What makes someone a climate change skeptic?
by Nicole Mortillaro, CBC News
November 29, 2018



In August, residents of Redding, Calif., battled a wildfire that had consumed more than 40,000 hectares of forest and threatened more than 5,000 buildings. Scientists acknowledged that climate change had likely contributed to the size of the fire and others like it.

And yet, amid the smouldering ruins, there were some who disagreed.

Fast-forward to September, when Hurricane Michael pummelled the Carolinas. The torrential rainfall seemed to change the minds of some who had previously doubted climate change was happening there.

How is it that when a natural disaster lands on people’s doorsteps, some see it as evidence of climate change while others find it unconvincing?

Psychologists say there are a number of factors at play.

For one, climate change can challenge someone’s world view, which becomes uncomfortable and possibly inconvenient if acknowledged as true. Then there are political agendas to consider — for example, some people who publicly doubt climate change may be doing so because they feel taking action could mean economic hardship.

And frankly, there is a lot of misinformation out there.

Part of the problem may be how info about climate change is disseminated. Matto Mildenberger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that often, it’s about who we trust as “the messenger.”

He said that even with a scientific issue like climate change, we might disregard a scientist and side with someone who we “feel the most closest, personal affinity to … [someone] who is sort of part of my group or my tribe.”

Climate change has been a politically divisive issue. Mildenberger, a Canadian who contributes to Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, said that what might be most effective in convincing doubters is to identify leaders who are actively taking pro-climate positions.

Trusted individuals “need to be climate advocates and climate messengers to their communities,” said Mildenberger. “That might be the most powerful way to change the hearts and minds, [more] than any substantive scientific message at this point.”

Another consideration is the “information deficit” about what is causing global warming. That’s something Michael Ranney is trying to change.

Ranney, who teaches in the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Psychology, has created a website called How Global Warming Works. Aware of people’s short attention spans, it offers five videos of differing lengths — the longest is five minutes, the shortest 52 seconds — that summarize the science of Earth’s warming climate.

Ranney’s research found that learning the mechanisms is key. The result? Ranney said people who visited the site “almost tripled their understanding of the mechanisms of global warming, and that increased their acceptance of global warming.”