Human Behaviour to the Climate Crisis

by Sophie Finegan

How many of you honestly ignore something in the hope that it goes away? In need of some divine inspiration? Perhaps it is that assignment due at the end of term you’ve been putting off- the mere thought of which resembles what you can only imagine are the burning fires of hell in the afterlife. What about that ghastly, yet undeniably impressive, stack of mugs accumulating in the corner of your room for the last while – how long has it truly been there? The point I seek to illustrate is that we humans sometimes think if we magically ignore and procrastinate reality that it will suddenly evaporate into thin air. 

“There is no denying that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. “

These lies that we tell ourselves essentially postpone our worries to a later stage so that we can continue to go about our lives in a relatively care-free state. Whilst this is ideal in the here and now – eventually reality does set in! At some point, we are forced to admit defeat to these false truths and return the mugs to their rightful place! I suppose you are probably questioning the reason behind this unsolicited attack on human nature and what in the world this has got to do with the environment but have no fear I am getting to the point. This same behaviour can be observed in the world’s response to climate change.

There is no denying that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. Evidence of such can clearly be observed anywhere and everywhere around the world from the forest fires in Australia to rising sea levels and the melting of the ice caps and glaciers in Antarctica.

Furthermore, rising levels of greenhouse gases and pollution has led to a vast reduction in biodiversity across the globe, the extinction of many plants and animals in addition to the increased spread of infectious diseases. What is the cause behind such large-scale catastrophe you might ask? While there is no one isolated causal factor, a consensus has emerged among the science community claiming that climate change is largely anthropogenic (a consequence of wastefully inefficient and unsustainable human activity). 

Whilst international commitments such as the Kyoto Protocol, ratified in 1997, and the 2016 Paris Agreement have promised to implement greener policies to minimise the rise of global temperatures, there is still much to be done in the domain of encouraging more sustainable living at a local level. Arguably, the greatest difficulty facing the fight against climate change is humans themselves. Despite the widespread dissemination of information on the causes and effects of climate change and associated campaigns, there are still people who believe that climate change is a myth (Whitmarsh, 2011).

“approximately 16% of American citizens reject climate change, 25% believe that while it is in fact occurring, it is not as a result of human activities”

According to a recent study conducted by TheEconomistYouGov, approximately 16% of American citizens reject climate change, 25% believe that while it is in fact occurring, it is not as a result of human activities, and 14% say they are unsure what to believe (Pierre, 2022). Climate change denialism or rejection hinders the ability of governments to pass environmental legislation which is desperately needed to reduce the negative effects of climate change and promote more sustainable living at the local level.

Scholars have sought to explain why, despite the scientifically proven research and the examples observed around the world, individuals continue not to take climate change seriously. The findings are nothing short of fascinating. According to a wealth of literature, many individuals deny the severity of climate change simply because the mere thought of it generates feelings of fear, worry, and uncertainty (Dunlap, 2013). This relates to the psychological term cognitive dissonance which claims that humans can trick themselves into denying a reality in order to avoid the feelings attached to accepting its existence.  In all honesty, this makes sense.

The idea that our planet might be inhabitable in the future is scary, but denial and deflection are likely not the best approach to the situation. Traditionally, the consensus in this field of study concludes that climate change denialism is strongly associated with individuals who have low levels of education and who support conservative political ideologies (Dunlap, 2013) (Weber, 2015). Many sceptics believe opposing political parties exaggerate the negative effects of climate change to gain voters or further wealth or simply are resistant to change. I suppose the next question to be answered is why people would encourage such scepticism around such a serious global issue? It would seem that some individuals seek to maintain the status quo in relation to global issues and disassociate from it.

“humans are more likely to deny the existence and or extremity of climate change simply because the effects are not directly observed in their physical surroundings.”

This relates back to human nature and our unusual behavioural tendencies. Studies conducted across the U.K., the U.S., and Sweden in particular have found that humans are more likely to deny the existence and or extremity of climate change simply because the effects are not directly observed in their physical surroundings. For many, this global issue is as abstract as the artistic work of renowned painter Vasily Kandinsky.

Take for example a study conducted by Li et al., (2011) in both the U.S. and Australia which sought to provide empirical evidence to support this theory. Both samples were asked to express their viewpoints on certain days whereby the temperatures were different to the average weather conditions experienced in that area. The study concluded that on the days whereby the temperature was higher, more people reported significantly stronger feelings in support of climate change. This reinforces the idea that humans are prone to prioritising the present in the formulation of opinions. 

So what can we take from these captivating studies? Firstly, human behaviour is incredibly complex. Of course, the point is not to force individuals into changing their opinion. However, if it is denialism that is impeding an individual’s beliefs in relation to climate action there are some things that can be done, for example, further promoting policies designed at simple ways to promote preserving the future and sustainable living.

“individuals become more invested in the future when it benefits them”

However, it is not all doom and gloom – some studies have suggested that the answer to this is to simply make people more interested in the future. For example Zaval et al., (2015) proposed that individuals become more invested in the future when it benefits them. The research concluded that people are more likely to invest into more sustainable living when they are certain their legacy will be remembered.

Whilst this is a really interesting finding, it is questionable in terms of promoting climate change action for all – I find it rather unlikely that everyone who contributes to the fight will have a statue erected as a token of gratitude. The idea does however provide much needed food for thought on the issue and on how to incentivise people to invest in the future.

References: 

Dunlap, R.E. (2013) Climate change skepticism and denial: An introduction, Sage Journals . Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0002764213477097 (Accessed: February 24, 2023). Intext: (Dunlap, 2013)

Weber, E.U. (2015) “What shapes perceptions of climate change? new research since 2010,” WIREs Climate Change, 7(1), pp. 125–134. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.377.  Intext: (Weber, 2015)

Zaval, L., Markowitz, E.M. and Weber, E.U. (2015) “How will I be remembered? conserving the environment for the sake of one’s legacy,” Psychological Science, 26(2), pp. 231–236. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614561266. Intext: (Zaval et al., 2015)

Li, Y., Johnson, E.J. and Zaval, L. (2011) “Local warming,” Psychological Science, 22(4), pp. 454–459. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611400913. Intext: (Li et al., 2011)

Whitmarsh, L. (2011) “Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: Dimensions, determinants and change over time,” Global Environmental Change, 21(2), pp. 690–700. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.01.016. Intext: 

Pierre, J. (2022) Why don’t people believe in climate change?, Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ie/blog/psych-unseen/202204/why-dont-people-believe-in-climate-change (Accessed: February 24, 2023). (Pierre, 2022)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s