Trusting Science Leads to Complacency About Climate Change
Here at Care2, we care a great deal about climate change — and we also care a great deal about science, which provides much of the basis for our understanding of climate change. You might intuitively think that our understanding of and belief in science is part of what drives us to take individual action to halt climate change, but research from Amsterdam suggests, oddly, that just the opposite is true.
Research subjects with a high degree of faith in science were actually less likely to engage in individual actions to address global climate concerns. Shockingly, the study suggests, the best way to get people to take action on climate change may not lie in educating them about the science.
The mechanism through which this phenomenon occurs is fascinating, and, like other psychological events, it explains a great deal about human behavior. Put simply, people who put their trust in science also believe that science has the capacity to solve climate change — in which case their actions as individuals don’t matter, because researchers will figure out how to fix the problem before it crosses the final divide and can’t be resolved. Why sort your recycling when thousands of brilliant minds are being put to the task of controlling the climate before it’s too late?
Piercarlo Valdesolo at Scientific American explains what’s happening here:
“The authors ground their hypothesis in a well-validated theory called compensatory control. This argues that all people are highly motivated to see the world as an orderly and predictable place. Indeed, any suggestions to the contrary (e.g. seemingly random catastrophes) elicit stress and anxiety. One way in which people alleviate such stress is to believe in the power of external sources to make sense of, and control, the world. For example, belief in a God that can exert control over worldly events has been found to satisfy the motivation to perceive order. The authors suggest that belief in science can serve a similar function.”
Climate change is essentially one of the worst catastrophes imaginable, and also one of the most stressful. As individual humans, we can feel powerless and helpless in the face of a global event that’s already changing the world as we know it and is projected to get worse. Humans tend to develop extreme stress reactions, and one such reaction is to put control in the hands of someone else; in this case, scientists. That’s a heavy load for researchers to take on, as they can’t guarantee order in the world. Science, in many ways, is the opposite of order, because it’s about developing and testing theories and exploring possibilities, not coming up with hard and fast rules (though a few trailblazers like Einstein had a go at that).
The study has real implications in terms of how we teach climate change to students and address groups on the issue. Given the compensatory control issue, the best thing to do may be to refocus individuals and to get them thinking about personal control. Instructor Diana Liverman unconsciously enacted these changes in her classes before this research came out:
“Diana Liverman may have sensed the dangers of focusing on scientific and political progress when revamping her course in environmental studies; her changes weren’t limited to those above. She also emphasized why and how to exert personal control: ‘I tell students that they can reduce their own environmental footprint through conservation, recycling and changing consumption patterns.’”
The results were highly effective, illustrating that it’s possible to find an effective way of teaching about the science of climate change while still encouraging individuals to take action; because while scientists are working extremely hard to find a way to address the issue, what we do as individuals still matters.
Photo credit: Development Planning Unit, University College London