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Why Don’t People Believe in Climate Change? – Psychology Today

OSORIOartist/Shutterstock

Source: OSORIOartist/Shutterstock

Climate change is real.

For the better part of the past decade, an overwhelming consensus of 97 percent of climate scientists have been telling us that global warming caused by human activity—also known as anthropogenic climate change—has reached levels unprecedented in human history so that it has become an emergency that threatens the entire planet.1-3

This year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire warning that without significant efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions across the world, we can expect not only more of heatwaves, fires, floods, rising sea levels, and ecosystem destruction that we’ve been witnessing around the world in recent years, but an exponentially increasing risk of a mass human casualty from drought, depletion of food and fresh water sources, infectious disease, and other deadly living conditions with a closing window of opportunity to avert disaster.4

Yet, while people around the world are becoming more concerned about climate change, climate change denialism persists in one form or another. A 2021 poll of U.S. adults by The Economist/YouGov found that nearly 10 percent didn’t believe that global warming is occurring at all; nearly a quarter believed that the climate is changing but not due to human activity, and 14 percent were unsure.5

With the seven hottest years ever recorded occurring between 2015 and 2021, how is it possible that only about half the population believes that anthropogenic climate change is real?

Naïve Realism

One reason has to do with “naïve realism”—the belief that our personal experience is reality. Research has also shown that attitudes about climate change are related to our own weather experiences.6 We tend to be insensitive to data from around the world or what’s going on with glacial melts in favor of what we experience in our own lives. Personally experiencing record-breaking heatwaves and flooding tends to increase belief in climate change, but cold winters can have the opposite effect.

The comparison to boiling frogs is also apt—we tend to be less conscious of small changes that happen gradually over time. And since we all experience a diurnal variation of at least 20° Fahrenheit on any given day, it can be hard to fathom why climate change scientists are saying that a predicted increase of just a few degrees of mean global temperature could spell mass disaster for the planet.

Disinformation

Although people increasingly believe that climate change is a reality, the belief that it’s “anthropogenic” is less widely accepted. This is partially due to a lack of awareness—a 2017 study found that nearly 90 percent of Americans were still unaware of climate scientists’ consensus on anthropogenic climate change.7

While it’s true that some scientists have gone on record claiming that anthropogenic climate change doesn’t exist, the vast majority haven’t really been climate change experts. On the contrary, studies have shown that the greater the expertise defined by actively working and publishing research on climate change, the more consensus there is.1-3

Meanwhile, the idea that anthropogenic climate change isn’t settled science has been a deliberate disinformation strategy funded by the fossil fuel industry going back decades.8 Like the tobacco industry dating back to the 1950s, there’s good evidence that Big Oil has known for years that anthropogenic climate change is a reality but refuses to acknowledge it publicly. That’s not denial. It’s deception.

Motivated Reasoning

Climate change denial can also be attributed to partisan motivated reasoning. In the U.S., political orientation is one of the strongest predictors of climate change denial, with conservatives and Republicans much more likely to deny anthropogenic climate change than liberals and Democrats.5 That divide is much wider in the U.S. than in many other countries, and climate change denial is tellingly more common in countries that are major oil producers like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.9

Rather than this being explained by conservatives being “anti-science” per se, it suggests that climate change denial is largely about what has been called “solution aversion”—an unwillingness to curb fossil fuel production because it will hurt one’s wallet—whether we’re talking about a blue-collar working the coal industry, a politician with significant campaign donations from Big Oil, or Big Oil itself.10

On an unconscious level, this can also be explained by cognitive dissonance—when faced with the psychological discomfort that arises by acknowledging that we are the cause of the worldwide calamity, motivated denial of anthropogenic climate change can make that discomfort go away.

Nihilism

As mean global temperatures have increased worldwide, belief in anthropogenic climate change has increased along with growing concern that we need to do something about it. But while we can all do some small part as consumers—conserving energy, driving less, eating less meat—the reality is that substantive change has to come from the fossil fuel industry acting against its immediate self-interests in order to steer us away from future disaster.

Therefore, the biggest challenge in halting climate change isn’t trying to convert those who continue to deny anthropogenic climate change. It’s how to best translate growing acceptance of anthropogenic climate change into political and legislative action on a global scale. If we don’t demand that as citizens and voters, climate change will continue unabated.

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