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After Paris: Charting the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change

  • A study of U.S. public opinion by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that climate change was placed 19th on a list of top priorities according to survey respondents. Only 29 percent thought climate change was the most urgent issue facing the United States.
  • Anxiety about climate change is highest in Latin America and Africa, while it captures the top spot of concern in half of Asian countries surveyed.
  • To figure out why there exists a disconnect between climate change science and the general public, researchers are looking into the “psychological distance” of climate change. Their findings argue that personal experiences with extreme weather can help motivate people to recognize climate change as a real threat.

The international agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris was certainly a major achievement as it won consensus from 195 governments, and looks set to forge new paths to avoid an overheated planet.

The hard part, however, now lies in keeping that global attention and, more importantly, translating attention into action. The difficulties involved in instigating the transformational changes necessary to stop global warming have led to an increased interest recently in the psychology of climate change – to better understand why people embrace, reject or just ignore this issue.

Most of the people who followed the Paris negotiations closely are advocates of strong climate action. It is all too easy for these people to assume that others are like them. Surely, everybody must understand the imperative of reining in accumulating greenhouse gases to avoid a bleak future? But a belief that climate action calls resonate strongly through the general public is not necessarily true.

Terrorism a top concern

A study of U.S. public opinion by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that climate change was placed 19th on a list of top priorities according to survey respondents. Only 29 percent thought climate change was the most urgent issue facing the United States. The three most important issues were considered to be strengthening the U.S. economy (80 percent), improving the job situation (74 percent) and defending the country from terrorism (73 percent).

Members of the U.S. public may be somewhat exceptional in their stances towards climate change, with many on the Republican side of U.S. politics questioning the truth of climate change science. Nevertheless, in all countries, the daily bombardment of information fueled by a restive media cycle – presenting a myriad of pressing international issues – means that concern about climate change is unlikely to be uniform or constant.

Low-lying islands are especially at risk of global warming as rising seas threaten to submerge them. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The issue of terrorism, rated as the third most important issue by the Pew Center poll, is particularly pertinent. The Paris attacks that killed 130 on November 13 threatened to overshadow the international talks, and they led to the cancellation of planned mass marches in the French capital calling for climate action.

Both French and U.S. presidents strove to prevent the terrorist attacks from railroading the international negotiations.

“These are two big global challenges we have to face up to, because we have to leave our children more than a world freed of terror, we also owe them a planet protected from catastrophes,” said French President Francois Hollande.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama saluted “the people of Paris for insisting this crucial conference go on — an act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children.”

Even during the Paris conference – considered the most important global gathering on climate change since the 15th COP held in Copenhagen in 2009 – news of a terrorist attack in California that killed 14 bumped climate change from the focus of mass media. Now, with the conclusion of the Paris meeting, climate change is likely to be pushed further back into the background buzz of “important issues” that inhabit our social consciousness.

Professor Ben Newell, specializing in cognitive psychology at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, said the preoccupation by many with terrorism highlighted the challenges of communicating climate change issues to the general public.

“Interestingly, surveys have shown people in developing countries are more worried about climate change than terrorism while, generally, the reverse is true in developed countries,” said Newell. “This is the case even though people in developed countries are far less likely to personally experience terrorist attacks.”

While the results of such research are not clear cut, a recent global study by the Pew Research Center indicates a majority of people in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East view the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) as the greatest danger facing their societies. Anxiety about climate change is highest in Latin America and Africa, while it captures the top spot of concern in half of Asian countries surveyed.

A common aspect of terrorism and climate change is the feeling of fear that both generate. Newell said his research into the psychological aspects of people’s opinions about climate change during the past few years shows that fear can be a two-edged motivational sword. Visualizations of rising sea levels and riots over water shortages can be arresting and help prompt action. “But too much fear can lead to avoidance, while too much doom and gloom can lead to disengagement,” he added.

Newell and others working in this field have been focusing on the “psychological distance” of climate change. In a study he coauthored that was published last month in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Newall describes this distance in terms of four dimensions: certainty (hypothetical distance), time (temporal distance), space (spatial distance) and people (social distance). According to this way of thinking, psychological distance involves thinking about if something is going to happen, when it might happen, where it might happen, and to whom it might happen.

Challenges in communicating climate change

Research into psychological distance shows how climate change communication faces particular challenges in the way it hits, or fails to hit, the mental buttons that come with our human makeup. A particularly insightful article on this topic, appearing in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science in November 2015, plots these challenges and indicates ways around them.

