How can we address climate change denial?

*** I wrote this in 2017 and is a repost from another blog old site. ***

Data from the Met office, NASA and NOAA has made it official – 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded. Yet it seems that over the last few years climate change denial has only increased.

The new President of the USA is set to reverse what little progress on climate change has already been made. The politicisation of climate change is a genuine tragedy – viewed by sceptics as being part of the ‘leftist liberal agenda’ in this ever increasingly polarised world. In this debate, scientific facts appear to be peripheral, while misinformation which appeals to our reluctance for change prevails. Climate change is the slowly boiling water and we are the frog sitting in it blissfully and deliberately unaware.

This isn’t just an environmental problem. The consequences of climate change, as well as any solutions put forward, will alter development trajectories, shake up geopolitical power games, and, most importantly, change the face of the global economy. As Lord Nicholas Stern outlines in his seminal book, The economics of climate change: the Stern review, greenhouse gas emissions have always been, and will always be, driven by economic growth. Yet when it comes to weighing up the benefits and costs of climate change, we only appear able to play the short game. Here’s a revealing extract from the book’s executive summary:

“Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more. In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.”

Image: Billy Burton.

It is not a ‘lefty agenda’, but an empirically sound position, to point out the massive economic risks posed by ignoring climate change. So why do denialists persist in the face of overwhelming evidence?

As the University of Queensland is showing, people’s personal convictions often hold strong against conflicting evidence. In fact, information intended to challenge a pre-existing belief can actually reinforce it. This “worldview backfire effect” may explain why climate change sceptics so willingly disregard scientific consensus (explained here).

Holding two contradictory beliefs causes mental stress, and people will avoid this cognitive dissonance at all costs. So, if a person holds an opinion or value and this gets challenged by new facts, they either have to overthrow their previous ideological stance or ignore the fact. Which is easier? The narrative of global warming as a hoax is an ‘alternative fact’ far more appealing than the reality, which necessitates difficult sacrifices; a departure from the ease of global consumerism.

“There is a significant problem presenting scientific evidence to people who think science is a hoax.”

John Cook

The tactics of denial

As we have seen with ExxonMobil, who were at the cutting edge of climate science research 30 years ago but continued to pour millions into funding climate denial, there are powerful forces poisoning both mind and planet. Groups, companies or people who want to manufacture doubt about the science in the interest of short-term profits possess a wealth of tactics at their disposal to retain the status quo.

Tobacco company Philip Morris provided a good example of setting impossible expectations when they attempted to promote a new standard for the conduct of epidemiological studies. These stricter guidelines would have invalidated a large body of research demonstrating the adverse effects of cigarettes.

Cherry picking of data, whilst prevalent in the rhetoric of climate sceptics, is also apparent in the anti-vax campaign, which famously originated from a discredited study by the fraudulent Andrew Wakefield. These are pitfalls that everyone must take care to avoid, regardless of ideology or opinion. But it is especially prominent among groups at odds with the changes that are necessary for climate change to be stopped in its tracks.

A deeper explanation of the characteristics of climate denial

The friendly fightback

So, what tactics can we employ to turn the tide in the favour of reason? Inoculation theory provides one answer. In a study published in Global Challenges, Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, and Edward Maibach ran three tests on public perception of the scientific consensus on climate change, and how the flawed Oregon Petition affected that perception. With the petition infecting the public consciousness with misinformation, solely presenting contrary facts was insufficient. However, actively “inoculating” subjects against the misinformation was much more effective and greatly offset its effect. By informing the group of the tendency for “politically-motivated groups [to] use misleading tactics to try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists,” and by providing detail on the Petition’s specific flaws, they became much more receptive to the truth.

The above can be seen as a targeted appeal to reason. Yet, one of the most interesting findings of the University of Queensland’s research is that people who deny climate change are more likely to act environmentally consciously when they read that climate action makes people more warm and friendly towards each other. We humans are emotionally driven, and these emotions often dictate our views on climate change (and other topics) to a greater degree than reason.

Just as climate change denial groups do, we can use this to our advantage. Research shows that if people feel emotionally safe in their worldview before tactfully and diplomatically encouraging them to reconsider a specific aspect of their view, we can combat misinformation much more effectively. So in our mission to bring about change, rather than waging armchair firefights and slinging virtual mud, lets understand where people are coming from, and why they don’t agree with us. Don’t attack someone’s cultural identity, affirm it. Assure someone that they’re not being idiotic, and tackle misinformation with a level head, one piece at a time. Who knows, maybe all Trump and his cabinet need to soften their stance on climate change is a warm and friendly hug!

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