June 4 2016

What does ‘belief’ in climate change really mean

By Professor Joseph Reser

Where one stands on “climate change” has been such a vexed and often confusing issue, at dinner parties, over coffee, with the taxi driver, and in terms of media reporting of where the Australian public is at.

A simple reality is that most people are trying to make some reasonable sense of this seemingly profound threat, quite complex phenomenon, “the science”, and what seems to be happening in terms of global and local weather patterns and extreme weather events. And the myriad information lines available to us are often not much help, and the messages often confusing and conflicting. All, of course, further complicated by the contested politics, the carbon tax, and how to survive a climate change conversation. Not to mention, of course, the mediated nature of the average person’s encounters with climate change.

Looking through a psychological window sheds some light on all of this. We are all adaptively hard-wired to make reasonable sense of possible environmental threats. We keep a “weather eye” on noteworthy changes, the strange, the curious. When consequential environmental events or changes take place, we try (and need) to impose some sense and meaning on what is happening and why. We want to know who, if anyone, was responsible.

Sense making is very much about causal explanation or attribution, in human terms, and in ways that both answer the question of why and let us feel that we live in a coherent and reasonably ordered, and not too dangerous or unpredictable world.

So let’s look at “climate change”. What exactly is it that has been so exhaustively covered by the media? Is it the phenomenon of changing weather patterns linked to atmospheric gases and their relative makeup. Is it the implied consequences of such changes? Is it the intertwined environmental, social, or political issues, or the debate about “the science”?

In this context, language like “attitudes about” or “beliefs in” climate change seems a bit strained. The issue is whether one accepts the earth’s climate has taken a different direction, influenced by recent human activities. Related questions are why is this happening, and what can or should be done about it?

This is where causal attribution – and human agency and responsibility – comes in. The science tells us that greenhouse gas emissions have “forced” the changes that are taking place. This sense-conferring explanation does not suggest that there are not many natural forces and atmospheric dynamics at play, but it does point to a rather pivotal human influence.

This human agency has real implications in terms of what can be done about this, how the problem and threat can be best addressed, and whether what is now set in train can be turned around. A level of human causality and agency also raises issues of responsibility, and a spectrum of emotions, including deep concern, felt loss, pessimism, and guilt.

We know that when human actions or technology are implicated in environmental changes, or disturb “natural” processes, the risk and danger becomes more elevated, more disturbing, more sinister. Climate change has something of this hybrid natural/technological disaster character, with human society likely poised to reap a bitter harvest and a dramatically altered environment.

But back to the starting question. What are we talking about when we talk about climate change? Documentaries like the ABC’s “I can change your mind about climate” tell us that “everyone agrees that climate is warming” and within a minute or two that “50% of Australians do not believe that climate change is happening.”

Is this reasonable, logically or psychologically? When people are discussing climate change, is the subject matter climate variability or contemporary, anthropogenic climate change? Would we really be having all of these discussions and debate about climate variability?

Why does this matter? When researchers are examining public risk perceptions and understandings about climate change, how they’re changing, and the psychological and social impacts that the threat of climate change might be having, it doesn’t make sense to ask whether respondents believe in or accept climate variability, and to treat the matter of human causality as something quite different.

It also does not make much sense to ask about or frame an individual’s risk perceptions or understandings in terms of believing or not believing in climate change, or asking whether climate change is exclusively caused by natural processes or by human activities and impacts. This latter has never been the climate change science question.

The great majority of our survey respondents, across two very substantial national surveys (N=7443 in total) accepted that climate change was happening (74%), and that its impacts were currently being felt in Australia (52%). As well, 45% reported personally encountering environmental changes they thought were likely due to climate change, and 59% thought where they lived was vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

When asked about the respective contributing roles of human activity impacts and natural causes in contemporary climate change, 84% said it was a combination of both.

So why is this matter and language of climate change “belief” so emotion-laden and polarising? Is it that this is a particularly disturbing threat and looming global disaster? Is it because such questions are not really about climate change per se, but about how we see ourselves, our political and social identity, and our own relationship with and felt responsibility for this shared world in which we live? Do responses reflect a new form of political correctness, depending on one’s party affiliation?

Many psychologists would argue that there is a good deal of defence and “terror management” taking place with respect to the spectre of climate change, with the world views and belief systems of some being rather badly shaken by current scientific assessments and projections, and frantically shored up, by discrediting the science, the scientists, and confronting documentaries.

The debate and conversational footwork about “where one stands” will continue, but our survey findings are actually very reassuring. They tell us that the Australian public by and large is making very reasonable and adaptive sense out of the somewhat chaotic and contradictory picture of climate change.

They are mostly very concerned, think that it is very important, feel a personal responsibility to be doing something about their own carbon footprint, and want their government to take clear and effective policy measures. They are taking action, trying to make a difference, and in the process reframing how they see themselves, their environment, and climate change.

This sounds more like psychological and behavioural adaptation to me than a matter of belief or conviction. It is a coming to terms with and acceptance of a significantly altered world and climate regime that we bear some responsibility for.

_The final report from the ARGP Project: Public Risk Perceptions, Understandings and Responses to Climate Change in Australia and Great Britain is now available for download from the NCCARF website.