Why Do People Want to Refute Climate Change?

New research sheds light on how threat to the status quo shapes beliefs.

Posted Apr 17, 2017

According to NASA, the evidence is incontrovertible that climate change is real and represents a serious threat. Based on studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals, they report that at least 97% of working climate scientists agree that "climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities". The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts" reports unequivocally that climate change has multiple negative impacts on the environment and is extremely likely to be caused by human-made greenhouse gases (go here for the Synthesis Report, IPCC, 2014).

NASA succinctly presents the evidence for and impact of climate change: sea level rise, global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, declining arctic sea ice, glacial retreat, extreme [weather] events, ocean acidification, and decreased snow cover. The psychological effects of climate change have been an area of increasing concern for behavioral health researchers, and the American Psychological Association in collaboration with ecoAmerica report that in addition to negative effects on the environment and physical health, climate change is taking a toll on mental health, "due to trauma and distress due to personal injuries, loss of a loved one, damage to or loss of personal property or even the loss of livelihood," citing higher rates of PTSD, mood and anxiety disorders following natural disasters (Clayton et al., 2017).

Furthermore, many believe we are facing what is referred to as the Sixth Mass Extinction, following Elizabeth Kolbert's 2015 Pulitzer Prize book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and work by Ceballos et al. (2015) and other research groups, that species are disappearing at a massively accelerated rate, 100 times higher than the baseline extinction rate in the last century, thought to be related to human activity.

How then is it possible that so many people deny the reality of climate change, and the negative impact it is having on the environment, and on our health - as well as the looming, potentially extinction-level threat we face together?

Researchers have been studying how people come to deny climate change. A recent study by Clarke, Ling, Kothe and Richardson (2017), Perceived Mitigation Threat Mediates Effects of Right-Wing Ideology on Climate Change Beliefs, available in pre-print from the Open Science Framework, reviews the existing literature on how political ideology influences attitudes about climate change, and reports new finding based on their survey of 334 US participants, 59.9% of whom identified as liberal, 21.6% as conservative, and the rest in the middle politically.

Clarke and colleagues sought to clarify the relationship among various dimensions of political belief and motivations for denying climate change, noting that prior research has demonstrated a significant correlation between right-wing ideology and climate change denial. In addition to hypothesizing that various components of political belief would be correlated with climate change denial, they predicted that "climate change mitigation threat" (anxiety that efforts to address climate change will negatively impact the socioeconomic status quo) would be a significant additional factor in climate change denial. In other words, researchers expect that people who deny climate change would at least be partially motivated to do so to avoid negative effects on social and economic factors, in spite of being presented with the clear and present danger posed by climate change.

To test their hypotheses, they recruited subjects to participate in a survey of political belief-related factors and climate change denial related factors. They administered the following scales:

  1. The Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) scale, measuring a) authoritarian aggression, b) authoritarian submission, and c) conventionalism;
  2. The Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) scale, measuring the "tendency to prefer group-based hierarchy and inequality"; 
  3. The Ideological orientation measure, asking individuals where they fall politically, ranging from "extremely liberal" to "extremely conservative"; 
  4. The Climate Change Mitigation Threat (CCMT) scale, measuring anxiety-related the possible effects on socioeconomic stability due to proposed changes such as higher costs for higher carbon emission, caps on emissions, and the impact on conventional fuel industries from alternative energy sources;
  5. The Climate Change Denial scale, measuring four types of climate change denial including a) denial of existence of climate change, b) denial of human cause, c) impact denial and d) climate science denial.

Their findings, representing correlations and requiring follow-up research to clarify causal relationships, are nevertheless fascinating.

First of all, they confirmed that ideological orientation, RWA and SDO were associated with higher levels of climate change denial. The found that CCDT was correlated with all ideological variables as well as with all climate change denial variables. This supports the basic idea that not only is right-wing ideology connected with climate change denial, but it is also connected with reporting greater concern that addressing climate change will upset the socioeconomic status quo. 

Furthermore, they found that while SDO and Conventionalism predicted all of the climate change denial factors, the Agression and Submission subscales were not statistically significant on a more complex level of analysis.

Because the threat to the socioeconomic status quo was a partial determinant of climate change denial, this research strongly suggests that political orientation leads to climate change denial for additional reasons such as identification, where conservatives might adopt the prevailing views of the group, including attitudes about climate change. It is interesting, though of unclear significance, that on closer analysis Aggression and Submission were not correlated with climate change denial, especially in the context of measuring contributors to Authoritarianism, highlighting the role of Conservativism over the potentially effects of retaliatory or defensive reactions.

The finding that socioeconomic threat is associated with avoidant coping (denial) is telling because it is another disturbing example of how people can sacrifice long-term health and safety in order to prevent short-term losses. Avoidant coping is generally considered to be maladaptive, for example, and acceptance and reappraisal, forms of active coping, are generally more effective.

Research like this from Clarke et al. is crucial because we need to understand how and why people deny climate change in order to effect positive changes. By understand how various facets of conservative ideology drive climate change denial, we may be able to develop communication and intervention strategies to combat climate change denial, and precipitate greater efforts to embrace comprehensive change across political divides.

Rather than succumbing to partisan conflict (because it generally seems absurd to liberal-leaning people not to address climate change, leading to a conversation non-starter), it may be possible to conduct research and present information which allows for reappraisal of the socioeconomic impact of changing policies related to fossil fuel use and carbon emissions, particularly if persuasive arguments can be made that it will be socioeconomically beneficial in the long run. This approach could foster more adaptive responses based on acceptance and reappraisal, rather than on threat-based assessments and membership-based adherence to group norms. Such arguments have been effective in changing insurance company policies when advocacy groups have demonstrated that spending money up front will save money later, for example showing that treating mental health and addictions leads to significant financial savings in the future by preventing serious physical health consequences.

Research like this may also help liberal-leaning individuals to have greater empathy for their conservative counterparts - which could allow for more constructive dialogue, making bipartisan efforts more likely to succeed. Confrontational or derisive approaches, on the other hand, tend to lead to greater polarization. Finally, given that conservative identification may lead people to adopt group values supporting climate change denial, persuading those conservative leaders who accept climate change as a serious problem to speak out may be an effective strategy to change attitudes over time.

Twitter: @GrantHBrennerMD

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IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contributions of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, RK Pachauri and LA Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

Clayton S, Manning CM, Krygsman K & Speiser M (2017) Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.

Ceballos G, Ehrlich P, Barnosky AD, Garcia A, Pringle RM & Palmer TM. (2015). Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances 19 June, Vol. 1, no. 5.

Clarke E, Ling M, Kothe E, Richardson, B (2017). Percieved Mitigation Threat Mediates Effects of Right-Wing Ideology on Climate Change Beliefs, March 24 last revision, Open Science Framework, preprints, downloaded April 17, 2017 from https://osf.io/f8ap7/