A Boston firefighter wades through flood waters from Boston Harbor on Long Wharf in Boston, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018.

Credit: Michael Dwyer/AP

Why We're Hard Wired for Denial When It Comes To Climate Change

February 8, 2018

When Rob Maloof had to rescue his car from rushing seawater last month, it changed how he thought about where he lives.

“You think of the South Shore, you think of the North Shore, you don’t usually think of Boston," he said. "But, now I do.” 

Maloof laughs at the words coming out of his mouth, but it’s not that strange that people might not think of Boston as a place subject to coastal flooding. That kind of disconnect is, in fact, our default setting, says George Marshall, author of "Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change."  

A few months after Hurricane Sandy, Marshall talked to people who had lived through the disaster on the New Jersey shore. When he asked them, "Can you tell me, what was the last conversation you've had about climate change?" he said, “People looked at me as if I was crazy."

“Nobody could remember having had a recent conversation on climate change since Hurricane Sandy.  When you are traumatized by an extreme weather event, I think you tend to push the whole thing away," he said. "You certainly don't want to talk about how this might happen again or it might get worse.”

“Climate change is the policy problem from hell,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCC). “You almost couldn't design a worse fit for our underlying psychology or our institutions of decision making.” 

The YPCC studied the attitude of Americans toward climate change, classifying six groups that respond to the issue differently. 

"At one end, [there is] a group we call ‘the alarmed,’" explained Leiserowitz, "who are fully convinced it's happening, it's human caused, and it's urgent and they strongly support action now.” 

About 16 percent of Americans fall into the "alarmed" group.

 “At the very end of the other side,” Leiserowitz continued, “is a group we called ‘the dismissive,’ who are firmly convinced it's not happening, it's not human caused, and it's not a serious problem, and in fact many of them basically tell us that there are conspiracy theorists.”

Only about nine percent of Americans fall into the dismissive group. But, “They're a really loud nine percent. They're a really vocal nine percent,” Leiserowitz said. 

They’re also very well-represented in Congress, and currently both the head of the EPA and the president of the United States speak in the language of those nine percent.

Which brings us to a pretty obvious point: Climate change denial in the U.S. tends to break down along political lines. The reasons are complicated, and Leiserowitz says a big part of it has to do with what social psychologists call the messenger effect.  

“The messenger is often more important than the message itself,” he said.

Now think for instance of the main messenger of climate change action: Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s vice president and a fierce critic of George W. Bush. He's not an ideal messenger for conservatives.  

“It's very difficult for them to say, ‘You know, I really loathe and detest Al Gore as a politician and as a liberal. But when he talks about climate science, I think he's got a really important point,’" said Leiserowitz. "That's just hard for most human beings to do. If you really don't like the messenger it's very hard to listen to them.” 

Leiserowitz and Marshall say it’s also difficult to motivate people to act when a threat feels very distant in time and space. The human brain evolved to be really good at dealing with the kind of threats most likely to kill us now, like dodging a projectile moving towards your head, or anticipating when that guy is about to attack you. It’s “a lot harder when things become detached and abstract, and really climate change is one of the most abstract issues that there is,” Marshall said.   

It’s also harder to register a faceless threat as an enemy. 

“If North Korea was causing climate change, I think we would all respond pretty fast,” said Marshall.    

But Marshall is hopeful people can be motivated by re-framing how we think about a threat. 

“You don't say to people, ‘Do you think we should do something about terrorism?’ and they go, ‘Aw, But there's so little I can do. What I can do?’" said Marshall. "People don't even think about that, they think, "Yeah! Yeah, there is something we should do. I want the government to do something about this." 

He adds that it’s crucial to make the narrative personal, and he’s worked with leaders of major faiths and political figures of all backgrounds to do that. For the Boston area, in the wake of last month’s flooding, he offers this narrative:

"We showed in that terrifying flood … how we as a community can really pull together, how strong and proud we are of who we are. So let's keep that spirit going, and let's carry that on so we're prepared and ready for the next event," he said. "So we can protect the people around us and we can be ready for it, because the scientists tell us as more is on its way.”


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