Understanding the Psychology behind Climate Change



Climate scientist Marshall Sheppard teaches us how to slay the Climate Zombies and promote Climate Literacy

Are we Hardwired for Failure?

The graphs below clearly show the danger that confronts human civilization, yet the cognitive dissonance guarantees a society heading straight for the cliff edge at full speed.


Figure 1: A) CO2 levels for past 12,000 years and projected to 2100 assuming no change in policies (via Koomey)  B) Temperature change over past 11,300 years (in blue, via Science, 2013) plus projected warming this century on humanity’s current carbon pollution emissions path (in red, via recent literature). (Source: Think Progress)

A number of writers, historians and academics are coming to the conclusion that civilizations are hard-wired for collapse. Author, William Ophuls is one of these.  History consistently reveals the pattern followed by failed civilizations of the past:

  1. We are constantly challenged and we continue to use our ingenuity to succeed
  2. Our continuous wins strengthen the belief that our capabilities will always rise to the occasion
  3. Our mastery of nature results in growing hubris and overconfidence
  4. This overconfidence leads us to continue pushing for growth until we have overstepped our limits, beyond our ability to recover

Today, all the factors present in the collapse of past civilization are present now. It is said that there has never been a more problematic crisis than global warming because of a number of reasons:

  • the long time delay between cause and macroscopically observable effects of anthropogenic global warming (AGW)
  • the invisibility of the culprits (CO2, methane) and complexity of climate science
  • the need for a low carbon future in contrast to extreme resistance put up by the carbon industry, the richest industry to give up their cash cow
  • the intense political lobbying by the carbon industry and the campaign of deception which are both causing dangerous delays on crucial action

Again, as in the past, we are repeating the same mistake of seeing technology and ingenuity as our savior coming to the rescue. In his latest book entitled Plato’s Revenge, Ophuls writes:

starts from a radical premise: “sustainability” is impossible. We are on an industrial Titanic, fueled by rapidly depleting stocks of fossil hydrocarbons. Making the deck chairs from recyclable materials and feeding the boilers with biofuels is futile. In the end, the ship is doomed by the laws of thermodynamics and by the implacable biological and geological limits that are already beginning to pinch. Ophuls warns us that we are headed for a postindustrial future that, however technologically sophisticated, will resemble the preindustrial past in many important respects. With Plato’s Revenge, Ophuls, author of Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, envisions political and social transformations that will lead to a new natural-law politics based on the realities of ecology, physics, and psychology.

In a discussion that ranges widely — from ecology to quantum physics to Jungian psychology to Eastern religion to Western political philosophy — Ophuls argues for an essentially Platonic politics of consciousness dedicated to inner cultivation rather than outward expansion and the pursuit of perpetual growth. We would then achieve a way of life that is materially and institutionally simple but culturally and spiritually rich, one in which humanity flourishes in harmony with nature. (Amazon)

To truly meet these daunting challenges, technology may not be the solution. It is imperative to understand how and why people think the way they do about climate change.  Certainly each citizen has an obligation to become educated about the natural carbon cycle and how human industrial activity has disturbed it, leading to anthropogenic global warming.  But equally important is to understand the psychology behind climate change that appears to keep us mired in indecision and inactivity, even as humanity races towards the cliff edge.

The People are the Answer to Solving the Global Warming – Devising an Education Strategy to Reach Them

If those of us who are trying really hard are still fully enmeshed in the fossil fuel system, it makes it even clearer that what needs to change are not individuals but precisely that system. We simply can’t move fast enough, one by one, to make any real difference in how the atmosphere comes out. Here’s the math, obviously imprecise: maybe 10 percent of the population cares enough to make strenuous efforts to change—maybe 15 percent. If they all do all they can, in their homes and offices and so forth, then, well . . . nothing much shifts. The trajectory of our climate horror stays about the same. But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough. It would be enough to match the power of the fossil fuel industry, enough to convince our legislators to put a price on carbon. – Bill McKibben, in Orion Magazine, 2013

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication performs research which attempts to develop effective communication strategies to bring about changes in perceptions of anthropogenic global warming. It is founded on the belief that the problem we face is not so much a technology problem as it is a social and political one. Democracies cannot act effectively unless citizens are educated to the realities which confront them and distortions and misconceptions removed.

In it’s groundbreaking studies on the American perception of global warming entitled Global Warming’s Six Americans,  it has established the existence of 6 different archetypes. Although the research applies to the United States, these 6 categories exist for the entire planet, albeit with different percentages.

