A burning question for most of the world is why, exactly, do climate change deniers deny the so-strongly supported science. For most of us, between the incredible consilience of climate science, the multiply supported consensus of climate scientists, and the visible evidence of warming impacts such as cyclone severity and frequency, wildfires and drought, it’s difficult to understand how someone could remain skeptical. But it comes down to six overlapping elements: confirmation bias, tribal partisanship, ideology, the Dunning-Kruger Effect and conspiracy ideation, all supported by the long-running disinformation campaigns of the fossil fuel industry.
There is good news in the second half of this article, so don’t stop reading just because it’s depressing.
There is a great deal of research into skepticism and denial that has been done on this over the past two decades by several researchers. The primary researchers I tend to follow and cite are are:
- Stephan Lewandowsky – He’s an Australian psychology PhD working in the UK at the University of Bristol.
- Katherine Hayhoe – She’s an extraordinary communicator around climate change. She’s an atmospheric scientist, a Professor at Texas Tech University and Director of their Climate Science Centre.
- Dana Nuticelli – He works with Lewandowsky and others on research and publication of papers related to the subject of climate change denial.
- John Cook – He’s an Australian cognitive scientist working as research assistant Professor at the George Mason University Centre for Climate Change Communication in Virginia, USA. He also founded the Skeptical Science site which maintains careful and referenced debunkings of all of the various climate change denial false arguments.
- David Dunning and Justin Kruger – They are social psychologists and professors at the University of Michigan and the New York University Stern School of Business. They identified the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
There are many others involved. The list of deep thinkers and academics working to understand how to more effectively communicate scientific realities is long, and growing. In addition, organizations such as the Pew Research Center do global surveys on a regular basis of sentiment regarding climate change including demographic, political and religious causes.
There are a few key elements which arise from their research and work and the work of others in the field of cognitive science.
We are all subject to confirmation bias. We all see evidence through the filter of things we believe to be true. It takes ten pieces of negative information to overcome one piece of reinforcing information for us to change our minds about something, all else being equal. As many climate change ‘skeptics’ spend a lot of time on climate change denial sites such as Watts Up With That or seeking out confirming opinions, it can be challenging to shift them over the threshold to acceptance.
Confirmation bias is an easy thing to exploit in communication strategies. All you have to do is flood media with skepticism and the people who are skeptical will have it reinforced. And that’s been a strategy fossil fuel interests have been throwing tens of millions of dollars at for a couple of decades, successfully I might add.
But what brings about the bias in the first place? What motivates many people to be skeptical?
Some of it is ideology. Libertarians dislike governmental action and regulation, and many of the necessary solutions for global warming require governmental action and regulation. As a result, Libertarians tend to be suspicious of global warming simply because they don’t like the required solutions.
For a lot of people right now, it’s tribal partisanship. Global warming, especially in the USA, has become a partisan issue with Democrats strongly tending to accept the science and Republicans strongly tending to reject it. This is completely unhelpful, but it’s reality.
Unfortunately, at this moment in time it’s clear that people in the US right are much more strongly rejecting empirical reality than people in the US center and left. As one example, conservatives now dominate anti-vaccination circles, likely due to the human papilloma virus, but also likely due to high-profile, conservative political leaders pushing it.
And then there’s Dunning-Kruger. Many ‘skeptics’ and deniers are pinned to that early stage of low competence and absurd confidence. It feels good to be so right, so confident. Anything which challenges that tends to be put to one side.
One last key thing for a major subset of the climate change ‘skepticism’ circle is conspiracy ideation. Lewandowsy and Cook were two primary authors of a study on conspiracy ideation of various types and found strong predictive support for belief in one conspiracy having a strong correlation with belief that climate change science was a conspiratorial hoax.
Basically, if you believe that the moon-landing was a hoax or the Earth was flat, you were much more likely to believe that global warming was a hoax. Lewandowsky especially suffered massive right-wing and conspiracy circle attacks as a result of the research. The thing about conspiracy ideation is that it’s self-healing; every fact can be explained by extending the conspiracy.
The demographics of conspiracy ideation at present overlap strongly with the demographics of right-wing voters, leading to an unholy trifecta of predisposition to conspiracy ideation, tribal support for denial and a right-wing media bubble which constantly supports the false narrative.
It’s an incredibly challenging problem, but there are signs of hope.
Back to Katherine Hayhoe. She’s been extraordinarily successful at helping conservative, evangelical Christians in the USA to accept the science of climate change. How? Well, she’s an evangelical Christian herself. The first 20 minutes of her hour-long lectures are typically about shared Christian beliefs and framing the discussion in context of that value system. She then presents the science in that context. She doesn’t ignore the beliefs or denigrate them, but embraces them.
There was a reasonably decent effort not long ago to determine why people change their minds about climate change using data gathered from Reddit deniers who had shifted their opinions. The reasons and percentage of people who cited them were:
Science – 47% – A bunch of them looked at the science and data and it convinced them. This isn’t at all unreasonable. The evidence is overwhelming, after all.
Stewardship – 29% – Wanting to make the world a better rather than worse place is almost universal. And regardless of anything else, the environmental benefits of renewables over fossil fuels are almost impossible to ignore.
Weather – 21% – Major impactful weather events such as Hurricane Harvey, the largest wildfire ever in California, Bangladesh being 30% flooded and the like make people realize that the climate is changing. Completely unusual, statistically improbable weather that they have never experienced in their lives makes them question their bias.
Credibility – 17% – Almost one in five former denialists and skeptics said that the other people denying climate change were just hard to believe. The fossil fuel funding, the outright lies, the distortions, the tissue thin explanations and the outright frothing that is in the space makes for an uncompelling sense of authority. When your fellow travelers in climate skepticism are also raving about the Flat Earth and moon landings, reasonable people tend to say “Hmmm, what else are they wrong about?” Meanwhile, look at the other side of the discussion. There are a lot of incredibly compelling authorities who are really hard to dismiss without hurting your brain.
So there you go. There are overlapping reasons why people refuse to accept the science of global warming and climate change. They have pre-existing biases which tend to make them skeptical, they’ve been supported in that skepticism by decades of misinformation, and psychologically and socially it’s easier to continue to deny rather than accept reality.
But there is hope. Many cognitive scientists are assessing how the mechanisms which support science denial work, many people are convinced by the actual evidence and there are clear examples like Katherine Hayhoe’s work which show us how to reach some of the hardest to reach groups. Eventually, reality will win out. It does tend to have the upper hand in the long run.