One key barrier to public acceptance of the evidence for man-made climate change is our psychological investment in the current economic system. At one level this seems obvious, because the implications of any adequate response to climate change for today’s economic institutions will be profound. We might anticipate that anyone heavily invested in today’s economic system is going to be attracted to sources of information more sceptical of climate change (and, on the other hand, that people critical of the economic system may be more attracted to sources of information underscoring its severity).
But when it comes to climate change, our selective hearing (or memory – psychologists aren’t sure which it is) also seems to operate unconsciously.
In research published last month, Erin Hennes and colleagues asked people a series of questions to assess their belief that the current economic system is fair and legitimate.
People who score highly on the “economic system justification” scale, are likely to agree that: “If people work hard they almost always get what they want”, “it is virtually impossible to eliminate poverty”, “social class differences reflect differences in the natural order of things”, and “economic positions are legitimate reflections of people’s achievements”.
When presented with a report about climate change, those people who scored highly on the “economic system justification” scale were then less likely to recall facts, mentioned in this report, that affirmed the scale and severity of climate change.
It seems that people who score highly on this scale have an unconscious fear of accepting the scale of challenge that climate change presents, because to do so risks acknowledging that our faith in the fairness and legitimacy of today’s economic institutions might be misplaced. This insecurity leads them either not to assimilate, or to assimilate but then forget, information pointing to how urgent action on climate change is.
This is perhaps a demographic to which Donald Trump tries to appeal when he dismisses climate change as a hoax – though the jury is out on whether he really believes this himself.
More generally, the researchers suggest that people “… may be motivated to manipulate their informational landscape in a manner that fulfils the need to maintain and justify the status quo.” (p.10)
What can be done with this insight?
Those who score highly in “economic system justification” are, the researchers suggest, more accepting of evidence for climate change if they are first told that the economy is buoyant. They tentatively recommend that communications about climate change should be preceded by assertions that the economy is doing just fine - something which seems tantamount to inviting us to stick our heads in a pile of yellowish granular material.
One more realistic response is to assimilate climate change into the current economic system as another business opportunity, thus allowing ‘high system justifiers’ to reconcile their desire to bolster the current economic system with acceptance of the reality of climate change. But this approach leads to an emphasis on new opportunities for jobs and growth without ever mounting a proper response to those activities that make lots of money while trashing the climate.
Another response is to work to change the ideas that ‘high system justifiers’ hold of the kind of economic system that they are anxious to defend. This requires us to re-imagine economic systems, and think about these in new ways. In terms of the material dimensions of climate change, the case for this re-imagining was always strong. This new research underscores the compelling psychological reasons for embarking on it.