Figure 1: Basic profile of the 6 types of American, along with their percentages (Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 2: Changes in demographics from 2008 to 2012
(Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 3: On the effort we should make
(Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 4: Should we make an effort even with large economic costs? (Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 5: Certainty in the belief of the reality of global warming (Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 6: Beliefs regarding the causes of global warming
(Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 7: Beliefs about the scientific consensus
(Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 8: A) Pesonal importance of global warming  B) Amount of thought about global warming
(Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 9: A) Worry  B) Timing of harm
(Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 10: Personal threat of global warming
(Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Figure 11: Threat to future generations
(Source: Global Warming’s Six Americans)

Republicans and American Evangelics: How Religious Conservatism May Impede Climate Change Progress

(Source: Residence on Earth)

Mixing politics and religion is never good and climate change is one area where it may prove disastrous. Recent studies are shedding light on the connection between American religious belief and climate change policy. Studies show the intimate connection and how understanding the worldview of American evangelicals is important to creating policies that get their support.

David C. Barker of the University of Pittsburgh and David H. Bearce of the University of Colorado have finished a research study entitled End-Times Theology, the Shadow of the Future, and Public Resistance to Addressing Global Climate Change that uncovered that belief in the biblical end-times was a motivating factor behind resistance to curbing climate change in the United States. “It stands to reason that most nonbelievers would support preserving the Earth for future generations, but that end-times believers would rationally perceive such efforts to be ultimately futile, and hence ill-advised,” said the researchers.

The study is based on data from the 2007 Cooperative Congressional Election Study which uncovered that belief in the “Second Coming” of Jesus reduced the probability of strongly supporting government action on climate change by 12 percent when controlling for a number of demographic and cultural factors. When the effects of party affiliation, political ideology, and media distrust were removed from the analysis, the belief in the “Second Coming” increased this effect by almost 20 percent.

The religious bias is most strongly present in the Republican party, the party that supports climate denialism and the oil industry. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL)  is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. In 2010, he said he opposed action on climate change because “the Earth will end only when God declares it to be over.”

Barker and Bearce believe it is unlikely the United States would take action on climate change while so many Americans, particularly Republicans, believed in the coming end-times. “That is, because of institutions such as the Electoral College, the winner-take-all representation mechanism, and the Senate filibuster, as well as the geographic distribution of partisanship to modern partisan polarization, minority interests often successfully block majority preferences,” Barker and Bearce wrote. “Thus, even if the median voter supports policies designed to slow global warming, legislation to effect such change could find itself dead on arrival if the median Republican voter strongly resists public policy environmentalism at least in part because of end-times beliefs.”

(Source: Raw Story)

The impact of American evangelic movement on global climate change policy is succinctly described in the introduction to a University of Pittsburgh April 2013 research paper enttitled American Evangelicals and Domestic Versus International Climate Policy by Assistant Professor Stephen Chaudoin:

In the last decade, evangelical Christians have been a source of both hope and despair for climate activists in the United States. When the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) joined Rick Warren and other religious leaders to endorse the Evangelical Climate Initiative in 2007, there appeared to be a decisive shift in evangelical thinking towards action on climate change. However, in the same year, the powerful Southern Baptist Convention issued a resolution that condemned proposals to regulate CO2 emissions as “dangerous,” and Focus On The Family’s James Dobson suggested NAE Vice President Richard Cizik should resign if “he cannot be trusted to articulate the views of American evangelicals on climate issues” (Southern Baptist Convention, 2007; Focus on Family, 2007).

The position of American evangelicals on climate change may be a central factor in global climate policy. Countries like China and India probably will not accept binding emissions commitments without America’s leadership or reciprocation. Within the United States, slightly more 26% of the adult population identified themselves as members of evangelical Protestant congregations in a survey conducted in 2007.1 Such a large religious bloc will be politically
important, either as help or hindrance, in any American commitment to emissions reductions.

Do evangelicals oppose all types of climate policy? Or, are they opposed to specific types of climate policy? We argue that evangelical beliefs have a strong effect on a person’s preferences over the type of climate change policy – domestic versus international – rather than a blanket effect on all climate change policies. American evangelicals are opposed to international climate policy in particular due to their distrust of international cooperation and institutions, which has
been a prominent feature of evangelical politics since the beginning of the Cold War.

There are two elements to this aversion. First, many evangelicals have a particularly emphatic, sacralized view of American exceptionalism, and they reject compromises with secular and socialist foreign powers that would endanger the divine covenant on which the United States was built (Lieven, 2004). Second, many evangelicals see international institutions as stepping stones to a single world government, which some associate with the rule of the Antichrist as specified by biblical prophesy. Together, these factors create a formidable suspicion of any climate cooperation regime that might interfere with the sovereignty of the United States. This suspicion may be harder to dislodge than anti-environmentalism, which if anything seems to be declining among evangelicals (Smith and Johnson, 2010). To be sure, not every evangelical holds these beliefs and evangelicals may differ in the degree to which they espouse these views. Some individuals may follow the cues of evangelical elites who hold these beliefs, without necessarily holding those beliefs themselves.

