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Does Climate Change Exist? Depends on Your State of Mind

An undated photo shows the effect of bleaching on coral off Caye Caulker, Belize.

An undated photo shows the effect of bleaching on coral off Caye Caulker, Belize.

Whether or not you think human activity affects climate changes around the world depends on your political views, at least in the United States.

That's the conclusion of a Pew Research study, which found that people who deny there is any human impact on the climate, or that it's even changing, have more in common than just politics.

It's the psychology of denial, according to a thesis by Kirsti Jylhä of Sweden's Uppsala University, who has been studying humans' reaction to climate change for years.

She has found that people who deny climate change tend to be male, conservative and authoritarian. They endorse the status quo, are low in empathy and avoid feeling negative emotions. Taken together, Jhylhä says, all of these tendencies point to a group of people who score high on personality traits known as social dominance orientation, or SDO.

'Social dominance' scores

People with high SDO tend to be more accepting of dominant relationships among groups, and, she points out, this "also extends to accepting human dominance over nature."

That may not seem to be a particularly desirable group of personality traits, but Jhylhä said her research is not intended to brand climate change deniers as close-minded. Instead, she hoped to learn why it is so hard to communicate the deadly serious realities of climate change to a population that all too often just doesn't want to hear it.

One of the big problems in getting humans to address the real problem of climate change, according to psychologists, is that the stakes are so high. Writing in Psychology Today, psychologist Steve Taylor wonders what could be more uncomfortable than "the idea that our activities may be destroying the ability of our planet to sustain life."

Some avoid thinking about catastrophes

When you think about coastal flooding, droughts, mega-storms, it feels like a disaster movie made real. As Jhylhä says, "Catastrophic scenarios may increase negative emotions and make individuals avoid thinking about the issue. Also, it may cause some to perceive the issue as overstated, particularly if they are currently not perceiving clear effects of climate change in their everyday lives.”

So how to switch the tenor of conversations about climate change to motivate people to take action? Jhylhä suggests one should not focus on the environmental destruction that human activity is causing, but instead emphasizing how direct action to control climate change benefits everyone.

"It would perhaps be better," she said, "to talk in other terms and describe how everyone will benefit from the measures [to limit climate change] instead of being affected by the consequences."

That makes climatic changes, which deniers tend to reject, less likely to trigger disputes. Psychologist Allen McConnell puts it this way: "Focusing people on long-term good" and establishing rewards for good behavior "can produce better outcomes."

The takeaway from all this is that no matter what your psychological motivation is for either acting to limit climate change, or denying that it exists, there is a constructive way to talk about and possibly tackle its complex and disturbing realities.