Ignoring climate change


A current story circulating in the press about the battle of words between Joe Oliver, the Canadian natural resources minister, and various Canadian scientists has certainly gotten the attention of some Canadians. It started when Joe Oliver publicly shamed a renowned NASA scientist for “exaggerating” claims that the tar sands will have devastating environmental consequences for the whole planet. He was quoted saying “The oil sands represent one one-thousandth of global emissions. You’re talking about, from a relative perspective, a minuscule amount. So people like James Hansen who says, ‘If you develop oil sands, it’s game over,’ he’s talking nonsense.”

For many Canadians the tar sands are a hot button issue, and opinions tend to divide along what province you live in and whether your income is related to tar sand development. An American Gallup poll also suggests that when it comes to climate change denial, men and conservatives (and conservative men especially, I’m guessing) are most likely to argue that environmental claims are exaggerated (Saad, 2012).

Not surprisingly these groups have motivations for this denial, something social psychology researchers have dubbed system-justification motivation, essentially the drive to maintain status quo. While maintaining the status quo is nothing new, exploring the motivations to do so is an important area of many areas of social psychology, as it is relevant to many issues beyond climate change, such as prejudice for example. For an excellent overview of system-justification motivation head over to The Situationist.

Here is the alarming part of this spat between scientists and the current Canadian government: much as we would like to believe that people can be persuaded by facts and research, and thus trust scientists as the “experts” on the subject, the fact of the matter is that many people are more likely to be more persuaded by dismissals, such as Joe Oliver’s above, than they are by the scientific consensus, and for a few different reasons:

1. People are reluctant to believe “dire” messages about the future.

A study by Feinberg and Willer (2011) found that people who have a “just-world” belief that bad things don’t happen to good people (for example, most people don’t think a serious illness like cancer will happen to them) become very skeptical of apocalyptic climate change messages. So even though intuitively it may seem like the best strategy to try to show people that the damage we are currently doing to the environment will have dire consequences, it is in fact, counterproductive. This is also exacerbated by:

2. Companies with vested interest in tar sand development are conducting their own “research” and then claiming that there is no consensus among scientists.

Though many of the corporate scientists have questionable credentials and a clear motivated agenda, the media has helped to frame the this issue as a “battle” between two camps of scientists, instead of reporting it for what it is. This strategy is surprisingly effective because it creates doubt. But rather than creating the kind of doubt that makes people uncertain about the issue and causing them to research it for themselves, it creates doubt whether scientists actually know what’s going on. This allows people to ignore or dismiss the whole issue. Kevin O’Leary of Dragon’s Den fame, who also co-hosts the business program the Lang and O’Leary Exchange on the CBC is notoriously persistent at pushing this climate-change research doubt agenda. The sad, and not entirely unexpected, part is that even though Amanda Lang’s part is to counter O’Leary’s arguments, she never really, with any conviction, calls him on it. If our beloved “impartial” CBC is doing this, I doubt other popular media is a whole lot better.

3. Motivation to maintain the status quo makes individuals unconcsciously misremember facts

So while scientists and corporations/government are duking it out with loads of “facts” on both sides, which facts are more likely to stick? According to a series of studies that asked participants to watch an educational video about climate change, found that:

“High system-justifiers recalled the information to which they had been exposed as less serious (i.e., remembering smaller increases in global temperatures, lower sea levels, and less reliable historical data concerning climate change) than did low system-justifiers. Poorer recall was associated with skepticism about climate change. Thus, individuals who misremembered the evidence provided in the video to be less severe were less likely to support efforts to address climate change (Hennes, Feygina, & Jost, 2011).

So if you have a stake in the tar-sands (and Stephen Harper would like us to think that we all do because it’s “good for the economy” and “creates jobs”), and you haven’t been particularly riled up to start doing your own research, the government would like you to keep doing what you are doing, since it works in their favour.

As for scientists, how can they communicate the urgency of their message without falling on deaf ears? Though no one has it figured out for now, an overview of research on climate change communication by Moser (2010) suggests the following:

  • Because climate change is hard to grasp for several different reasons, it needs to be communicated using clear and simple metaphors and imagery
  • Because climate change is not perceived as urgent by the general population because of its distant impact and our general isolation from the environment, we need to provide clear and consistent signaling (which I think would be difficult without government on board)
  • Scientists need to receive media and public outreach training and engage their communities in conversation and debate
  • Scientists need to use a combination of one way and two-way communication, and learn how to interact using popular media outlets


Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2011). Apocalypse soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just world beliefs. Psychological Science, 22, 34–38.

Hennes, E. P., Feygina, I., & Jost, J. T. (2011). Motivated evaluation, recall, and tactile perception in the service of the system: The case of anthropogenic climate change. Paper presented at the Princeton University Conference on Psychology and Policymaking, Princeton, NJ.

Moser, S. (2010). Communicating climate change: History, challenges, process and future directions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1, 31-53.

Saad, L. (2012). In U.S., global warming views steady despite warm winter. Gallup Poll. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/153608/Global-Warming-Views-Steady-Despite-Warm-Winter.aspx


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