Connecting the Dots on Climate Response

Cognitive science, not climate science, may hold the clue for how to engage the public to recognize and address the threats posed by climate change.

Cognitive science, not climate science, may hold the clue for how to engage the public to recognize and address the threats posed by climate change.

The effects of climate change are palpable, but the response by a large swath of people has been tepid. A new psychological paper offers an explanation – we are all like frogs in a pot of water being brought to a boil. We can tell our environment is heating up, but not enough to hop out of the pot.

The insights developed by Sander van der Linden, Edward Maibach and Anthony Leiserwitz could offer clues for how to connect the dots between what some view as the greatest threat to human existence and a public that ranks global warming as less important than jobs and defending against terrorists.

As reported on NPR, the paper written by three psychologists highlights five features of human thought patterns that may account for the mismatch between urgent calls for climate action and widespread public disengagement on the issue. Here is a quick summary of their insights:

•  People respond to personal experiences more than abstractions. Climate action champions use statistics, trends and other abstract references to describe the problem, which fail to connect with everyday reality for many people.

•  Climate change is an enormous global issue that can intimidate people who feel as if they are powerless to make a difference. Individual efforts to drive less, curb water use or increase recycling may be viewed as useful, but only a "drop in the bucket."

•  Humans react differently to immediate threats than to future ones. Imminent threats demand some action, while threats further into the future allow procrastination and even denial.

•  People think differently about potential losses and potential gains. The psychologists say climate activists would do better if they stressed the potential gains of responding proactively to a changing climate.

•  Appealing to people's intrinsic motivation to promote well-bring may be more effective than encouraging a certain kind of extrinsic pro-environmental behavior. It is the difference of being a steward instead of environmental policeman of your own world.

Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote the NPR commentary, said, "Climate change is often presented as an abstract, uncertain cost, distant in space and time, and requiring external incentives to motivate individual action. Psychological research suggests this is an especially dangerous combination, sure to make people underestimate the risk and unlikely to compel them to action."

"Instead, policymakers and science communicators might do well to focus on the concrete manifestations of climate change in our own experience, the consequences of warming that are affecting our communities here and now, and the ways our current actions can be tied to gains, rather than losses," she counsels.

One of Lombrozo's most compelling points is that it may take advances in cognitive science, rather than climate science, to stimulate a muscular response to global warming. "It's time to recognize the critical role for the social sciences," she writes, "in dealing with global warming, an issue that certainly ought to be a top priority for the President and Congress."