Denial is a “valid response” of people when confronted with tough times, and this response explains climate change deniers. So said Graeme Pearman, a climate consultant at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, during the Greenhouse 2011 conference in Cairns, Queensland, Australia today.
According to Pearman, a large proportion of sceptics are “the type of people” that deny any problems facing them. “It is a normal coping mechanism,” he said.
Recently, profiling a typical climate sceptic has become fertile research ground. Behavioural scientists hope to unpick why so many people continue to deny human-made climate change, despite strong scientific evidence of its existence. The research will help policy-makers plan how to change those seemingly unchangeable minds.
Benjamin Preston, currently at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, worked at the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change in Washington DC and was tasked with “educating” Tea Party senators about the risks associated with climate change. At today’s conference, Preston said political persuasions influenced climate change opinions more than the mere denial of catastrophe.
As a hearing in the US Congress last month showed, people’s views on contentious scientific issues tend to reflect their political positions. “Egalitarian-communitarians” generally accept the evidence that climate change is a threat, while “hierarchical-individualists” reject it. According to Preston:
People who are more conservative, socially and economically, are at the point where they’re not going to believe in any of that environmental stuff.
Following this, a climate-change sceptic, says Preston, is more likely to be swayed to switch opinions if climate data is presented to them from someone they politically identify with.
Greg Withers, who works for the Queensland state government, told the conference that there is more than enough scientific evidence to justify government climate action:
For policy-makers there’s a certain amount of data and information that you require before you can make recommendations and take action… [with climate change]… that threshold has been reached and exceeded.