The Mind of the Climate Change Skeptic

A multitude of environmental scientists, among others, worry that future generations will look back at the present era as one in which the human race could have — and should have —taken decisive action to prevent (or at least mitigate) the most menacing costs associated with global climate change. According to public opinion surveys, however, only 38 percent of Americans believe that global warming will seriously affect them or their way of life (Newport, 2012), and 42 percent continue to believe that global warming claims are “generally exaggerated” (Saad, 2012). When it comes to beliefs about climate change, men are more skeptical than women, and political conservatives are more skeptical than liberals. In a Gallup survey conducted in 2010, 42 percent of men and only 30 percent of conservatives agreed that “effects of global warming are already occurring,” as compared to 56 percent of women and 74 percent of liberals (Jones, 2010; see also McCright & Dunlap, 2011).

In a recent book, the philosopher Stephen Gardiner (2011) argues that environmental inaction is the consequence of a “perfect moral storm.” Specifically, he points to the conjunction of three unfortunate causes: 1) a tendency for the richer nations of the world to foist the burden of environmental risks upon poorer nations; 2) the present generation’s temptation to defer the costs of the crisis to future generations; and 3) pervasive ignorance concerning science, ethics, international justice, and the interdependence of life. Gardiner writes that the last factor “not only complicates the task of behaving well, but also renders us more vulnerable to the first two storms” (p. 7). Gardiner provides an astute analysis of the problem of environmental inaction, but he overlooks the possibility that climate change denial may not merely result from ignorance. Rather, many members of the public may possess a relatively strong motivation to deny and minimize environmental realities. Specifically, our research team has found that the social psychological motivation to defend, bolster, and justify aspects of the status quo — what we refer to as system justification (see, e.g., Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004) — contaminates the public’s understanding of anthropogenic climate change.

In research published in 2010, we discovered that individuals who score higher on Kay and Jost’s (2003) General System Justification scale (which measures responses to statements such as “Most policies serve the greater good,” and “In general, the American political system operates as it should”) exhibit greater denial of environmental problems and vulnerabilities. Furthermore, system justification statistically mediates the effects of gender and political ideology on support for the environment. That is, men and conservatives are more likely than women and liberals to believe that American society is fair and legitimate, and these differences in system justification explain, at least in part, why they are so skeptical about climate change and are reluctant to take pro-environmental action (Feygina, Jost, & Goldsmith, 2010; see also Feinberg & Willer, 2011).

More recently, we have conducted a series of studies corroborating the hypothesis that system justification motivates skepticism about climate change. Specifically, we have found that the denial of environmental problems is facilitated by information-processing distortions associated with system justification that affect evaluation, recall, and even tactile perception (Hennes, Feygina, & Jost, 2011). In one study, we found that individuals who scored higher (vs. lower) on Jost and Thompson’s (2000) Economic System Justification scale (which measures responses to such statements as “If people work hard, they almost always get what they want,” and “It is unfair to have an economic system which produces extreme wealth and extreme poverty at the same time,” reverse-scored) found messages disparaging the case for global warming to be more persuasive, evaluated the evidence for global warming to be weaker, and expressed less willingness to take action to curb global warming.

In a second study, we extended these findings by demonstrating that motivated processing biases recall of information about climate change. Specifically, we exposed research participants to clips from a televised newscast and later asked them to recall details from the program and to evaluate scientific evidence concerning climate change. Once again, we found that high system-justifiers evaluated the quality of the evidence to be weaker, were less likely to believe that climate change is occurring, and viewed it as a less important policy issue, in comparison with low system-justifiers. High system-justifiers also recalled the information to which they had been exposed as less serious (i.e., remembering smaller increases in global temperatures, lower sea levels, and less reliable historical data concerning climate change) than did low system-justifiers. Poorer recall was associated with skepticism about climate change. Thus, individuals who misremembered the evidence provided in the video to be less severe were less likely to support efforts to address climate change.

In an experimental investigation, we demonstrated that temporarily activating system-justification motivation produced memory biases and exacerbated skepticism about global climate change. More specifically, we adapted a system-dependence manipulation developed by Kay, Gaucher, Peach et al. (2009; see also Shepherd & Kay, 2012) and found that when people were led to believe that the political system exerted a strong (vs. weak) impact on their life circumstances, they were more likely to misremember details from a newspaper article they read earlier in the session. Importantly, all of the memory errors were in a system-exonerating direction: The proportion of man-made carbon emissions was recalled as being less than actually reported, and the scientists who reported errors in the much-maligned 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were misidentified as skeptics rather than believers in anthropogenic climate change (Hennes et al., 2011).

We have discovered that system-justification motivation can even affect perceptions of ambient temperature. Our research assistants approached pedestrians in New York’s Washington Square Park during the summer months and asked them a series of questions, including their estimates of the temperature outside. Individuals who scored high on system justification or who were assigned to a high system-dependence condition reported that the current temperature was significantly lower than did individuals who scored low on system justification or who were assigned to a low system-dependence condition. These findings suggest that people may be motivated to feel (or not feel) the evidence of global warming when system-justification needs are either chronically or temporarily heightened.

Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, a former skeptic of anthropogenic climate change, made headlines last summer when he declared that not only is climate change real, but that “humans are almost entirely the cause” (Muller, 2012). If catastrophic events like Hurricane Sandy become more common, they may shift hearts and minds, albeit slowly. Given economic and other crises facing the nation (many of which probably exacerbate system-justification motivation), it still remains to be seen whether Americans and their elected officials will follow suit in embracing the scientific consensus. Climate change was a non-issue during the 2012 election campaign, and President Obama (2013) was criticized resoundingly by Senator Marco Rubio and other conservatives for emphasizing the issue in his most recent State of the Union speech. Suffice it to say that neither politicians nor the voters who back them appreciate the suggestion that the opinions they hold are motivated, even in part, by social and psychological factors that are probably outside of their awareness. American society and many others have yet to find a way of allowing the facts — scientific and otherwise — to trump special interests, political posturing, and motivated reasoning when it comes to the development of public policy. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

References and Further Reading:

Carroll, J. (2007). Public: Iraq war still top priority for President and Congress. Gallup Poll. Retrieved April 9, 2007, from http://www.galluppoll.com/content/?ci=27103&pg=1

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2011). Apocalypse soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just world beliefs. Psychological Science, 22, 34–38.

Feygina, I., Jost, J. T., & Goldsmith, R. (2010). System justification, the denial of global warming, and the possibility of “system-sanctioned change.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36, 326–338.

Hennes, E. P., Feygina, I., & Jost, J. T. (2011). Motivated evaluation, recall, and tactile perception in the service of the system: The case of anthropogenic climate change. Paper presented at the Princeton University Conference on Psychology and Policymaking, Princeton, NJ.

Jones, J. M. (2010). Conservatives’ doubts about global warming grow. Gallup Poll. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/126563/conservatives-doubts-global-warming-grow.aspx

Jost, J. T., Banaji, M. R., Nosek, B. A. (2004). A decade of system justification theory: Accumulated evidence of conscious and unconscious bolstering of the status quo. Political Psychology, 25, 881–919.

Jost, J. T., & Thompson, E. P. (2000). Group-based dominance and opposition to equality as independent predictors of self-esteem, ethnocentrism, and social policy attitudes among African Americans and European Americans. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36, 209–232.

Kay, A. C., & Jost, J. T. (2003). Complementary justice: Effects of “poor but happy” and “poor but honest” stereotype exemplars on system justification and implicit activation of the justice motive. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 823–837.

McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2011). Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Global Environmental Change, 21, 1163–1172.

Muller, R. A. (2012, July 30). The conversion of a climate-change skeptic. New York Times, p. A19.

Newport, F. (2012). Amercans’ worries about global warming up slightly. Gallup Poll. Retrieved January 28, 2013, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/153653/Americans-Worries-Global-Warming-Slightly.aspx

Obama, B. (2012). State of the union address. Retrieved March 6, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/us/politics/obamas-2013-state-of-the-union-address.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

Saad, L. (2012). In U.S., global warming views steady despite warm winter. Gallup Poll. Retrieved January 28, 2013, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/153608/Global-Warming-Views-Steady-Despite-Warm-Winter.aspx

Shepherd, S., & Kay, A. C. (2012). On the perpetuation of ignorance: System dependence, system justification, and the motivated avoidance of sociopolitical information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 264–80.

Observer Vol.26, No.4 April, 2013

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Comments

I’m sure if conservatives controlled the research purse strings, I would be reading an study about how liberals are susceptible to hoaxes. :-)

I like to check people’s bias on climate change matters so I usually test them by presenting a statement from IPCC AR4
such as, “I think crops will improve in North America through 2100 from warming”. I have done this an Mother Jones for example and I get viciously attacked as a denier when in fact that is the consensus science from IPCC AR4. I find the liberal mind much the same as the conservative mind when it comes to protecting systems belief.

Who paid for this study?

Even as a Liberal scholar, I find the framing of this article severely biased against Conservatives and as such, is both appalling and disgraceful for psychological science. Left-wing ideologists also hold system-justifying beliefs about economics systems (e.g. communism, demand-side economics) that often fail to reward intelligent and hard-working individuals and social systems that, practiced liberally to their extreme, bring severe negative consequences to our social fabric (e.g. drug use). Why are we only prone to speak about how Conservatives resist environment or welfare policies but become sheepish about how Liberals resist meritocracy and economic liberty?
The aforementioned bias also limits the scope of future research by psychological scientists. It’s easy to simply blame Conservatives for resistance to climate change-mitigating policies. But why not look at ways in which the Climate Change message could be framed to be appealing to Conservative ideas? Or how Liberals and Conservatives could work together to solve this crisis? Or alternative motivations within Conservatives that resist change, but has other benefits for our nation? (e.g. economic growth)
These research topics are certainly more fruitful than those that just blame one side for all our problems.
And for public readers, I boldly say that our science is one that is truth-seeking and non-partisan; this instance is an unfortunate representation of our work.

Best,
Simon

Skeptic – Someone who habitually doubts beliefs and claims presented as accepted by others, requiring strong evidence before accepting any belief or claim.

There is nothing wrong with being skeptical. I would prefer if everyone was a skeptic because a healthy skepticism means you actually explore the issue at hand and learn something about it. What I don’t like are the deniers who believe Climate Science is BS because a Conservative Pundit (with no science background whatsoever) on Fox told them so. I’m also not a fan of those who believe in it wholeheartedly because a Hollywood Actor told them so.

To say the Science is settled is in fact not true. It is settled beyond a reasonable doubt that there is climate change and that anthropogenic emissions are a (if not the) main driver. It is generally considered settled that the multiplier effects are positive and >1. It is not settled as to what magnitude they actually are with a large enough degree of accuracy. It is not settled as to what should be done about it (especially considering the economics). Is mitigation the best option? Would adaptation be cheaper and more feasible? if mitigation is best, which method is best? Will economic incentives actually work or just create a bunch of rich middle men, or both?

Pretty much just saying I hate the title of this Article and I like skepticism.

So, perhaps the title should be “The Mind of the Climate Change Denialist”

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