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Why do some people believe that climate change is a hoax ?

May 8, 2023 · Comment icon 135 comments

Which side of the argument are you on ? Image Credit: Pixabay / ELG21
Psychologist Jeremy P. Shapiro explores the misconceptions that lead some people to become climate change deniers.
Cold spells often bring climate change deniers out in force on social media, with hashtags like #ClimateHoax and #ClimateScam. Former President Donald Trump often chimes in, repeatedly claiming that each cold snap disproves the existence of global warming.

From a scientific standpoint, these claims of disproof are absurd. Fluctuations in the weather don't refute clear long-term trends in the climate.

Yet many people believe these claims, and the political result has been reduced willingness to take action to mitigate climate change.

Why are so many people susceptible to this type of disinformation? My field, psychology, can help explain - and help people avoid being misled.

The allure of black-and-white thinking

Close examination of the arguments made by climate change deniers reveals the same mistake made over and over again. That mistake is the cognitive error known as black-and-white thinking, also called dichotomous and all-or-none thinking. As I explain in my book "Finding Goldilocks," black-and-white thinking is a source of dysfunction in mental health, relationships - and politics.

People are often susceptible to it because in many areas of life, dichotomous thinking does something helpful: It simplifies the world.

Binaries are easy to handle because there are only two possibilities to consider. When people face a spectrum of possibilities and nuance, they have to exert more mental effort. But when that spectrum is polarized into pairs of opposites, choices are clear and dramatic.

This mental labor-saving device is practical in many everyday situations, but it is a poor tool for understanding complicated realities - and the climate is complicated.

Sometimes, people divide the spectrum in asymmetric ways, with one side much larger than the other. For example, perfectionists often categorize their work as either perfect or unsatisfactory, so even good and very good outcomes are lumped together with poor ones in the unsatisfactory category. In dichotomous thinking like this, a single exception can tip a person's view to one side. It's like a pass/fail grading system in which 100% earns a pass and everything else gets an F.

With a grading system like this, it's not surprising that opponents of climate action have found ways to reject global warming research, despite the overwhelming evidence.

Here's how they do it:

The all-or-nothing problem

Climate change deniers simplify the spectrum of possible scientific consensus into two categories: 100% agreement or no consensus at all. If it's not one, it's the other.

A 2021 review of thousands of climate science papers and conference proceedings concluded that over 99% of studies have found that burning fossil fuels warms the planet. That's not good enough for some skeptics. If they find one contrarian scientist somewhere, they categorize the idea of human-caused global warming as controversial and conclude that there is no basis for action.

Powerful economic interests are at work here: The fossil fuel industry has funded disinformation campaigns for years to create this kind of doubt about climate change, despite knowing that their products cause it and the consequences. Members of Congress have used that disinformation to block or weaken federal policies that could slow climate change.
Expecting a straight line in a variable world

In another example of black-and-white thinking, deniers argue that if global temperatures are not increasing at a perfectly consistent rate, there is no such thing as global warming.

However, complex variables never change in a uniform way; they wiggle up and down in the short term even when exhibiting long-term trends. Most business data, such as revenues, profits and stock prices, do this too, with short-term fluctuations contained in long-term trends.

Mistaking a cold snap for disproof of climate change is like mistaking a bad month for Apple stock for proof that Apple isn't a good long-term investment. This error results from homing in on a tiny slice of the graph and ignoring the rest.

Failing to examine the gray area

Climate change deniers also mistakenly cite correlations below 100% as evidence against human-caused global warming. They triumphantly point out that sunspots and volcanic eruptions also affect the climate, even though evidence shows both have very little influence on long-term temperature rise in comparison to greenhouse gas emissions.

In essence, deniers argue that if fossil fuel burning is not all-important, it's unimportant. They miss the gray area in between: Greenhouse gases are indeed just one factor warming the planet, but they're the most important one and the factor humans can influence.

‘The climate has always been changing' - but not like this

As increases in global temperatures have become obvious, some climate change skeptics have switched from denying them to reframing them.

Their oft-repeated line, "The climate has always been changing," typically delivered with an air of patient wisdom, is based on a striking lack of knowledge about the evidence from climate research.

Their reasoning is based on an invalid binary: Either the climate is changing or it's not, and since it's always been changing, there is nothing new here and no cause for concern.

However, the current warming is on par with nothing humans have ever seen, and intense warming events in the distant past were planetwide disasters that caused massive extinctions - something we do not want to repeat.

As humanity faces the challenge of global warming, we need to use all our cognitive resources. Recognizing the thinking error at the root of climate change denial could disarm objections to climate research and make science the basis of our efforts to preserve a hospitable environment for our future.

