Leonardo DiCaprio used his Best Actor speech to say that ‘Climate change is real’.

Amazingly, large numbers of people are still sceptical it’s happening at all, despite scientific community consensus. But even when people are convinced, they rarely respond by altering their lifestyles. This is a serious problem. One of the greatest psychological and behavioural challenges of our time.

At our most recent Behavioural Meetup, Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh shared the research on 4 barriers that underlie our apathy to climate change.

1. Climate change is perceived as a distant threat

Climate change is thought of as something that is happening to someone else. Usually in a different country.

Studies (i.e Leiserowitz, 2005 and Spence et al, 2012) have shown that people perceive that others face greater risk than they do, and will suffer more than they will if the climate change keeps on its current trend. We feel other people should be taking action, not us.

A range of psychological biases are at fault here. Optimism bias, temporal discounting and psychological distance combine to make us believe climate change is someone else’s problem.

Presenting climate change as something we personally need to combat may help offset these biases, but…

2. Direct experience of the impact of climate change does not change perceptions

Flooding is a visible outcome of our changing climate. However, although the link is well known, interviews with victims found that being flooded made no impact on their perception of the risks of climate change (Whitmarsh, 2008).

This is because experiencing flooding does not prove climate change is a threat; it only causes people to focus on the immediate problem of flooding in their community. Changing weather patterns are seen as a more distant cause of the flood risk than road resurfacing, local development or lack of flood defences. Communities are far more likely to put their attentions into fighting the latter, rather than adopting carbon-friendly behaviours.

Interestingly, individuals will commonly buy flood insurance straight after a flood has occurred. But many will then drop the cover after several years if they do not experience another flood, even though the flood risk remains the same (Michel-kerjan et al. 2012). This suggests that direct experience drives people’s perception of the risk, not the actual probability.

This fits with the availability heuristic: People base decisions on information that comes easily to mind, compared with alternatives which are harder to recall. If they don’t immediately connect risk with climate change, they won’t act.

3. Education does not work

We’ve known for a while that education is often an ineffective tool for behaviour change, and it is no different for climate change. An individual’s level of education and knowledge has no significant link with their climate change attitudes. The best predictors appear to be ideology, political and lifestyle attitudes (Whitmarsh, 2011). So climate change scepticism isn’t the result of knowledge deficit or misunderstanding the evidence – but rather the result of existing internal values and worldviews.

Confirmation bias means that we are more likely to notice and consider information that supports our existing values. For entrenched sceptics, or even those with wavering doubts, information simply won’t be enough.

4. Denial is easier

The truth about climate change hurts. It means adopting uncomfortable lifestyle changes; less flying, less meat, less central heating etc. In the face of potential hardship, denial seems to be a reasonable response. Indeed, denial is known to be a psychological coping response to threatening information (Carver, et al, 1989).

Researchers have found that people switch off when climate change is perceived to threaten their identity or way of life (Xenias, Whitmarsh & Corner, 2014). In the study, the perception of climate risks went down when climate change messaging included the need for personal behaviour change – and climate scepticism increased.

It seems that people prefer to deny climate change then to change their lifestyle.

In summary

Overall, people believe climate change is something that happens to other people, even when they experience its effects directly. Education doesn’t change our minds, and denial is so much easier than accepting lifestyle change.

But props to Leo nonetheless.

Interested in Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh’s talk? Check out the slides below…