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The Psychology of Climate Change Skepticism

Public Opinion of Climate Change Policy

The world is making progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change, but not nearly fast enough. One of the biggest roadblocks to enacting climate change policy is public opinion. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, an alarming number of people continue to deny the existence of climate change. According to a 2020 polling data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 12% of Americans don’t believe that climate change is real, 32% believe that climate change is natural and not caused by human activity, and 37% are not worried about the impact of climate change. Climate change skepticism has often been attributed to ignorance. However, research may offer a more nuanced understanding of why some remain unconvinced of climate change, and how it is possible to change opinions. Erin Hennes, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Purdue University, and Virginie Bonnot, Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the University Paris-Descartes, are working on this subject with support from the Thomas Jefferson Fund. They are studying how the framing of the narratives and policies of climate change affects how individuals process scientific information, their susceptibility to misinformation, and their support of environmental policies. 

Climate Change Framing 

Hennes and Bonnot’s research suggests that the temporal framing of climate action could affect the way the people process scientific information. For example, climate change policy can be presented as restorative or as progressive. When climate action is framed as restorative, it could be described as a return to the past (i.e. Make Our Planet Great Again). When climate change policies are framed as progressive, they are described as action toward a sustainable future (i.e. towards a climate smart world). The researchers hypothesize that framing climate action as a return to a better version of the past may be an effective strategy for gaining support for environmental policies. In a survey they conducted of 800 people, results showed that participants are more focused on the past and the present are less likely to believe in climate change. Those more concerned about the future were more likely to believe in climate change and were more supportive of climate change policy. These results suggest that using restorative narrative techniques could be useful in persuading people with dispositional focus on the past. 

Hennes and Bonnot are also examining how framing of the economy affects beliefs on climate change. Hennes and Bonnot predict that framing climate change as an economic threat will affect the way people view climate change and climate initiatives. A survey they conducted shows that concerns about the economy were positively correlated with climate denial. Additionally, participants concerned about the economy were more likely to oppose climate change policy and view climate change action as a threat to the economy rather than an opportunity. Hennes and Bonnot call this phenomenon Economic System Justification, and it is one of the strongest predictors of climate change skepticism. Therefore, to sway public opinion, these results suggest that it is important to emphasize the potential benefits of climate policy, such as economic development and scientific progress.   

Make Our Planet Great Again 

Hennes and Bonnot’s research is supported by the Thomas Jefferson Fund, which seeks to foster forward-thinking collaborative research that addresses pressing global issues. The Thomas Jefferson Fund received support by the Make Our Planet Great Again initiative by prioritizing funding for transatlantic research projects that tackle the challenges of climate change. The Make Our Planet Great Again initiative was launched by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, in June 2017 to reinforce the international engagement of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Erin Hennes and Virgine Bonnot’s project demonstrates the kind of collaborative scientific research that will contribute to global progress in the management of climate change. 




Thomas Jefferson Fund | FACE Foundation

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