The Psychology of Climate Skepticism

Why Climate Change Skeptics Can’t Change Their Minds

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) in 2015, then chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, holding up a snowball as evidence that climate change is not real.

Climate change is real. It’s happening, it's human-caused, it's a major problem, and it demands immediate action. The evidence for this is absolutely enormous, and yet some of us just don't buy it. For a very small few, it’s simply a lack of information. Such people are reachable. But the overwhelming majority of climate skeptics seem to be frustratingly immovable in their rejection of the science. How could any reasonable person deny the undeniable? The purpose of this essay is not to convince skeptics, nor to argue the case that climate change is real. You either accept the science already or you don’t. Rather, I want to explore why climate skeptics feel as they do.

What is Climate Skepticism?

Climate skepticism is a euphemistic umbrella term (many critics prefer “climate denialism”) that encompasses three scientifically unsupported claims about climate change:

  1. Climate change is not occurring.

  2. Climate change is occurring, but is not human-caused.

  3. Climate change is occurring, may or may not be human-caused, but is not a threat and should not warrant any major action.

While these are somewhat different claims, all three variants are united by the view that climate change is not a threat, and oppose taking action to prevent, mitigate, or reverse it. For this reason, they will be grouped together under the rubric of “climate skepticism.”

Climate Change Acceptance and Skepticism By the Numbers

Over the past two decades, public awareness of climate change has grown to the point that as of 2015, well over 90 percent of people in developed countries, including over 97 percent of Americans, are aware of climate change. Raising awareness is still important in other parts of the globe, but in the industrialized world, awareness is no longer an issue.

Awareness does not necessarily translate into acceptance, however. Even so, great strides have been made there as well. As of 2020, 70 percent of people from a list of 14 developed nations rated climate change as a “major threat.” About a quarter said it was a “minor threat”, with five percent saying it was “not a threat.” These are encouraging numbers, though in the US somewhat less so. 14 percent of US respondents, nearly triple the percentage of the 14-country average, rated climate change as “not a threat.” That translates into roughly 46 million Americans.

There is an obvious yet important fact to notice here. Almost nobody politically left of center is a climate skeptic. Virtually everyone who is a climate skeptic is politically right of center. In the US, the partisan gap is over 50 points, with fewer than a third of Republicans willing to rate climate change as a major threat. This left-right divide holds across the developed world, with the political left and center consistently more accepting of climate science than those on the right.

What Explains This Gap — and What Doesn’t

What explains this? It’s not explainable by mere partisanship — that one "side" is for climate action so the other side must take the opposite stance — because that doesn’t explain why the left and right landed on opposite sides to begin with, nor why centrists side with the science. It’s not explainable by one side being bought off by special interests — everyday rank and file conservatives are not receiving checks from fracking companies. It’s also not a matter of people left of center being better educated on average — opinion data indicates that conservatives’ views on climate change vary little with education. And it’s not explained by simple greed or selfishness — many of these same people can be as self-sacrificing as anyone you’ll ever meet if the cause is one they believe in. This gap runs much, much deeper.

Climate change skepticism has nothing to do with science. This is not a community of apolitical, objective truth-seekers honestly looking at the evidence and disputing the science on merit. Rather, this is a group of people emotionally invested in cherished beliefs which are colliding with climate science. The planet has been warming from the greenhouse effect, fueled by greenhouse gas emissions. What has driven these emissions? Industry. Consumerism. Laissez-faireism. And, ultimately, capitalism. In other words, right wing ideas and policy. How can climate change be solved? We'll end up having to innovate our way out of this — reducing consumption won’t cut it anymore; we’ve waited too long and dug ourselves too deep a hole. But buying the time required for this innovation to occur and be implemented, which could take decades, requires targeted taxation, regulation, government programs and initiatives, global cooperation, and some market interventions. In other words, left wing ideas and policies.

When we demand the political right acknowledge the fact of human-caused climate change and to agree to act now, I don't think we fully understand what we’re asking of them. We are asking them not merely to acknowledge a scientific fact; we are asking them to acknowledge that their own political ideology, their side, has been poisoning the planet. We are asking them not merely to act now to mitigate and manage this crisis, but to admit that the dreaded other side has the only workable solutions — that their tribe is useless. After all, there are no purely market-based solutions to fixing climate change at the moment. There will be eventually, once various technologies come down in price, and certain as yet undiscovered innovations are invented. But not now. Buying the time for those things to happen is a process that relegates the political right to the kiddie table with some Bible story coloring books to keep them occupied while the grownups discuss grownup matters. We are asking them to throw their own political ideology in the garbage.

