With the 22nd case of measles reported in B.C., people are asking why a portion of the population rejects scientific evidence and instead embraces causes like Antivax, Flat Earth and climate change denial.
Professor Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist from the University of Victoria and an expert on barriers to sustainable behaviour has some insights regarding climate change denial.
“I developed the term ‘Dragons of Inaction,’” he says, adding, “There are 37 now. You could call them psychological barriers, obstacles, even excuses or justifications.”
He says these Dragons symbolize the destructive power of inaction. The top four are “government, social inequity, conflicting goals and aspirations (CGA), and an individual’s lack of perceived power.” Roughly translated as “It’s the government’s job, not my job. Why should I do something when they aren’t? I would help but…, and I’m only one person, I don’t have the power to help.”
Gifford does acknowledge that climate change is inconvenient and people are busy, with important personal goals, but says they can sometimes be used as excuses.
A further dimension to denial lies in two psychological concepts of temporal and spatial discounting – If something is not directly experienced happening now, it’s easy to disregard and think it won’t ever happen.
“Temporal discounting, it’s like when government says something will happen in 2050, it’s easy to just tune out and spatial discounting is ‘Oh yeah they’re having problems in Africa but I don’t see anything in Sidney here.’ We have to help people see that the changes are happening, here and now.”
Not all climate change deniers are closed minded, so why can’t scientists just show them the facts?
“It’s a failure of the Information Deficit model, which is the thought that if we tell people the facts they will change, but we have whole piles of evidence that show you can give people all the information and it won’t change their behaviour.”
Psychological literature suggests people like to be consistent and if they reach an early conclusion they are often reluctant to change their minds and instead seek snippets of proof to reinforce their beliefs.
Self image is said to be another factor, with older people who saw Canada boom on the backs of their hard work and exploitation of natural resources, associating climate change as criticism of their life’s work or even themselves.
“People like to believe their efforts in life were positive,” notes Gifford.
Environmental psychologists are making efforts to help change people’s behaviour in constructive, non-belittling ways, like developing 20 different types of paired messages, such as global vs local and sacrifice vs empowerment.
“If you tell people climate change is here and we need to sacrifice, they are less willing to change, but if you tell them climate change is here but they can be a block leader/hero/helper they are more likely to do something positive,” explains Gifford.
“If people can see that this is a human problem, caused by humans and it will have to be humans who solve it, and not just governments, scientists and engineers, that we all have to contribute and pitch in together, that will help.”