Changing climate, changing minds

David Hall

New Zealand’s new government – and especially Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – takes climate change very seriously. But the long-term success of this government’s climate policies will still require a broad-based public support, and in particular a continued decline of the climate denialism that has impeded action in the past.

Climate psychology is a rapidly growing field with all sorts of interesting insights about why people resist the evidence for climate change, and why people don’t act decisively once they accept the facts. I think this is an immensely useful body of knowledge, but it needs to be interpreted carefully. It is far too easy to draw the wrong conclusions from empirical insights, or the wrong practical recommendations.

One common example is to blame climate denial on mental heuristics—that is, intuitive rules-of-thumb that we rely on to effortlessly form judgments. However, for most people, heuristics are also involved in climate belief. One is the source heuristic, which gives credence to where information comes from: “If scientists say the climate is changing, it must be true”. Another is the consensus heuristic, which gives credence to beliefs that are widely shared: “There is consensus among scientists and within my community, so it must be true.”

The role of heuristics in climate belief is hardly surprising, because one of the basic points about heuristics is that most people use them for most judgments most of the time. Few people have the time or capacity to read and make sense of the IPCC’s voluminous Assessment Reports, so most people instead rely on cognitive short-cuts. But this is swamped by a more familiar framing of the climate debate of rational believers versus impulsive, irrational deniers.

Another example is research on political orientations, a critical factor in climate belief. A 2016 meta-analysis of existing research found that: “The largest demographic correlate of climate change belief is political affiliation. People who intend to vote for more liberal political parties are more likely to believe in climate change than those who align themselves with relatively conservative political parties.”

From these broad brushstrokes, however, a great many conclusions can be drawn. One gloss was given recently by Dave Hansford for The Spinoff. It is a great piece by a great writer, but warrants further scrutiny.

His central claim is that: “The strongest predictor of climate change denial… is a libertarian, free-market world view.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t provide supporting citations, so I will sidestep a few burning questions, such as whether he sees any difference between the libertarian and conservative traditions that he tends to blend together, where he places the libertarian worldview on the liberal–conservative continuum that is typically measured in surveys, or what relevance he hangs on the distinction between political ideology and political affiliation.

My focus here is the picture of denial that he paints. Implicitly, he aligns with a longstanding tradition in social psychology of treating conservatism as a pathology, as a disease that produces malign symptoms, one of which is climate denial.

But this can’t be entirely right. The case of Margaret Thatcher is instructive. She was a self-identifying conservative, indeed she even led British conservatism into an awkward alliance with libertarianism. But she was also a trained chemist, so accepted mounting evidence about climate change. In 1989, she warned the United Nations General Assembly about “change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world’s climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all.” For her, obviously, conservatism wasn’t incompatible with climate change belief.

And why wouldn’t a conservative be worried? If conservatism’s essential trait is its cautiousness about change, then why wouldn’t conservatives want to prevent a great disruption to traditional ways of life? Green conservatives take something like this approach (see John Gray, Roger Scruton or an obscure book by Gordon K. Durnil), as did Thatcher. Even her eventual volte-face, apparently under the influence of lobbyists, had less to do with rejecting the science and more to do with her fears that climate politics had become “a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism.” Her alarmism is exaggerated, yet it’s worth noting that the breakdown of the 1992 Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen in 2009 has been convincingly blamed on its “top-down” structure, its insensitivity to the complexities of the wicked problem that it attempted to fix, in a way that resonates with libertarian and conservative critiques of centralised, rationalist governance. Insofar as the Paris Agreement is an improvement upon Kyoto, it is so precisely because it gives greater weight to “bottom-up” approaches, particularly through the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

Why does this all matter? It matters because of the practical upshots we might draw from climate psychology. In his Spinoff piece, Hansford is strikingly pessimistic. Reflecting on the human capacity for motivated reasoning and post hoc rationalisation, he draws the gloomy conclusion that “enlightenment will come one funeral at a time”. In other words, climate deniers are a lost cause. All we can do is exclude them from the political process, by dint of mortality or majority.

But what if, actually, it’s the policies and framings that are the problem? What if it isn’t the facts of climate change that are getting in the way, but people’s sincerely-held fears and anxieties about the anticipated implications of the low-emissions transition? What if the climate debate isn’t connecting to their particular moral concerns, or their sense of what constitutes a sensible or legitimate solution? And what if we all miss out on insights and allegiances because certain political orientations are treated as inconvenient and unreformable?

(I note, in passing, that the idea of a carbon tax slides all over the political spectrum, endorsed today in the US by libertarians and neoconservatives as more effective and less bureaucratic than emissions trading. This isn’t only opportunistic either, harking back to Friedrich Hayek’s commitment to the polluter-pays principle. In The Road to Serfdom, which Thatcher reputedly carried in her handbag, he took it as obvious that environmental harms should be directly regulated through a “price mechanism”.)

To treat climate denial as merely a facet of psychology, then to treat psychology as innate and non-adaptive, is to give the game away. If climate change is a problem for everyone, for the right as well as the left and everyone in between, then we ought to have something serious to say to them all. Sure, some people might never be convinced, but the growing acceptance of climate change shows that public perceptions do evolve, and the story of Thatcher show how far we might go.

In my view, climate psychology shouldn’t be used to shut people out or shut people up, but as a resource for truthful persuasion, for connecting climate science to people’s sincerely held values and commitments. Given the fact of political diversity, this will take different forms depending on whom one is talking to. For some, climate change will be a threat to tradition and community. For others, a threat to individual choice, freedom and future profits. For others, a threat to rights, equality and social justice. Engaging with these diverse values will produce disagreement, of course, but it’s better to disagree over solutions than over whether the problem exists at all. We’ve spent long enough on that.




The author would like to thank AUT’s School of Communications and The Policy Observatory for supporting attendance to the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory in Manchester to develop these themes.





Categories: Climate change
David Hall
About the author

David Hall

David Hall is a political theorist based at The Policy Observatory. He has a strong interest in intergenerational policy issues, including climate change. He recently completed his D.Phil in Politics at the University of Oxford and his research interests including forestry policy, immigration policy and political psychology. He has contributed writing to the New Zealand Listener, the New Zealand Herald, The Spinoff, the BWB Text series (forthcoming), The Journal of Urgent Writing, Auckland Art Gallery’s Reading Room journal, and the Pure Advantage media platform.