We test this explanation using data from the 2011 “Faith and Global Policy Challenges” (FGPC) survey. This survey sampled 1,496 Americans that are representative of the national population across standards covariates like race and education. The unique advantage of this survey is that, in addition to a variety of useful covariates, it contains a wide range of questions on religiosity and attitudes toward climate policy both at the domestic and international level.
Given the content of the survey, we were able to compare the relationship between religiosity and climate policies at the international and domestic levels. To our understanding, no other study of public opinion has done this. We find considerable support for the theory that evangelical opposition to action on climate  change is driven primarily by aversion to international cooperation. There is relatively little difference, controlling for other factors, between evangelicals and non-evangelical respondents on the question of whether the United States should take action to address climate change domestically. However, being an evangelical has a significant and substantively important negative effect on support for the use of international binding agreements to deal with climate change. This phenomenon is distinctly linked to being evangelical. We do not find a similar effect for other groups of Christians. Furthermore, this effect appears to be independent of the high levels of political conservatism found among American evangelicals. Conservatism has a strong effect on opposition to both domestic and international efforts to abate climate change, but the evangelical aversion to international climate agreements is present even controlling for respondent ideology.

We also find the same results using controls for unobserved geographic heterogeneity and in alternate specifications of the models. These findings can inform future studies on the relationship between religion and climate policy. For one, the findings testify to the difference between evangelical and mainline Protestants. While mainline Protestants do not seem to significantly differ from non-religious respondents and Catholics, evangelicals stand out as having a more negative view of climate cooperation. Moreover, the roots of evangelical opposition to climate policy are found in the historical fears of international cooperation that have shaped the positions of evangelical leaders at least since the
onset of the Cold War. While American evangelicals are only slightly less supportive of domestic climate policy than other Americans, international efforts are a red flag for them.

Our study is also among the first to analyze the relationship between religion and international cooperation. It is well-established in international relations research that the preferences of domestic actors affect the prospects for cooperation at the international level as well as the terms of international agreements (Frieden, 1999; Milner, 1997). While religious leaders have historically often emphasized global unity and ecumenical collaboration, members of American evangelical congregations hold a hostile view of international cooperation. In previous studies of American public opinion on international cooperation, the religious dimension has been frequently neglected.

If the advocates of climate policy are to build support for their initiatives among evangelicals, they should downplay the role of treaties and agreements in their campaigning. In the United States, evangelicals are not so much opposed to climate policy as they are opposed to international cooperative efforts. From the evangelical perspective, the road to global action must begin with national efforts that respect American independence and sovereignty. While this does not mean that domestic policy without cooperation is sufficient or that other constituencies in the United States do not support cooperation, strategic communication to the evangelical community should emphasize domestic, not international, action.

Religious Counterpoint

Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude

- Pope Francis

Pope Francis is perhaps the most prominent Christian leader to express his concersn about climate change. Unlike his previous namesake, Pope Francis is unafraid to speak his mind on the main issues of our times, such as inequality and climate change. In fact, he links the two together.

“But when we exploit Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us, in destroying Creation we are saying to God: ‘I don’t like it! This is not good!’ ‘So what do you like?’ ‘I like myself!’ – Here, this is sin! Do you see?”

In his 2014 address to a huge audience gathered in Rome, he said “beauty of nature and the grandeur of the cosmos” is a Christian value, and warned that failure to care for the planet risks apocalyptic consequences.

“Safeguard Creation,” said the pope. “Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”

In his Rome address, the pope told the biblical creation story in the book of Genesis, in which God created the world and gave the responsibility of stewardship to humanity. He also connected the ongoing environmental crisis to an unjust economic system in which a wealthy minority exploits the planet at the expense of the vast impoverished majority.

Many conservative Christians pegged the issues around climate change as something that only liberals did or something that was actually opposed to the Christian message,…This was mainly because conservative Evangelicals and Catholics tended to have a human-centered view that saw the Earth as an object that humans have been given to dominate and exploit for our own benefit. When it was all used up, Jesus would return, destroy the world, and take Christians to heaven. That is, of course, an oversimplification.

- Brandon Robertson, Revangelical

Pope Francis is bringing about a revolution in Christian attitudes towards climate change and inequality. His proactiveness challenges his followers own, and in that, we may see a significant new mobilization of resources. His outspoken support of climate change has already raised the ire of conservative leaders around the world. But at the same time, he has also inspired a new movement of members of the religious right to come out and offer opposition to the view that climate change is anti-Christian. Evangelical Brandan Robertson, founder of the Revangelical movement counts himself amongst these. At a recent EPA meeting discussing Obama’s new plans for curbing carbon emissions from coal plants, in addition to the traditional audience of policy-makers, industry lobbyist, energy executives and environmentalists there appeared a surprising number of evangelicals, faith leaders and conservative Christians. Robertson was amongst them and he represents a new breed of the religious right who see environmentalism as a religious and civic priority.  Robertson believes that the views of climate change denialists, including those in the religous right, are inadequate, destructive, and ultimately, even unchristian.