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Climate change denial: What's really behind it?

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Bonn challenges the prevailing assumption that people deny climate change to justify their environmentally harmful behaviors. 

The study involved an online experiment with 4,000 U.S. adults. The researchers uncovered no evidence to support the idea that climate change denial is a form of self-deception aimed at avoiding personal guilt over contributing to global heating.

The phenomenon of climate change denial is not insignificant, with a substantial number of individuals downplaying the impact of climate change or outright denying its human-induced causes. 

Significant amount of people deny climate change

According to the authors, human activities caused the recent warming of the Earth.

Despite the near-unanimous scientific consensus on this matter, a substantial part of the population denies or downplays the contribution of humans to climate change. 

“In a 2019 Pew study, 30% of U.S. adults said humans play only a partial role and 20% said no or a minor role in climate change,” they reported.

The 2022 report Climate Change in the American Mind finds similar results: a third of the respondents said that climate change is due to natural changes and is not caused mostly by human activities.

How can this discrepancy be explained?

Motivated reasoning 

“Climate change is arguably one of the greatest challenges today. Although the scientific consensus is that human activities caused climate change, a substantial part of the population downplays or denies human responsibility,” wrote the study authors.

For example, a frequent flyer might dismiss the impact of their travel on the climate by assuming their actions make no significant difference or by doubting the evidence for human-caused climate change altogether.

A common hypothesis has been that climate change denial stems from a form of self-deception where individuals rationalize their behaviors to avoid cognitive dissonance. 

Professor Florian Zimmermann, an economist at the University of Bonn, expounded on this thought process that allows individuals to maintain a positive self-image while continuing harmful behaviors.

“We call this thought process ‘motivated reasoning,’” says Professor Florian Zimmermann, an economist at the University of Bonn and Research Director at IZA.

How the study was conducted

Zimmermann and his colleague Lasse Stötzer conducted a series of online experiments with a representative sample of 4,000 US adults.

The experiments centered on a $20 donation. Randomly, the organizers assigned participants to one of two groups.

The first group’s members could divide the $20 between two organizations fighting climate change. In contrast, the second group’s participants had the option to keep the $20 for themselves and would actually receive the money at the end.

Zimmermann is a member of the ECONtribute Cluster of Excellence, the Collaborative Research Center Transregio 224, and the Transdisciplinary Research Area “Individuals & Societies” at the University of Bonn.

He explained, “Anyone who decides to keep the donation must justify that decision to themselves. One way to do that is to deny the existence of climate change.”

Unexpected climate change denial findings

Nearly half of the participants in the latter group chose to keep the money, which led researchers to question whether this choice was justified through subsequent denial of climate change.

Surprisingly, the researchers found no evidence that individuals who kept the money were more likely to deny climate change to rationalize their decision.

This contradicts the expectation that climate change denial is significantly driven by self-deception related to one’s harmful environmental actions.

However, the study did hint at an alternative form of “motivated reasoning,” suggesting that denial of human-caused global warming may be more deeply rooted in the political identities of certain groups. 

This identity-based denial implies that for some, rejecting the reality of climate change is a core aspect of their political persona, making them less receptive to scientific evidence or researcher interventions.

Zimmermann explained further, saying, “Our data does reveal some indications of a variant of motivated reasoning, specifically that denying the existence of human-made global heating forms part of the political identity of certain groups of people.”

Broader implications of climate change denial

In summary, this eye-opening research, which involved online experiments with 4,000 U.S. adults, aimed to determine if self-deception related to one’s actions and beliefs about climate change could explain why many individuals downplay or deny the impact of climate change.

Participants were divided into groups, with one able to donate to climate change organizations and the other given the option to keep the money for personal use.

Surprisingly, the study found no evidence that those who chose to keep the money justified their decision by denying climate change, challenging the notion that self-deception driven by motivated reasoning is a significant factor in climate change skepticism.

Next steps and future implications

Zimmermann’s research suggests that misconceptions about climate change might not stem from self-deception but could be linked to the political identities of certain groups, presenting both challenges and opportunities for policymakers aiming to address climate change denial.

In summary, this study has significant implications for the future of our planet, as it addresses the pressing need to address climate change denial.

If misconceptions about climate change are not primarily due to self-deception related to personal behavior, there may be more room for changing minds through comprehensive information and education. 

Whatever the case may be, something must be done very quickly to change hearts and minds around the world, before it’s too late.

The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change


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