Jeremy P. Shapiro, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences, Case Western Reserve University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (135)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #126 Posted by Doug1066 1 year ago
The Idaho Fast Breeder accident killed three people.  The rest were very expensive meltdowns. Every one of the nuclear plants that failed was built by people who thought they could build a safe plant.  When they tell me the new designs are safe, I think of what they said last time.  So, in general, I oppose the use of nuclear power because of the danger.  That and the problem of having to store radioactive waste for thousands of years in a place with no tsunamis, no earthquakes, no water leakage and no way to warn people of that distant time not to dig up the site. BUT:  fast breeders can... [More]
Comment icon #127 Posted by Doc Socks Junior 1 year ago
3 people, to be crass, is not that many. I don't oppose hydropower because of 75 people dead via Sayano-Shushenskaya (and the list could go on). We've already figured out the place to store it. Yucca Mountain. At least now Harry Reid isn't obstructing the process anymore. My two cents: it'll eventually happen there. But hey, totally agree with fast breeders as an alternative way to use it.
Comment icon #128 Posted by bmk1245 1 year ago
Well, France gets majority (70%) of its electricity from NPPs. How many disasters were there in France on the par with Chernobyl/Fukusima? Yeah, there were some minor accidents, nevertheless... Reminds me of Ignalina NPP we were forced to close, though with all safety measures implemented, it was one of the safest NPPs (I attended national conferences with experts presenting those measures in mid 2000s). PS but hey, buy cheap Chinese photovoltaics (slave labor included), while Chinese are building coal PPs at quite a pace...   Edit to add: what is better, warmer or colder? (link; bolding mi... [More]
Comment icon #129 Posted by Doc Socks Junior 1 year ago
Better is whatever one's civilization and infrastructure is used to. It's probably of little comfort to a flooded out Indonesian villager that there were epicontinental seas and significant warmth in the Cambrian.
Comment icon #130 Posted by Doug1066 1 year ago
The Holocene (aka interglacial) began about 10,660 YBP.  Before that, for the previous 9000 or so years was a full-on ice age (the Wisonsinan). The early part of the Holocene, about 4800 years, was the Climatic Optimum, a period of relatively benign weather.  At the end of the Climatic Optimum the desert belts moved poleward and areas like the Sahara and Near East became hyper-arid, ending the Akkadian Empire, among others.  African tribes living in the Sahara savannah were forced to settle along the Nile.  The Fayum B culture developed in the Fayum Depression at this time, as did the al-U... [More]
Comment icon #131 Posted by psyche101 1 year ago
Hi Doug Thing is Idaho was over sixty years ago. It's inconceivable to indicate that those problems haven't been analysed and fortified against.  Fast breeders are one of the new developments that make nuclear even more appealing. Europe is also putting a lot of effort into designing modular small reactors which are also safer again.  I just don't think we should let old accidents hobble the way forward. It's a clean efficient source of energy that could really help a lot of people. 
Comment icon #132 Posted by Doug1066 1 year ago
Idaho was a steam explosion.  It could happen in a coal-fired plant, too. Detroit Fermi was a fast breeder - the only one ever built for commercial purposes.  A sheet of titanium peeled off a safety device in the bottom of the reactor, got caught in the flow of liquid sodium and got stuck in a duct, prompting a runaway.  Ironic - a safety device cause the meltdown. The problem of nuclear waste has to be solved.  The appeal of fast breeders is the relatively low amount of waste and the fact that they can use other recycled waste,  But still, that waste has to be stored for thousands of yea... [More]
Comment icon #133 Posted by pbarosso 1 year ago
go ahead, liberals, stop using your AC and gas stoves en masse...YOU FIRST! go ahead, buy EVs (powered by electricity made from coal and natural gas not to mention the mining and disposal), go ahead and have ZERO KIDS you your doors and house first to immigrants too, since they are escaping supposed climate change economics......but we know you wont do that.....BTW stop buying smart phones too....YOU FIRST! no the way the liberal mind works is hypocrisy on a massive scale! what youd like is for the government to dictate what we are doing. youre not democracy champions...youd have ... [More]
Comment icon #134 Posted by Doug1066 1 year ago
Gas stoves is a safety issue.  The darn things leak hydrocarbons into your kitchen, which you breath.  Injurious to health.  The Biden Administration may have outlawing gas stoves in mind to cut down on CO2 emissions.  But that is a secondary issue at the moment.  We need to have emissions-free electricity generation before switching away from gas appliances will do any good.  That being said, outlawing of gas stoves will probably happen someday.  But heating is a bigger polluter, so electric heat will need to replace gas.  But that will require upgrading of trunk lines, so the switch ... [More]
Comment icon #135 Posted by lesyamuz 11 months ago
  The thinking error that makes people susceptible to climate change denial is often rooted in cognitive biases and psychological factors.  People tend to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs while disregarding or dismissing information that contradicts their views on climate change. Climate change denial can be influenced by group identity and affiliation. People may align their views with their social or political groups, leading to polarization and rejection of opposing perspectives. Accepting the reality of climate change might conflict with certain beliefs or values, cr... [More]

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