Why can’t we think clearly about climate change?

Thinking errors and emotions affect whom and what we believe about climate change.

Two recently-released documents, one from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and one from the International Panel on Climate Change, state in strong terms that climate change is occurring, and that humans are to blame.

Research  by Yale Project on Climate Communication shows that, despite near-unanimous agreement from climatologists about anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, the majority of Americans—about 6 in 10 – are unaware of this scientific consensus.

Why is this? While some of the disconnect has to do with the complex nature of Earth’s climate system, a great deal of the divide between scientists and the American public has to do with the way emotions, cognitive biases and social connections color whom we trust and what we believe.

Emotions such as hopelessness and powerlessness often accompany learning about climate change. It is, after all, a complex global issue that affects, and is affected by, virtually every aspect of our lives. But humans have a limited capacity for the number of problems they can worry about— a phenomenon social scientists refer to as “the finite pool of worry.”  So we tend to focus on the problems we perceive as near-term and personal, and block out other issues we believe happen to other people in distant parts of the world.

Recognizing the reality of climate change means acknowledging that change is necessary. Seeing the need to change can trigger fear; fear of losing one’s freedom, one’s economic safety and one’s belief systems. Fear is a powerful emotion, rooted in the more primitive center of the brain where emotions are housed. Fear and other strong emotions can override the more recently-evolved part of the brain, found in the pre-frontal cortex, which controls our ability to reason, analyze and weigh options.

Beyond emotions clouding our judgment, the way our brains are wired to learn leads to “cognitive biases,” which are tendencies to think in completely rational ways. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to look for information that confirms their beliefs, and discard opinions that challenge them. In short, we hate to be wrong.

Confirmation bias leads to homophily, a term meaning that people tend to seek out those who share their beliefs and values, and trust messages only from those who are like-minded. The Internet and the many channels of communication available to us allow us to connect with other like-minded people; this means that increasingly we choose to associate and communicate only with those who agree with us. In fact, demographic data described in the book, “The Big Sort,” by Bill Bishop, bears this out: Americans increasingly choose to segregate themselves into like-minded communities. County-level census data shows that Democrats and Republicans tend not to mix—they choose to live next to neighbors who share their political values.

Despite this, the most recent survey from the Yale Center on Climate Communication also reveals that a majority of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, do believe global warming is occurring (63 percent), and increasingly support policies that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change.

When participating in or facilitating a conversation about climate change, keep an open mind. Be aware that while emotions can cloud our ability to reason, they also can spur us to action.

To learn more about climate change, consider attending Our Changing Climate: an Evening Educational Series, hosted by Michigan State University Extension in Oakland County. 

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