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Issue 11

The Hamartia of Human Reasoning: Why Do We Deny Climate Change?

Prior to the pandemic, the conversation surrounding anthropogenic climate change had captured global attention like never before – aided by the global platform attained by the School Strike for Climate movement. Though the Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increased concern about human interactions with their environment, the discourse on climate change has not radically changed how populations tend perceive the real threat it poses. This problem is not new – despite broad scientific consensus about the realities of anthropogenic climate change, why are human beings so bad at accepting that it is a real phenomenon? What does this denial indicate?

Individual Processes

The first set of explanations for climate change denial pertain to the nature of the problem itself – a phenomenon that is diffused across time and space, disruptive to existing global socio-economic systems and threatens human existence. 

Construal Level Theory

The construal level theory describes the relationship between psychological distance – the cognitive separation between the self and other entities, such as other persons, instances, areas, etc. – and individuals’ degree of abstract or concrete thinking. This theory holds that as the object in question moves closer to the individual in terms of psychological distance, it is thought of in more concrete terms as opposed to abstract terms. The nature of climate change – a gradual phenomenon, spanning large expanses of time and differentially impacting spaces – inherently tends to be thought of in an abstract, distant fashion instead of approached as a concrete, real-time phenomenon. Thus, this thought mechanism can lead to, and encourage, denialist tendencies of climate change.

Worry, Fear and Control 

The theory of finite pool of worry holds that people have a limited capacity for worrying about multiple issues at once. As worry for a particular kind of risk increases, the ability of individuals to be concerned about other kinds of risks lessens. Building from the logic of the construal level theory, it becomes apparent that individuals tend to worry about issues that are closer to them in time and space – e.g., prioritizing short-term stresses such as finding a job, over concerns about the long-term, diffused problem of climate change. 

Terror management theory indicates that since climate change is a bitter reminder of their mortality, individuals may resort to denying it. Moreover, it has also been indicated that when people believe that they have no control over climate change, they feel encouraged to deny the problem

Risk Perception 

Individuals process information through a model consisting of two systems. The ‘affective’ system – which is quick, automatic, and intuitive – processes adverse and uncertain aspects of the environment into emotional, or affective responses (e.g., fear). The ‘analytical’ system uses algorithms and rules for information processing, is slower and requires conscious awareness and control. It does not come into operation automatically, rather has to be learnt to be used (e.g., long division).

These two strands of information processing interact with one another to assess the risks in an individual’s environment. The issue of climate change presents a case where there is disconnect between the outputs of the affective and analytical systems – due to a lack of emotional response to climate change caused by insufficient personal experience with it. Since the efficacy of analytic reasoning is hindered without the assistance and guidance of emotions, this results in an inadequate level of concern about the phenomenon. Thus, for some individuals – especially those who are not personally exposed to the effects of climate change – climate change is not perceived to be a risk. 

Group Processes 

Placing individual tendencies for information processing in a social context provides for an extended understanding of the psychology of climate change denial.

System Justification Theory

The system justification theory states that people tend to defend themselves, their group and the social, economic and political systems on which they depend. Thus, individuals – especially those who enjoy comfortable lives within their social structures – find it difficult to confront the environmental consequences of their lifestyles, which are upheld by the larger global political order.

Identity-protective Motivated Cognition 

Identity-protective motivated cognition causes individuals to process information in a way that aligns with their membership in ideologically or culturally defined groups rather than relying on scientific evidence to make their judgements. Identity-protective motivated cognition can influence individuals belonging to groups that do not believe in climate change to overlook scientific evidence and align with their group’s views on the matter. 

Attribution 

Attribution theory has indicated that individuals decide the causes of the same phenomena differently depending upon whether the actor is perceived to be a member of an in-group or out-group. This effect was demonstrated in a study, where American participants were shown evidence of excessive energy use by fellow Americans (in-group) versus the Chinese (out-group). The experiment indicated that the participants were more likely to attribute climate change to natural, rather than anthropogenic causes – i.e., dismissing the responsibility of the issue from their group, likely due to the role of attribution in their perception of the problem of climate change.

Differential Impacts and Climate Change Denial

Groups that are disproportionately affected by the impacts of environmental hazards tend to show higher levels of climate related concern and are motivated by equity concerns when approaching the question of climate change. A US study found that non-white participants consistently expressed more concern about climate change than their white counterparts. This effect also extended to gender identity; opinion polls conducted in the US indicated that women tend to display more environmental concern than men

This effect is attributed to the fact that white males in the US may feel less vulnerable to the effects of climate change, partially due to the privilege they wield in society. It was also found that white men in the US were more likely to deny the reality of climate change when compared to other demographic groups. Hence, it can be inferred that inter-group power dynamics have the potential to influence levels of climate change denial in society. 

At a macro level, different countries also vary in levels of climate change denial. Individuals in developing countries display higher levels of concern about climate change, than those in developed nations. This effect is assumed to be due to the fact developing countries tend to experience higher climate vulnerability – which affects personal commitment to mitigation, and support of mitigation policies.

Climate change denial poses a unique problem to human existence. It reveals human limitations to address threats that are diffused across time and space, are disruptive to the functioning of existing socio-political and economic systems and can come into conflict with individual and group values. Though scientists have successfully identified the existential problem of climate change and highlighted efficient solutions for its mitigation, it is the fallacy in common judgement, – the hamartia of human reasoning – guided by individual and group processes, that hinder its resolution as time runs out.  

Author’s Bio: Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

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