To an entrenched progressive, the reaction may be "well they should throw their ideology in the garbage, that's where it belongs!" Easy for you to say. And when the shoe is on the other foot, as it is on other issues (albeit issues with drastically lower stakes), we see this same recalcitrance from the left. With the decline of organized religion, family life, community, and fulfilling forms of employment, there has been a crisis of meaning in modern life, and that void is increasingly filled with politics. Asking people to trash their own political ideology is also asking them to invalidate a large part of their identity. That’s a really big ask, and we should not be surprised to find people resistant to it. And it only becomes harder the older one gets. An understanding of human nature should put an end to our exasperated incredulity at why so many people can't bring themselves to face the humiliation of repudiating a part of who they feel themselves to be. We are asking people to help us save the world, but in doing so, we are asking them to destroy their own world, in a sense.

The Veneer of Reasonableness

Rather than admit that their worldview is dangerously wrong, climate skeptics do what humans usually do in the face of grave error: they dig in, leveraging a slew of cognitive biases and logical fallacies to convince themselves that they must be right. Given our siloed media landscape, where every “side” can find its own tailor-made information sources, it is always possible to find some organization, publication, study, or nominally credentialed expert to validate any conceivable claim. If one is motivated toward a certain belief, such “evidence” provides a handhold from which to embrace nonsensical claims without feeling like a complete lunatic. We see a similar process with all varieties of fringe, pseudoscientific, or conspiratorial beliefs. Low levels of institutional trust plus the nature of the internet — where everyone has a voice, and people who would otherwise be isolated can find each other — function as an accelerant for this process.

Two decades of faux-neutral mainstream media coverage didn’t help either. For years, climate change was covered not as a scientific fact, but as a spectator sport where contestants from each team would be invited to debate its validity in sound bites. While TV news has finally stopped doing this, they manipulated public perception of the issue for years in a way that cast it in controversy and uncertainty. This was great for ratings, but it contributed to an environment of low-information confusion around climate change that made climate skepticism seem more reasonable than it was.

Can Climate Skeptics Be Reached?

For the most part, climate skeptics are not reachable on an individual level. Given that everyone in society is aware of climate change, plus the breadth of information and evidence readily available, the persistence of climate skepticism cannot be attributed to ignorance at this point. The motivation behind climate skepticism seems political at first glance, and that’s certainly true for Republican politicians and the oil companies who own them. But for everyone else, it’s better understood in psychological terms. As people lean more on their political tribes for a sense of identity, their minds become harder to change, because their political beliefs are serving quasi-religious functions. This is also why liberals and progressives should not be so quick to pat themselves on the back — the tribe they derive a sense of identity from just so happens to align with the science in this instance. When and where it doesn’t — such as nuclear energy, biological sex, or IQ — many progressives choose ideology and tribe over science just the same.

At the societal scale, however, climate skepticism will gradually soften as the years pass. The effects of climate change will continue to become increasingly evident in everyday life. It’s easier to reject data and studies than it is your own eyes. This will continue to grow the portion of society who considers climate change a major threat, and as the consensus grows ever larger, the perceived unrespectability and kookiness of climate skepticism will increase in turn. Social pressure will force skeptics to moderate their views somewhat, lest they come off as flat Earth-level crackpots. Additionally, each generation is more concerned about climate change than the one preceding it, and while the left-right gap persists, this generational trend holds on both sides. As older skeptics age out of the population, they will not be replenished at full replacement level. Public opinion will progress, as the physicist Max Planck once dryly remarked of science, "One funeral at a time."

How Should We Handle Skeptics?

While a solid majority of society now supports addressing climate change, positions that are unpopular at the national level can be ascendent in certain regional or local areas. One policy area that has broad bipartisan support is land and wildlife conservation, as well as reforestation. While these efforts would help to combat climate change, they are not climate change-specific. This makes them ideal for activists and politicians in conservative-controlled local or regional governments to prioritize in their environmental policy agendas.

At the national level, though, there is a large enough majority of support for climate action that skeptics no longer have to be addressed. We should not spend much time trying to convince climate change skeptics. Rather, they should be outworked, outperformed, and defeated politically. We must move past raising awareness or changing minds, and focus instead of achieving concrete policy goals. 

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