Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges in Responding to Climate Change

by Sam Peterson

A serious increase in the rate of climate change began almost two centuries ago with the inception of fossil fuel combustion, and global warming became a focal point in media coverage more than twenty years ago, yet no industrialized or developing nation has sufficiently reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), or adequately educated its populace to the dangers of rapidly fluctuating global temperatures. Norgaard examines worldwide response, or lack thereof, to climate change in a Development Economics background paper for the 2010 World Development Report for the World Bank and finds that citizens generally do care about climate change, but a systemic and systematic psychological routine of denial and widespread misinformation hinder the public response.

Climate change unequally affects the residents of Planet Earth. Public opinion in many industrialized nations centers around a belief that climate change is distant from daily life, while poorer nations already feel the burden of rising sea levels and increased severity of weather patterns (Norgaard 2006, Nisbet and Myers 2007, Brechin 2008, cited by Norgaard 2009). Compounding this problem are the disproportionate GHG emissions from developed countries in the northern hemisphere, as well as a widespread misunderstanding or general lack of knowledge regarding climate change (Watson et. al. 1998, cited by Norgaard 2009). Multiple studies have found the public to be “poorly informed about global warming” (Dunlap 1998, cited by Norgaard 2009), and a widespread poor understanding of climate change (Bord, Fisher and O’Connor, 1998, cited by Norgaard 2009). Between 1991 and 2001, Brechin compiled public opinion surveys from 15 nations and reported in 2003 even as scientific consensus on climate change increases, “knowledge regarding causes of climate change by the public is minimal.” In a 2001 survey, “citizens of Mexico knew the most about…climate change, but even here only one-quarter of respondents correctly identified burning fossil fuels as the primary cause of global warming.” In the United States, only 15% of respondents correctly identified GHG emissions as the cause of global warming, slightly behind Cuba. According to a 2007 U.S. Gallup poll, only 22% of respondents reported they understood the issue of global warming “very well.”

This lack of understanding cannot be directly correlated with a lack of concern, but in a 1998 Gallup Health of the Planet poll, respondents from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Portugal and Russia reported they saw “global warming as a problem,” but not nearly as important as ozone depletion or rainforest destruction. Additionally, very few respondents would voluntarily take steps to help alleviate effects of climate change, such as driving less. Gallup polls in America showed the percentage of people who “personally worry a great deal about global warming” dropped from 35% to 28% from 1989 to 2001, while the percentage that worry “not at all” rose from 12% to 17% during the same period (Saad, 2002).

There are several plausible theories regarding the lack of global response to what is considered the most important environmental issue of the 21st century. Norgaard identifies the following as reasons for public apathy:

“1) people don’t know enough to realize the danger, 2) people don’t care enough to take action, 3) there is hierarchy of needs and climate change is not an immediate need, 4) people trust that the government will fix the problem.”

In 2006, Norgaard found people actually avoid acknowledging disturbing information, like climate change statistics, to avoid emotions of fear and guilt and follow cultural norms that help support positive feelings of national identity. This directly contributes to one of the most common problems with climate change response, which is the condition that public support hinges on the ability to solve an issue. Climate change, to a majority of citizens in developed countries, seems like an issue that has no solution, and therefore they employ psychological barriers to “resign themselves to their fate” (Hellevik 2002, Krosnic et. al. 2006, cited by Norgaard 2009).

In order to understand the systematic apathy toward climate change, one must also examine the “social organization of climate denial.” In Norgaard’s previous research, she found that people generally knew about climate change, but failed to act on the information given to them in their everyday lives. Individuals “block out or distance themselves” for a variety of motives, including to maintain coherent meaning systems (Gecas and Burke 1995, cited by Norgaard 2009), and to stay in desirable emotional states (Rosenberg 1991, Meijndes et. al. 2001, cited by Norgaard 2009). Climate change denial, used for the above reasons, can be placed in one of three categories described by British sociologist Stanley Cohen: literal, interpretive, or implicatory. Literal denial is the “assertion that something did not happen,” and interpretive denial is the use of euphemisms to change meaning, so climate change apathy likely falls in implicatory denial, where “the psychological, political or moral implications that conventionally follow” information are denied (Cohen 2001, cited by Norgaard 2009).

Though there is widespread misinformation and lack of understanding regarding the causes and effects of climate change, it is evident that in recent years, a majority of people are concerned about global temperature increases, according to a 2008 Gallup poll. For the first time in history, this placed the citizens who were concerned about the state of climate change in a healthy majority, and signaled to policymakers that the public is prepared to move in the direction of reducing GHG emissions by governmental order, if not voluntarily. Norgaard recommends that policy be changed regarding the climate so that citizens do not feel powerless, but hopeful and prepared to actively participate in a group effort to halt climate change before it is too late.

Norgaard, K. M. (2009). Cognitive And Behavioral Challenges In Responding To Climate Change. S.l., s.n.

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