Why Dire Climate Warnings Boost Scepticism

News701-i1.0 Matt Kaplan in Nature News:

A few psychologists have explored the psychology of climate-change belief, with some work revealing that climate scepticism relates to peoples' tendency to defend the status quo, but little else has been done. “We saw a giant hole in the literature when it came to looking at psychological responses to global-warming messages,” says Feinberg.

So Feinberg and his colleague Robb Willer, also at Berkeley, asked 45 online participants spread across 15 cities in the United States to engage in what was ostensibly a sentence-unscrambling activity.

Half of the volunteers were asked to unscramble sentences such as “Somehow justice will always prevail”, whereas the others were given sentences such as “Often, justice will not prevail”. This activity primed them to have either a strong or weak belief in a just world. The participants then completed a survey that measured their scepticism over climate change, asking questions such as “How solid is the evidence that the earth is warming?” and requiring participants to rate their answers on a six-point scale, in which six was not at all solid and one very solid.

Next, participants watched two short global-warming warning videos created by the Environmental Defense Fund, a charity based in New York that campaigns on green issues. The first showed a train speeding towards a small girl as a metaphor for the impending catastrophe that awaits the world's children (see video). The second showed anxious children verbally simulating a clock ticking while describing the climate devastation that is coming (see video). After watching, participants again had their degree of scepticism over climate change measured. They were also asked to rate how willing they were to take action to reduce their carbon footprints.


Feinberg and Willer found that participants primed to have a stronger belief in a just world reported levels of scepticism that were 29% higher, and a willingness to reduce their carbon footprint that was 21% lower, than those primed to see the world as an unjust place.