Senior Digs Into the Psychology of Climate Change Denial

Riley O’Connell ’18

It turns out that how you feel about yourself could affect whether you believe in climate change, according to research that senior Riley O’Connell has been working on for an independent project.

O’Connell is an environmental studies and government double major, and a psychology minor. Over the course of his college education, he noticed what he came to see as an important missing gap in the scientific and scholarly literature that has been produced on climate change. While the science seemed clear, the prospects for taking action on climate change remained ambiguous. One problem is that many individuals do not accept what climate scientists insist are the facts.

“Individual decisions and actions, the human element, are a vastly overlooked part of the problem,” O’Connell commented recently in an interview. “I wanted to do research to bring that element into more light.”

So for the past year, O’Connell has been gathering and interpreting data on what could be driving many individuals in the United States to insist that climate change is not real or not harmful. He’s also studying what motivates some in this country to take action to curb their carbon footprint while others remain unmoved. “I’m trying to determine what the psychological factors are that lead to climate change denial being so prominent in the US,” he said.

The United States’ population has historically led the Western world in climate change denial (along with carbon emissions). In contrast, Germany, the Netherlands, and France score the highest on climate change acceptance, at least for the Western world. (In general, Africa and Asia tend to score much higher on climate change belief, especially the small island nations in the South Pacific that have already lost large portions of land to rising sea levels.) But only one country’s population appears to be actually “internalizing” climate change — which means not only accepting it, but feeling the responsibility to take individual steps to combat it. “In Germany, studies have been done that suggest Germans will forego going on a long-distance vacation, something that has inherent value to them, to reduce their impact on climate change,” O’Connell said.

Environmental studies at Bowdoin
Riley O’Connell ’18 chose to major in environmental studies at Bowdoin because he appreciated that the College offers a broad, interdisciplinary approach to the field, which he says is critical if we are to solve complex problems. “You have to come at climate change from every perspective and combine all your knowledge to find a solution,” he said.
To begin to understand the reasons for our different dynamic in the US, O’Connell designed a survey that would both reveal respondents’ personality traits and their climate change opinions. It also elicited information about political leanings and socioeconomic status, and a few biographical details, such as whether respondents have children. He sent the survey out via Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid for it with a Grua-O’Connell Research Award from Bowdoin.

The survey received 3,000 responses from a diverse group of people around the country, from every state.

The analysis of his results so far points to some strong correlations between personality traits — specifically self-esteem and proneness to guilt and shame — and climate change attitudes.

  • One correlation that appears in the data is that people with a high proneness to guilt and shame not only tend to believe in climate change but also are taking the most actions to reduce their contribution to climate change.
  • The majority of people who reported low self-esteem also reported high levels of belief in climate change. But they reported that they were not taking actions to reduce their impact on climate change.
  • Interestingly, when you control for age, people with children are far more likely than their childless peers to believe in climate change. “My belief is that they had a stake in the future, they have children to worry about,” O’Connell said. “And because climate change is a long-term issue, they were more likely to believe in it and see it as a risk.” However, parents did not appear to internalize their climate change contributions and take action, perhaps, O’Connell surmises, because they tend to care about their family unit more than they care about society.
  • O’Connell additionally found that white men who identified as conservative are the least likely to acknowledge climate change’s reality. He attributed this to the fact that as the group that has historically reaped most of the benefits from our current social structures and energy exploitation, white men also have the most to lose if society has to restructure to combat climate change.
  • And while the majority of the respondents do believe in climate change, a smaller majority said they do not believe it poses a threat to people in the US or themselves. O’Connell said this is the a psychological block people must overcome.

O’Connell attributes his interest in this research topic to growing up in a conservative family while attending liberal-leaning schools — Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut and Bowdoin. “I have role models on both side of the political spectrum,” he said. “And trying to communicate about issues like climate change that are founded in facts but so politicized has been intriguing to me.”