The article argues that people are generally more responsive to personal experiences than to abstract analysis. This means that the numbers and graphs that feature prominently in many of the presentations designed to inform and advocate climate action do not necessarily impact people unfamiliar with this topic. The authors of the paper also indicate that, generally, people do not rate highly the ability of individual action to make a difference.

Mangroves occupy the interface of sea and land. They serve as critical habitat for many animals and plants, and provide important ecosystem services for coastal human communities. But as polar ice sheets melt in the face of rising global temperatures, mangroves may not be able to keep pace with rising sea levels. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Another manifestation of psychological distance is the tendency by people to put far more precedence in their daily activities than to the future, when climate scientists predict the most noticeable effects of global warming are set to kick in. Also, according to the paper, research across 18 nations shows that people judge climate risks to be more likely and more serious for other people and places than for themselves.

The authors highlight a number of areas where it should be possible to improve climate change communication. They argue that personal experiences with extreme weather can help to motivate people. When people can see climate change affecting their daily lives, they are far more likely to treat it more seriously. This suggestion, however, runs into the problems scientists face in attributing extreme weather phenomena directly to climate change. For instance, a recent collection of studies by the American Meteorological Society, found a roughly 50-50 split over cases where climate change has been directly implicated in causing extreme weather events.

“It is by no means a prevailing one-story-fits-all-events type of approach to this,” Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and editor of the studies, said at a news conference. While it is possible to draw a broad link between extreme weather and climate change, it is not so easy to connect the dots to exact events due to the large number of atmospheric factors at play in the global climate system.

The authors of the report in Perspectives on Psychological Science also argue that people can be prompted to take action when shown that others in their social groups are doing so. This is not surprising considering the way that most of us conform to the often-unwritten cultural rules of the societies in which we live.

When we consider the way social norms affect our attitudes towards climate change, however, things can get a bit messy. It can be difficult to differentiate the internal ideas we form independently and the way our own ideas are massaged by the outside churn of social communication.

The media also matters

While we may consider ourselves to be independent thinkers, we are all influenced to a certain extent by the surrounding ideas trumpeted by an invasive mass media – along with the political power plays that often feed it. The irony of the internet-driven communication revolution that continues to mold our lives is that the more connected we are, the harder it can be to discern the issues over which we need to take action. With such a cacophony of events, it is all too easy to sit back and be consumed by the information wash. That is why the media has such a powerful role in shaping people’s attitudes.

Western media’s drive for balanced coverage, in which the arguments of two debating parties are given equal weight, can lead to the impression that both views are equally qualified. But when it comes to questioning climate science, this can be disingenuous given that 97 percent of climate scientists believe there is such a thing as climate change and that it is caused by humans. If a climate science skeptic is provided with an equally elevated soapbox as that of a climate scientist, the facts of the matter may be diluted.

Scientists say climate change has contributed to the increasing incidence and changing patterns of wildfires around the world. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

In some Western countries, climate change has been used as a potent political weapon aimed at dividing and conquering the electorate. The issue of climate change is certainly encroaching on the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which is already rapidly heating up. The colorful, front-running Republican contender Donald Trump seems to be using the issue to attract the support of skeptic elements of the U.S. public. However, while Trump has been characteristically flamboyant in questioning the prominence of climate change, over 56 percent of Republicans in the U.S. Congress denied a human-induced link to climate change in a survey.

While many U.S. politicians’ comments are focused firmly on domestic politics, the broad reach of the mass media allows ideas to flow easily across borders. That means the public of other countries can also potentially be influenced by the intense climate politics in the United States.

Despite the challenges today and ahead, Australian researcher Ben Newell is generally optimistic that the world is beginning to head down a path of reduced emissions. The Paris agreement has certainly been momentous in the way it has seen all countries agree to reduce emissions, promise to raise $100 billion a year to 2020 to help poorer countries and accept a new goal of net zero emissions by later this century.

“There seems to be growing momentum away from the skeptic point of view,” Newell said. “I can see incremental changes as those with vested interests begin to see the writing on the wall and start to engage with climate change. This is similar to the way the tobacco industry came to accept the link between smoking and lung cancer.”

Yet, the transformational nature of changes necessary to achieve lower-emissions development is still formidable. As national negotiators return home from Paris, a battle of ideas on how to tackle global warming still lies ahead. Understanding of the psychological distance that separates many of us from taking action on climate change will go a long way in forging the path to a safer and more sustainable future.

Simon Pollock is a program manager at the Australian Department of the Environment, where he focuses on climate change projects in developing countries. The views expressed are his own.