Climate change is a significant long-term change in weather conditions. Currently, this is in the form of global warming—that 97% of scientists believe is due to anthropogenic causes according to John Cook, et al.’s article “Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming”. Along with the scientists, about 70% of regular Americans aged 18+ think that global warming is occurring, according to Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication. It is strange that despite a large consensus among common civilians, climate change denial is still such a prominent and divisive problem in the United States. Further reading into Yale’s study, however, show that about 58% of Americans believe global warming is caused by humans, and of the people who believe that global warming affects weather in the US, only 29% believe that the effects on weather are significant (in their words, believe that global warming affects weather in the U.S. “a lot”). It appears that there is a gradation of ideas or beliefs on this topic that can be construed as or conflated with “climate change denial” and contrary to common rhetoric, this denial—though rooted in misinformation—is not simply a dumb, stubborn refusal of global warming’s existence. As such, perhaps a more nuanced approach to understanding and addressing climate change detractors is required.
John Cook identifies three aspects of climate change denial: trend, attribution, and impact. The “trend” denial is that of contention with global warming’s existence, “attribution” is contention with the belief that climate change is anthropogenic, and “impact” is with the severity of global warming and its effects (and to a lesser extent, contention with the validity of climate science and its reports). Like the previous study, John Cook also has found that a large majority of Americans have reported some knowledge about global warming but only half that agree that the increasing temperatures are caused by humans. Because of this, Cook believes that there must be other drivers of climate science denial beyond lack of knowledge such as biases or psychological distance.
Personal experiences are powerful teachers for humans due to their associative abilities (e.g. recognizing cause and effect), states Elke Weber et al. in their paper “Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States”. Weber et al. write that learning via experience might lead to certain biases against climate change, mainly because the effects of global warming are largely imperceptible in the United States. Extreme events are infrequent or even non-existent in some regions of the US. As a result, the more adverse effects of climate change have a large psychological distance for the denizens of the “untouched areas”. Extreme disasters occur infrequently enough that people likely don’t “see” the trend of successive events and internalize them as independent “freak occurrences”. Studies that show the correlation between global warming and natural disasters are given less credence in favor of personal experience which, for most people, is that of an unchanging climate. This explains the previously mentioned Yale study that found that out of the people who believe climate change is anthropogenic, only 29% of them think that its effects are extreme.
Climate change is not widely accepted in the United States and is likely a factor impeding more demand or support for cleaner alternative energy or other mitigation policies. There are some people who outright deny climate science, but research has shown that most Americans are largely apathetic to the issue due to psychological biases. There is an insufficient amount associative feedback between human actions and the adverse effects of climate change. This composition of human psychology and relative regional stability (in terms of climate change-related natural disasters) is conducive to misconceptions and apathy that blinds people to the more pressing issues of climate change.
Consensus on anthropogenic causes for global warming (John Cook, et al): http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002
Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication: Climate Change in the American Mind (Leiserowitz, et al): http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Climate-Change-American-Mind-March-2018-1.pdf
Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States (Weber, Stern)https://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_4800/weber_2011.pdf
Countering Climate Science Denial and Communicating Scientific Consensus (John Cook) http://oxfordre.com/climatescience/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228620-e-314