Why People Don’t Believe In Climate Science


Our last video gave you a nice, neat list of facts explaining why scientists are so sure that climate change is real and that humans are the main cause. We’ve filled libraries with reports and graphs and books about climate change, more facts than you can shake a hockey stick at. Still, four out of ten Americans aren’t convinced. And consider this: Among the majority that do accept the science of climate change, folks don’t seem to be doing much about it. Today we’re going to look at a few of the reasons why facts don’t always work, how our brain fights with itself to keep us from responding to threats, and the science of why some people don’t believe in climate science. Kurt Vonnegut once said “I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” The problem is… we’re human.

Psychologist John Tooby says “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.” Now we’ve come a long way since our cave-dwelling days, but what Tooby means is we’re dealing with the threats of today using tools from our brain’s evolutionary past. The issues that really grab our attention involve P.A.I.N. According to psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we respond most strongly to threats that are personal, that represent abrupt changes in our environment, that are immoral or indecent, and that are affecting us now. Climate change is a gradual, impersonal thing that always seems to live in the future. But if climate change threatened these puppies, wouldn’t you pay more attention? Our one brain is really two: One rational and one emotional. The rider looks like they’re in control, but the elephant really has the last say. Lots of the time, our emotional brain elephant isn’t even listening. Let’s say the rider loved that article about how climate change is threatening banana crops, but the elephant isn’t motivated to act until the bananas are gone. According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, when we’re faced with uncertain threats about things we might lose in the distant future, our brains will invent all kinds of excuses not to act on them today.

I mean, look at the way we talk about climate change. It always seems to happen in the future tense. “Caretakers of the future” “what the future holds” “sheltering future generations” “stand up for our future”. A poll by Yale University shows 65% of people think climate change will harm future generations, and just 38% say it will harm them personally. This is what Kahneman calls our “optimism bias”, assuming we face lower risks than others do. Car accidents won’t happen to us, or the next big hurricane surely won’t hit here, because bad things only happen to other people. I can point to extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy or Typhoon Haiyan as obvious effects of climate change, but someone else might point to them as proof the climate is random. We have a tendency to cherry-pick evidence that supports our existing beliefs. It doesn’t help that many climate change threats are becoming so familiar that they’re just… normal. “A new United Nations report raised the threat of climate change to a whole new level” “Severe, pervasive, and irreversible.” “Longer, hotter, drier droughts, and it will only get worse.” “The world is ill-prepared for what is to come.

” “Without action there could be irreversible damage” “The fundamental systems that support human civilization are at risk.” Hurricanes and wildfires are always on the news. September 2014 was the 355th month in a row of higher than average temperatures. It’s like a broken record… People also doubt climate change because they’re uncertain about uncertainty. When scientists talk about uncertainties, all the known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, many people think they’re not confident in their findings, when the opposite is true. Less than one in four Americans think that there’s a scientific consensus about climate change, yet 97% of scientists are in agreement. What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. What’s weird is we don’t apply this uncertainty about uncertainty to other issues.

A one percent chance of a terrorist attack and we’re sounding the alarm. “Instead of drifting along toward tragedy we’ll set a course toward safety” Nearly certain global disruption from climate change? “There is not agreement around the fact of exactly what is causing this.” “The climate is always changing, between pauses, and we are not capable with our limited knowledge of predicting which way it will go next.” “Eight inches of snow on the east coast. I’ve got an explanation that’s not climate change, it’s called winter.” Thanks to today’s hyperbole-infused media, we’re almost numb or indifferent to anything that isn’t about to literally kill us. Why aren’t more people worried? Patricia Linville and Gregory Fischer argue that we have a finite “pool of worry” and climate change isn’t allowed in the water. We view and make sense of our world through frames, not just so we can focus better on what’s inside, but also to decide what we can ignore.

For some people, your frame is built based on your political party, for others it’s carved out of your religious beliefs or economic philosophy. Viewing the world through the same frame as your social “in-group”, whatever that might be, is important to remaining part of that in-group. Basically, we’re all puppets controlled by the strings of social conformity. It’s not a choice, it’s just who we are. From the time we’re kids, we read social cues from people around us, like how to talk or not burping in public. Our survival used to literally depend on being part of a social group. So if you’re part of some social group that doesn’t believe in climate change, you have two risks to weigh: Climate change and all of its uncertainties, or the very personal risk of becoming an outsider.

Sociologist Stanley Cohen writes that climate change denial isn’t not knowing, or refusing to know. It’s about choosing not to notice or talk about it, so they don’t rock the in-group boat. Climate change is almost the perfect problem. We’ve gotta do something about it, but every one of its attributes goes against our psychology. It’s like that black cloud from “Lost”, it has no identity, no home, no single cause, and no single solution. And it’s about more than science, it involves economics, morals, human rights, ideology, technology. It’s really hard. In another video we laid out the facts about why man-made climate change is real. And here we talked about the many reasons why facts don’t always work.

But I haven’t answered the most important question: How do we get people to act? Truth is, I don’t know. Action is the destination, but I’m not sure about the path we should take to get there. I mean, is anyone? I want to know what you think. When it comes to tackling climate change, to exploring solutions and adapting to the new future, what are you worried or unsure about? What are you hopeful about? What do you want us to explore? We’ll definitely be coming back to this in the near future, so let me know down in the comments, and we can figure out where to go together. I think the psychology behind climate science might be even more interesting than actual climate science. If you want to read more, check out “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change” by George Marshall. Link down in the description. Stay curious..