by Monty Hempel
As a college professor, I am painfully aware that my students often use education more to justify pre-existing opinions and worldviews than to enlighten themselves with new knowledge and ways of knowing. This knowledge-for-justification tendency can be found in each of us and varies only by degree of application. But it can be dangerous when it leads people to deny mounting evidence that change is urgently needed, as witnessed in the current debate over climate disruption, or in historic debates about the health hazards of smoking, or the economic hazards of deregulating Wall Street.
The selective use of knowledge to rationalize human wants and behaviors has been heavily studied by social scientists. They refer to this phenomenon by many different names, including motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and cultural cognition. Combined with long-studied phenomena of “groupthink” and cognitive dissonance theory, researchers have woven together a persuasive but unflattering account of human reason and its self-serving uses.
The importance of these research findings forpeople concerned about climate change is in understanding how to communicate better and to present scientific findings in practical tradeoff terms when they somehow threaten the dominant values and institutions of the status quo. Most people in denial are neither evil nor stupid. Denial may be an effective way to reduce stress and cognitive dissonance. But it may also deeply undermine their own self-interest, in the long term.
A major barrier to public mobilization on climate and other global environmental issues is the psychological distance involved in moving from abstract environmental data (e.g., global mean temperature) to more immediate concerns about local impacts, such as disruption of drought cycles in a particular area, and how they may affect one’s personal prosperity or family security.
But there is an even more important kind of distancing that helps to explain the failure to promote eco-literacy when and where it is most needed. This kind of distancing results from the receding boundaries of the natural world in the face of rapid human development. People disconnected from nature have less motivation to learn more about it. The consequences are especially important for children, as suggested by recent book titles, such as Last Child in the Woods and Free-Range Kids. The psychological distance separating the urbanized places where most humans reside from shrinking remnants of natural landscape has never been greater. As a consequence, the opportunity to connect emotionally and physically with nature and wildlife has steadily declined. And implicit in this decline is an accompanying loss of attachment to natural places and wild habitat, or what is sometimes understood as lost bioregional identity.
Precisely how much this growing separation diminishes human concern about the environment is unknown, but it is clear that people are more likely to protect the things they love and actively internalize. Distancing from nature may have some of the same emotionally debilitating effects as distancing from other people. This separation becomes even more significant in issues of climate change, where the most dramatic impacts are taking place in the Arctic and other remote areas that few people ever visit or monitor.
The obstacles to clear thinking about these kinds of threats extend far beyond psychological distancing. Research on climate change communication has identified dozens of factors that serve to hinder or derail public support for timely action on climate risks. As a partial summary of many of these factors, I have developed a simple table (below) to help in examining the causal forces at work in the development and persistence of climate denial and disbelief.
Overcoming the disbelief and suspicion that currently polarize large segments of our population will require both intellectual and emotional intelligence about our common origin in the great web of life and our common future in sustaining it.
Causes of Eco-Complacency and Disbelief