by Judith Curry
Converging evidence from the behavioural and brain sciences suggests that the human moral judgement system is not well equipped to identify climate change – a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon — as an important moral imperative.
A recent issue of Nature Climate Change has the following paper:
Climate change does not tip the human moral balance according to novel research compiled by psychologists at University of Oregon. Evidence from behavioural analysts and those studying the human condition suggest that we as human beings do not feel motivated to engage in urgent action to solve the issue of climate change, although climate scientists have had a long standing consensus for action.
Why is it that only a small population of US citizens support an increased duty on electricity and gas, whilst a majority support limits on greenhouse gas emissions imposed on big business. Is it purely to do with perceived scale of responsibility? The disconnect between the public and the scientific community and ever further, climate change communicators is now impinging on our psychological processing of the climate change issue as a whole.
Psychologists have now suggested that climate change actually challenges our perceptual, cognitive and information processing systems leading to emotionally charged reactions that are either defensive or counterproductive or both. So understanding the challenge in manipulating the moral intuition within individuals is particularly important to communicators and those that wish to initiate change.
Table 1 | Six psychological challenges posed by climate change to the human moral judgement system.
- Abstractness and cognitive complexity: The abstract nature of climate change makes it non-intuitive and cognitively effortful to grasp
- The blamelessness of unintentional action: The human moral judgement system is finely tuned to react to intentional transgressions
- Guilty bias: Anthropogenic climate change provokes self-defensive biases
- Uncertainty breeds wishful thinking: The lack of definitive prognoses results in unreasonable optimism
- Moral tribalism: The politicization of climate change fosters ideological polarization
- Long time horizons and faraway places: Out-group victims fall by the wayside
Table 2 | Six psychological strategies that communicators can use to bolster the recognition of climate change as a moral imperative.
- Use existing moral values: Frame climate change using more broadly held values that appeal to untapped demographics
- Burdens versus benefits: Focus messaging on the costs, not benefits, that we may impose on future generations
- Emotional carrots, not sticks: Motivate action through appeals to hope, pride and gratitude rather than guilt, shame and anxiety
- Be wary of extrinsic motivators: Pushing action on climate change as ‘good business’ may backfire
- Expand group identity: Increase identification with and empathy for future generations and people living in other places
- Highlight positive social norms: Leverage human susceptibility to social influence and approval