in their climate change knowledge. Nature Climate Change, 2019.
Van der Linden S et al. Inoculating the public against misinformation about climate change. Global Challenges, 2017.
Ray A et al. Extreme weather exposure and support for climate change adaptation. Global Environmental Change, 2017.
Albright EA and Crow D. Beliefs about climate change in the aftermath of extreme flooding. Climatic Change, 2019.
Boudet H, et al. Event attribution and partisanship shape local discussion of climate change after extreme weather. Nature Climate Change, 2020.
Moore FC et al. Rapidly declining remarkability of temperature anomalies may obscure public perception of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019.
Marlon JR et al. How hope and doubt affect climate change mobilization. Frontiers in Communication, 2019.
Helm SV et al. Differentiating environmental concern in the context of psychological adaptation to climate change. Global Environmental Change, 2018.
Curnock MI et al. Shifts in tourists’ sentiments and climate risk perceptions following mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. Nature Climate Change, 2019.
Bury TM, Bauch TC, and Anand M. Charting pathways to climate change mitigation in a coupled socio-climate model. PLoS Computational Biology, 2019.
Werfel SH. Household behaviour crowds out support for climate change policy when sufficient progress is perceived. Nature Climate Change, 2017.
Miniard D, Kantenbacher J, and Attari SZ. Shared vision for a decarbonized future energy system in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020.
Gustafson A et al. The development of partisan polarization over the Green New Deal. Nature Climate Change, 2019.
Vu HT, Liu Y, and Tran DV. Nationalizing a global phenomenon: A study of how the press in 45 countries and territories portrays climate change. Global Environmental Change, 2019.
Sarah DeWeerdt is a freelance science journalist based in Seattle covering biology, medicine, and the environment.
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