The psychology of climate change denial: Why sceptics refuse to believe the science

US President Donald Trump is a long-time climate change denier.

US President Donald Trump is a long-time climate change denier.

For all the confusing hot air on whether climate change is really happening, and whether humans are to blame (spoiler alert: it is and they are), you can be forgiven for feeling lost between in the arguments between scientists, sceptics and obstinate politicians.

Some claim it's a Chinese hoax - including a certain US president who just pulled his country of the Paris accord on climate change.

A few sceptics posit that climate change is nothing to fear because God will save the earth, or that the earth just seems hotter than in the past because we're spending all day in air-conditioned rooms (yes, really). Others accept climate change as a fact, but don't agree that humans are responsible.

Nearly all scientists concur that climate change is occurring because of humans, and that our lives are at risk - so why is it so hard for some people to believe it?

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In the 1980s, Nasa's James Hansen was among the first scientists to warn the world of climate change's threat.

Over more than 20 years since, as scientific consensus grew, the research community butted heads with deniers, as companies and industries poured money into denial and disinformation campaigns.

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All the while, polar ice is melting, seas are rising and becoming more acidic, and weather events are becoming more extreme

Yet there are still plenty who deny climate change exists, suggesting that snow proves the planet's not getting warmer, or that climate change is nothing new, so we'll adapt as we always have. Others believe volcanoes, or the sun, or heat coming from below the earth's surface - anything but humans - is responsible.

Some suggest scientists and politicians are colluding on what they've dubbed "the great climate lie", though the mind boggles at what such a conspiracy would aim to achieve.


"There's a very well-documented disinformation campaign," says Victoria University's Professor James Renwick, a climate change expert who has written reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"Big companies have spent lots of money on lobbyists who tell lies to politicians. It's still going on. Part of the story is a deliberate attempt by some sectors of the business community to confuse the public. And it's been pretty successful. There's been some very high-profile people - such as Donald Trump - who muddy the waters."

Kiwi researchers have been working to get a grasp on why, when confronted with evidence of climate change, sceptics dig their heels in.

"This is not about the evidence, and it's not enough for climate scientists to stand up and educate people," says Professor Marc Wilson, who lectures on the psychology of climate change denial at Victoria University. 

He says views on climate change aren't isolated from an individual's other beliefs - whether you think tax should go up or down, whether you support gay marriage or the death penalty, or how you feel on the anti-smacking law will all affect your view on climate change.

"When you're tugging at a particular issue, you're not just trying to move people's position on that one issue. You're actually working against all the other things that it's glued to. When we go in and we say 'climate is changing and it's our fault', people will only change their belief if it's consistent with where their beliefs, broadly speaking, are going anyway."

Wilson says not all his students are persuaded by what he tells them.

"I've encountered younger Christians who believe that the world was created exactly as it is right now, in the last 10,000 years, and God said he wasn't going to destroy it again like the [great] flood, and therefore it's not going to happen. That trumps all arguments."


Niwa's principal climate scientist, Dr Brett Mullan, is all too familiar with the pushback.

"There is a lot of psychology involved in this, whether people accept things or not ... We've been attacked by so-called sceptics about things, who just just clearly don't want to believe, and don't want to understand the science, who can't do the maths but aren't prepared to accept anything we tell them," he says.

He likens sceptics' view of climate science to a house of cards - "you knock one thing out and the whole thing collapses" - whereas scientists see it as a jigsaw puzzle: "You can see the picture, even if there's some bits missing."

Renwick says a key issue for scientists - and one that's hard to communicate with laypeople - is that yes, the climate is constantly changing, and yes, there are other causes at play, but also that humans are amplifying the process. 

"The big thing at the moment is that humanity has put a bunch of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, stuff that took millions of years to pull out of the atmosphere, so we are kind of winding the clock back thousands of times faster than natural changes.

"Normally the natural changes happen at a pace the earth can keep up with. Now we are changing things so fast it will take the oceans thousands of years to react."


Some sceptics will never be convinced - and the scientists say they may be best ignored.

"There are the extreme views where nothing you say makes any difference, and they'll just make up reasons to believe what they want to believe. That's what we find. And it's just pointless arguing with them," Mullan says.

Adds Renwick: "In the first instance, I think we ignore those people, unless we absolutely can't ignore them - like Donald Trump, for example. You start working with the people who you might be able to move."

Wilson points to Australian research that suggests even if sceptics can't be won over on the climate change debate, they can be brought around to helping make the world a better place - in turn, helping reduce carbon emissions.

Would that work on long-time climate change denier Donald Trump?

Probably not, Wilson concedes.

"What I would have to try and do is find a way to illustrate that the things that he cares about are actually going to be negatively affected by the decision to withdraw from Paris, not enhanced," Wilson says.

"I would try and find the levers, the things that a person cares about, and try to present an argument that shows that the things they care about will be enhanced by doing the things that we know will also matter to the environment."

One line of appeal might be that the renewable energy sector will one day be a greater economic success than declining fossil fuel industries.

But, he adds: "I would have no confidence - no confidence at all - that will work with Donald Trump, because I'm pretty confident that people have already tried."

 - Stuff


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