Although climate change is discussed on a regular basis in media and politics, respective knowledge of the general public on the matter is still limited and error-prone1,2. At the same time, the high politicization of the topic and representation in the media, especially in countries like the USA, takes part in spreading uncertainty, fake news or so-called “climate myths” (see below). In this blogpost, I present how and which cognitive biases influence the possibilities of climate action and how confirmation biases contribute to climate denialism. At the end of the post, you can test your knowledge on basic facts about climate change!
From theory to action
Confusions about the causes of climate change or the role of human activities are connected to cognitive biases in our decision-making processes. Prior knowledge, information and understanding form prerequisites for (climate) actions. In between, communication of new information and related biases influence the way prerequisites translate into the desired outcome or not (see figure2 below, known as “tragedy of cognition”).3
This does not mean that more knowledge leads automatically or directly to more sustainable behavior, as many other intrinsic (personal values, attitudes, norms, etc.) and external factors (infrastructure, provision of viable alternatives, costs, etc.) play in here as well. Knowledge is nevertheless an important factor to support environmental policies.4
How can cognitive biases influence our everyday decisions? Here there are two examples. First, people tend to overestimate their knowledge – a phenomenon known as the overconfidence bias. By asking people how confident they are in their answers, we can differentiate between informed respondents (who answer correctly with high confidence), uninformed respondents (who answer with low confidence, i.e. guess) and misinformed respondents (who answer incorrectly, but with high confidence), and target them separately.2 Second, there exists also the so-called confirmation bias, where people tend to seek for information that is in line with their opinion and dismiss contrasting information or new insights that would require to rethink their current mental models or change position altogether.
“It is not us” and other fairytales
One group where confirmation biases are especially problematic are the so-called climate deniers (or as they rather call themselves, climate skeptics). The term climate denial/skepticism is used to summarize attempts to undermine scientific consensus on human-made climate change. John Cook calls this also “selective climate cherry picking”, meaning to focus only on selective pieces of information while ignoring other facts. Especially in the USA, organized climate denialism is prevalent, often with a huge lobby behind it that spreads misinformation and tries to discredit scientists and activists, such as Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement. These are the ten most frequent climate myths and the scientific corrections as depicted on https://www.skepticalscience.com/, a website led by scientists that try to explain climate science and correct misinformation. Have a look!*
|Climate myth||What science says|
|1||“Climate’s changed before.”||Climate reacts to whatever forces it to change at the time; humans are now the dominant forcing.|
|2||“It’s the sun.”||In the last 35 years of global warming, sun and climate have been going in opposite directions.|
|3||“It’s not bad.”||Negative impacts of global warming on agriculture, health & environment far outweigh any positives.|
|4||“There is no consensus.”||97% of climate experts agree humans are causing global warming.|
|5||“It’s cooling.”||The last decade was the hottest on record.|
|6||“Models are unreliable.”||Models successfully reproduce temperatures since 1900 globally, by land, in the air and the ocean.|
|7||“Temp record is unreliable.”||The warming trend is the same in rural and urban areas, measured by thermometers and satellites.|
|8||“Animals and plants can adapt.”||Global warming will cause mass extinctions of species that cannot adapt on short time scales.|
|9||“It hasn’t warmed since 1998.”||Every part of the Earth’s climate system has continued warming since 1998, with 2015 shattering temperature records.|
|10||“Antarctica is gaining ice.”||Satellites measure Antarctica losing land ice at an accelerating rate.|
So how to cope with climate deniers? One approach could be to frame certain policies as e.g. health issues, rather than as climate protection issues, to get them on board. Even more important is to know the scientific facts about climate change and have them ready in case of an argument. Finally, if you can’t convince the person that he/she is wrong (which is very likely), when you are prepared and have the facts ready at least one can hope to prevent them from further spreading misinformation among others.
I thank Thomas Brudermann for feedback and further suggestions.
Now you can test your knowledge about climate change by answering ten true or false questions2,4 by following this link: Knowledge Quiz
1 Fischer, H., Amelung, D., & Said, N. (2019). The accuracy of German citizens’ confidence in their climate change knowledge. Nature Climate Change, 9(10), 776–780. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0563-0.
2 Thaller, A. & Brudermann, T. (2020). “You know nothing, John Doe” – Judgmental overconfidence in lay climate knowledge. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101427.
3 Johnson, D., & Levin, S. (2009). The tragedy of cognition: Psychological biases and environmental inaction. Current Science, 97(11), 1593–1603.
4 Tobler, C., Visschers, V. H. M., & Siegrist, M. (2012). Consumers’ knowledge about climate change. Climatic Change, 114(2), 189–209. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-011-0393-1.
*Table slightly adapted by the author.