Global warming a tough sell for the human psyche


NEW YORK (AP) — The Copenhagen talks on climate change were convened with a sense of urgency that many ordinary folks don’t share. Why is that? One big reason: It’s hard for people to get excited about a threat that seems far away in space and time, psychologists say.

“It’s not in people’s faces,” said psychologist Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “It is in the media, but not in their everyday experience. That’s quite a different thing.”

The consequences of global warming are seen as occurring in far-off places, he said: “It’s happening up in the Arctic or it’s happening in Bangladesh, and it’s not happening in my backyard.” And the slow changes are not as attention-grabbing as a “fast disaster” like an earthquake, he said.

As it happens, those urgent-seeming U.N. talks have bogged down over political differences. But recent surveys suggest that Americans are not exactly consumed by concern over climate change.

In October, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press said its poll found that only 35 percent of Americans considered global warming to be a very serious problem, a decline from April 2008. Thirty percent called it “somewhat serious.”

In a poll by The Associated Press and Stanford University, published this month, more than half said they would not support a “cap-and-trade” program to reduce global warming gases if it raised their energy bills by $10 a month. Cap-and-trade would essentially allow industries to buy and sell the right to pollute.

Some skeptics, of course, cite their own analyses to question whether greenhouse gas emissions are really an urgent problem that needs to be fixed. And their opinions on the Internet have influenced others.

But beyond that, psychologists say, the nature of climate change itself makes it a tough sell for many people.

Janet Swim, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University, recalls a conversation from last month with a taxi driver in Cape Town, South Africa.

“I don’t think there’s climate change,” the driver said. “If there was climate change and sea levels were rising, I would have seen it.”

He was going by his own experience, said Swim, who studies how people feel about global warming. “People experience weather on a day-to-day basis, and that’s how they think about climate change,” she said.

In fact, it takes careful analysis of lots of data from lots of places to tease out the signal of global warming, she noted.

Gifford said people tend to attach less importance to future problems than more immediate concerns. That may be a holdover from early days of human evolution, when “things far away didn’t matter, things in the future didn’t matter. It was whether the tiger or the enemy was just around the corner,” he said.

In fact, scientists say global warming’s influence is already visible and it could get worse within decades if no action is taken. The average number of heat-wave deaths in Chicago could more than double by 2050, and killer heat waves in Europe could also increase by that time, experts say. Arctic summers may be almost free of sea ice by 2030 or sooner, they say.

Even among people who accept global warming as a serious issue, there are additional psychological barriers to getting them to take significant action against it. Gifford, who studies pro-environmental behavior, calls them the 13 dragons.

Among them:

— Environmental numbness: “OK, climate change. I’ve heard that one before. Been there, done that.”

— A feeling of powerlessness: “Anything I do is just a drop in the bucket.”

— Conflicting goals: “Yes, I should be changing my behavior, but I’ve got to look for a job, I’ve got to go to the gym, I have to take my kids to soccer practice, so I’ll do it tomorrow.”

— A sense of inequality: “Why should I take the bus when my boss is driving a Cadillac?”

— Loss of freedom: ‘It’s a free country. I can drive a Hummer if I want to.”

— Tokenism: “I recycle, so thank you very much, I’m finished.”

— Excessive optimism: “It will work out in the end. The scientists will figure it out, so I don’t have to do anything.”

And then there’s just plain habit. It’s “a huge but boring force,” Gifford said. “We just tend to do today what we did yesterday.”

So what can advocates do to promote concern and action about global warming?

Gifford cites steps such as convincing people they really can make a difference by taking a bus rather than driving, or by insulating their homes. And messages that focus on taking action to become an “ecological hero” will probably work better than those that portray such actions as a sacrifice, he said.

Swim, who chaired a recent American Psychological Association task force that summarized psychological research relevant to climate change, said appeals stressing the impact of climate change on people and animals may be more effective than those that just talk about seas and temperatures rising. (She is now investigating whether such messages are more likely to make people act).

Elke Weber of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University said people might respond to projections of what global warming could do to places they care about, like their favorite ski areas or their beach homes.

It’s also important for the news media to talk about climate change and what people can do, Swim said. While the Copenhagen talks have gotten plenty of attention recently, in general “there’s more in the paper about health care reform than about climate change,” she said.

And individuals can talk to their friends about their own concern and actions, Swim said. She sets aside one day a week when she makes a special effort to minimize her own carbon emissions from driving by doing such things as biking or just staying home.

“Most people don’t know I have a carbon-free day,” Swim said. “I should probably tell more people about that.”