A highly influential study from 2013 revealed that 97% of scientists agreed that human action was responsible for the climate crisis. This statistic shook the populus, but not enough to rid society of climate denial. A recent study that came out in October 2021 displayed a new and even more dire statistic—99% of scientists acknowledge the existence of human-induced climate change. Yet, there is still a prevalence of climate denial. So, if there is a convergence among climate scientists, why is there still so much climate doubt?
The indifferent state of climate change response, also known as climate change inaction, is a concept addressing why we do not take action when presented with the climate crisis. Individual climate inaction, as opposed to macro forms of inaction (such as actions on the institutional level), looks at individual trends. This lack of response is derived from several forms of disbelief, which are influenced by psychological and cultural factors. In a 2020 study conducted by Yale University, it was identified that 12% of Americans do not believe climate change is happening, and 32% do not view it as human-caused. These tendencies of disbelief promote climate change inaction.
The paradox of individuals denying a crisis contrary to an ever-increasing amount of evidence results from psychological differences in cultures. The concept which describes how people perceive the climate crisis as affected by culture is known as cultural cognition. The myriad of literature surrounding climate change is decrypted and viewed individually, while the cultural lens through which a person views this information determines their attitude and response towards climate change. Divides in cultural response are seen when analyzing individualism and collectivism. Individualism is characterized by a view of independent self, whereas collectivism focuses on the interdependent self. It was found that individualistic societies, such as the United States, are more likely to participate in climate inaction. A study highlighted in the “Journal of Environmental Psychology” found that environmental activists were more likely to endorse self-transcendent values, while non-activists were more likely to endorse self-interest values. These self-interest values are harmful to climate activism because people are less likely to partake if they don’t value collective well-being. In the stated Yale University study, it was discovered that 47% of Americans believe climate change will not affect them. This self-serving belief prevents Americans from taking action because they focus more on individual preservation.
Based on an analysis from Gallup Poll and Global Footprint Network datasets, it was found that countries that prioritize individualism have higher ecological footprints and are less eager to take responsibility for their effects on nature. In this, it was determined that a person’s culture holds great authority when analyzing their connection to the environment. The United States, a country which employs individualism, has an ecological footprint of 12.22 global hectares and emits 19.86 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (per 1000 people). This is in stark contrast to Japan, a collectivist country, which has an ecological footprint of 4.2 global hectares and emits 9.59 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (per 1000 people). Comparatively, The United States has an ecological footprint three times higher than Japan and emits two times more carbon dioxide.
Because of individualistic values, people within these cultures perceive climate change as an intractable problem, meaning climate change can not be helped by the efforts of an individual. This thought correlates with ideas of climate change helplessness: the belief that climate change is beyond personal control, which emphasizes individual experience over collective action. Therefore, climate change helplessness prevents action because it seems unattainable. Opposingly, collectivists will view fighting climate change as a group mission, therefore, they are less likely to view climate change as intractable. In this, collectivists are more likely to engage in climate change action.
Individualistic societies result in isolated responses, which inhibit climate action. Climate change presents an impending sense of doom, for the massivity of the crisis overwhelms the public, and it does not present a plausible solution. Climate change reminds humanity of its mortality. This feeling results in loss, grief, and guilt, all mitigated with psychological defense mechanisms. Therefore, the problem is ignored on the individual level. The Freudian concept of disavowal accounts for much of the climate denial we see. This is the process in which people minimize emotional disturbance caused by facing reality. In the previously mentioned study Yale conducted, 37% of Americans exemplified no worry about climate change. Here, the science of climate change is recognized, but this recognition lacks any responsibility to act. Disavowal is emphasized by individualist cultures, in which people believe there is no action that can possibly be taken. Collectivist cultures are less impacted by disavowal, for they are less likely to deny action.
Social norms are also explanatory in an individualistic culture’s inaction. Collectivist cultures put an enhanced amount of enunciation on social desirability, as they seek to comply with social norms. When participants of a collectivist society participate in climate change action, to abide by the social norm, others will also cooperate. This ideal is not as prevalent in individualistic societies. Given that members of society are expected to take action against climate change, it is evident that collectivists are more responsive to this social expectation than individualists.
Because there is this disbelief among the population, the discourse around climate must be specific and careful. In her Ted Talk, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, discusses progressive and meaningful ways to talk about climate change. She displays that, when speaking to someone about climate change, to do it effectively, you must know who you are talking to and what this person cares about. Once you know this, you can connect what the person cares about to climate change. You must also use the power of social groups because social cues and trends highly influence people. Individual actions are important, for they lead to societal change and meaningful policy. Therefore, when speaking to those who are part of an individualistic society, it is important to highlight the importance of cooperation. People often spring into action because of humanity’s social nature. When individuals supplement policy, they inspire social norms which aggregate to large-scale social change.
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Marlon, Jennifer, et al. “Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2020.” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 19 Oct. 2021, https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/.
Xiang, Peng, et al. “Individualist-Collectivist Differences in Climate Change Inaction: The Role of Perceived Intractability.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers Media S.A., 12 Feb. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6379328/.
Hayhoe, Katharine, director. The Most Important Thing You Can Do to Fight Climate Change: Talk about It. TED, https://www.ted.com/talks/katharine_hayhoe_the_most_important_thing_you_can_do_to_fight_climate_change_talk_about_it. Accessed 17 Nov. 2021.