After Bowdoin, he said he hopes to continue working in the environmental field, helping to shift the way we use energy and interact with our environment. His interdisciplinary research at Bowdoin, he added, will give him a foundation in navigating work that, in order to be successful, relies on changing people’s behaviors. “…Doing environmental consulting or trying to implement policy is hard without understanding how people respond to those policies,” he said.

8 thoughts on “Senior Digs Into the Psychology of Climate Change Denial

  1. beegdawg007

    I am amazed that those who engage in name calling in the name of science never seem to have actually studied any real data. There is so much out there that would make any open minded person question question the conclusions that the masses are being drawn to by a set of leftist believes which they can not defend. So, they instead hurl names in an attempt to disparage those who choose to debate them using real data.

    For instance, these “experts” do not even understand where their favorite argument – “97% of all scientists believe in AGW” – even came from and what it was that was really done to create this ridiculous meaningless argument. FYI, this bit of propaganda came from a pro-AGW site named skepticalscience.com. Go there and discover that these scientists actually said nothing. What happened was a group of AGW sympathizers reviewed 11,944 papers in the database. They than judged that 3693 or so of these touched on climate science. They then graded these papers based on their own WAG as to what the author’s position was. From this they deduced that 97 % supported the AGW notion. But here the whole truth is that all that they concluded was that 97% of these scientists were judged to believe that mankind was responsible for between only ZERO and half of the global warming which took place since 1800. In fact, they themselves concluded that only 65 of these papers expressly state the fact that man is likely responsible for most warming since 1900 while 75 papers state that they do not believe that mankind is responsible for any climate change. The bottomline of this study is this: The AGW sympathizers who graded these papers to guess at the author’s belief in their global warming mantra could only stretch their conclusion to state accurately that 97% of the authors of these papers would likely agree that man is responsible for between ZERO and half of the 1 deg C which has taken place since 1900. If you doubt this, go to the skepticalscience site yourself and look at the hard data from https://www.skepticalscience.com/tcp.php?t=search.

    Some of you, not many probably, but some of you will figure out how to use the data query tool provided. Most of you however will simply call me names because I understand this differently than they do and have chose not to blindly worship their false prophet.

    I wonder how many of these climate change wack-avists ever question “how it it” that they think they know what they think they know? Those wack-tavists that I have debated with seem to have never read even one real paper on climate change. Test this for yourselves and you will discover that they do not even know the bare basics of this such as; what percent of the atmosphere is CO2, or how CO2 is even supposed to work to warm the planet. If this describes you, than you should perhaps at least consider doing a minimum of research on your own before you start hurling names at those of us who have researched this and conclude differently than do you.

    I also wonder if these people who think they are doing good ever think about the damage that their participation in this group hysteria will cause the poorest of the poor. The guess of those pundits who venture a WAG is that it would take 50 years and $50 trillion to keep global warming within some arbitrary 2 deg C window they advocate. For a moment just think of all the good this $50 trillion could do if it were invested in truly needed efforts to better the conditions of the 3 billion poorest souls on this earth.

  2. Steve Heins

    “In all likelihood, the United States will live up to its Paris commitment, not because of the White House, but because of the private sector.”

    Erik Solheim, UN Energy Program chief

  3. Steve Heins

    “And the greatest arrogance of all: Save the planet. Save the planet, we don’t even know how to take care ourselves yet.”

    George Carlin

  4. Stephanie Johnson

    I think that this is a very good argument and must be discussed everywhere! No wonder why he majors and minors in what he does!

  5. Steven Plourde

    The evidence of climate change seems overwhelming. No one has yet convinced me that taxing/punishing American businesses out of existence will contribute a lick to addressing the issue — especially when two-thirds of the world’s population is exempt from doing anything according to the Kyoto & Paris “Accords”!

  6. Steven Plourde

    I like George Carlin’s comments above. Thank God that the private sector in the United States is consciously taking steps to help out. How about the private sector in the other 200 countries joining the movement?

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