There are many candidates in the 2011 American race to be the Republican Party presidential nominee. Most of them, such as Texas governor Rick Perry, deny that current increases in world temperature are the result of human activities that produce heat-trapping gases. Instead, they argue that climate change is just a matter of natural fluctuations, so no steps need to be taken to restrict industrial activities such as oil production that increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This denial contradicts the conclusions of many scientific researchers summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
If the scientists are right, the consequences of failing to act to reduce global warming will be enormous, including massive flooding of coastal areas and weather extremes such as droughts. Why and how do leaders in the US and other countries such as Canada deny that global warming is a problem that needs to be addressed by restricting carbon emissions?
Scott Findlay and I recently published an article in which we explained climate change denial as resulting from a natural thinking tendency called motivated inference, in which beliefs are based on people's goals and emotions rather than on good evidence. All of us are prone to motivated inference, in situations such as these:
Romantic relationships: my lover treats me poorly, but he/she will change.
Parenting: my child hates school, but will settle down and straighten out eventually.
Medicine: this pain in my chest is indigestion, not a heart attack.
Politics: the new leader will be the country's savior.
Sports: our team has been losing, but we're going to play great today.
Law: the evidence against my hero is serious, but he couldn't have done it.
Religion: life is hard, but my caring God will lead me to eternal bliss.
Economics: this rapid economic growth is a sign of a new kind of economy, not a bubble.
Research: the article I'm writing is my best ever and will get into a top journal.