Climate Blindness: Why Your Moral Alarm is Malfunctioning

What psychology says about why we’re still sitting around doing nothing about Climate Change.


WHO:  Ezra M. Markowitz (Psychology Department, University of Oregon)
Azim F. Shariff (Psychology Department, Environmental Studies Program, University of Oregon)

WHAT: Why the majority of people are not getting outraged about climate change when the scientific consensus is so strong

WHEN: April 2012

WHERE:Nature Climate Change, Vol 2, April 2012

TITLE: Climate Change and Moral Judgement (subs required)

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes of current climate change – it’s us. Humans. We’ve spent the past several hundred years since the Industrial Revolution burning fossil fuels and pouring gigatonne after gigatonne of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is starting to get pretty weird because of it.

Yes, climates have changed before, but on scales of millions of years. Currently, we’re pouring so much pollution into the atmosphere at such a great rate that we’re causing changes in decades that would normally occur over millions of years.

So why are we all still sitting around twiddling our thumbs hoping it will go away instead of trying to minimise the kickback the atmosphere is going to give us? Well, these two researchers had a look at all the recent psychology papers on morality and climate change and tried to find out why.

Firstly, there’s a problem with climate change itself as an issue. It’s kinda abstract, so you have to think about it pretty seriously, which is way too hard for a [insert day of the week] afternoon. It’s also unintentionally caused – we didn’t know we were ruining the atmosphere until recently, and as anyone who has siblings knows; if you didn’t create the mess – you’re not cleaning it up.

There’s also guilty bias – we don’t want to think about how we’ve loaded the climate dice for extreme weather and are now playing Russian roulette with our futures – that’s a massive downer that makes you feel guilty. Is there something on TV we can watch instead?

Uncertainty also plays a part. While most scientists are currently trying to work out which level of unbalanced the atmosphere is from around 2c (mildly unpleasant) to +6c (catastrophic, humanity pretty much over), all people hear when they’re only half paying attention to the news is ‘uncertainty’ which leads to unreasonably wishful thinking. Oh, we don’t know for sure? Excellent, let’s grab a beer till they’re sure eh?

Another problem is what the researchers call moral tribalism, which is where you want to listen to the people you know and trust. Which is great, until it leads to things like ‘my uncle is really smart and he says climate change isn’t real’ regardless of the lack of facts in the statement.

And finally, there’s the long term timelines. When a scientist somewhere tells you we’re all pretty screwed in 2100 if we don’t stop our carbon addiction now, it seems REALLY far away.

These things are definitely all issues. Some of the suggestions the researchers came up with to try and get us up and doing something were:

  • Highlighting things of concern to conservatives as well as liberals (social justice and fairness doesn’t resonate as well with conservatives)
  • Highlighting things like profaning the purity of nature for religious people who react well to purity framing (eg. the What Would Jesus Drive campaign that I almost can’t believe is real)
  • Talk about the bad things we’re leaving for our children rather than the diminished good things we’re leaving for our children (negative qualifiers generally don’t stick in people’s minds)
  • Use emotional carrots rather than sticks (because telling people exactly how much we’ve ruined the planet makes them just shut down)
  • Go for things that encourage and reinforce positive behaviour, civic pride and peer pressure
  • Increase affinity for future generations (it’s not some abstract children – it’s YOUR child)

Now, all of these suggestions are excellent, and as Jim Hoggan (who I greatly admire) says – smashing heads doesn’t open minds. But I don’t think they go far enough in trying to reach through people’s psychology and get them to wake up. I’m a climate hawk, which means I believe in being realistic about exactly how much we’ve messed up the planet and exactly what kind of very serious ramifications we as humanity are going to face.

The thing is, climate change is no longer 100 years away – it’s here and now. It’s in the record lows of ice in the Arctic this year, the record heat in the US, the tropical storms on steroids, the unstoppable wildfires, massive floods and the unprecedented melting in Greenland.

These stark realities that increasing numbers of people across the globe including the first world are facing will be our new ‘mild summer’ if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels in the next fifteen years. Yes, fifteen years.

I think the time for being positive and allowing people to think they’ve ‘fixed it’ once they’ve changed their lightbulbs is over, because the scope of what we’ve done, intentionally or not is much greater than the emotional carrots of what kind of SUV Jesus would drive.

Psychology is going to play an increasingly important role in dealing with climate change as the rest of the world wakes up to the reality that is hurtling towards us about 100 years ahead of schedule, so all these messages now need a large dose of reality contained within them.

When I was training to be a violin teacher, we were taught that repetition is the key to learning things. You’re not going to play the violin if you’ve been shown how to do it only once – you need to do it over and over again.

So let’s do this and repeat it 100 times: we have fifteen years to stop burning fossil fuels otherwise the change will be catastrophic within our lifetimes.

We have fifteen years to stop burning fossil fuels otherwise the change will be catastrophic within our lifetimes.

1 thought on “Climate Blindness: Why Your Moral Alarm is Malfunctioning

  1. Pingback: Climate Blindness: Why Your Moral Alarm is Malfunctioning | Amy Huva

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