Cli-Psy: Why We Find It So Hard to Accept Climate Change Facts

Candice Gaukel Andrews December 23, 2014 17
Climate change headlines

Despite years of news reports and increased warnings about the dangers of rapid climate change, we humans have yet to address the problem in any meaningful way. ©From “It’s Okay To Be Smart,” PBS Digital Studios

There’s an old story—which started in the 1970s—still going around about the growing human influence on Earth’s warming climate and the dire consequences that are sure to result from the buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In fact, people, like me, have been writing about it for years.

I don’t mean to put a buzzkill on your holidays. But as we approach the end of yet another year with no significant strides in dealing with the problem, it might be useful to examine why we have failed to take meaningful actions to abate what ultimately will probably turn out to be humanity’s biggest and most important challenge.

In this Age of Us, which scientists are now calling the Anthropocene, Earth’s operating systems are increasingly falling within our sphere of influence. In the years since the first climate change studies, circa 1979, average global temperatures have increased by about one degree Fahrenheit. As a result, the Arctic ice cap has shrunk by nearly half; the subtropics have migrated toward the poles; coastal storms have become more destructive; and in the American West, millions of acres of forests have been killed off by warming-related pest infestations. Just a few months ago, in May 2014, scientists reported that a large segment of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun to irreversibly melt, which will eventually raise global sea levels by four feet. Yet decade after decade, we continue to just watch and wait.

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that our climate is getting warmer. ©From “It’s Okay To Be Smart,” PBS Digital Studios

According to Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, scientists overwhelmingly agree that our climate is changing, Earth is getting warmer, sea levels are rising, and it’s primarily because of humans putting tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, only 42 percent of Americans believe that “most climate scientists think global warming is happening.”

This blocking out of the facts has resulted in a new field of study called “Cli-Psy.” In the video below, which is a segment from “It’s Okay To Be Smart” from PBS Digital Studios, host Joe Hanson, Ph.D., explains what psychologists and sociologists have found out about why some still refuse to believe in climate science.

As Dr. Hanson says in the video, we humans have a “finite pool of worry, and climate change isn’t allowed in the water.” But with September 2014 being the 355th month in a row that was hotter than the 20th-century average, we may want to unpadlock that pool gate.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Phillip Tureck - FRGS January 25, 2015 at 5:35 pm - Reply

    Climate change is all around us and is becoming more erratic, I am here in Montana and they are talking about the relatively mild winter in some of these towns. After I have been out in Yellowstone I will let you know if I think it is not cold.

  2. Govind Bharad January 25, 2015 at 12:04 am - Reply

    Interesting way to discuss about climate change.
    Some people may or may not agree; but the fact remains that, we will have face the effects. Thus, we must tink of precautionary measures, as well as corrective measures and act on those.

  3. Dennis Williamson December 30, 2014 at 8:16 am - Reply

    Thanks for this one, Candice. Very good!

  4. Frank Volkers December 25, 2014 at 9:53 am - Reply

    And now I am asking myself: “How am I dealing with climate change?”

  5. Elize Cloete December 25, 2014 at 9:52 am - Reply

    Very interesting and enlightening, thank you. So now we know why, the next question is how to overcome the apathy.

  6. Sinnadurai Sripadmanaban December 25, 2014 at 9:50 am - Reply

    Dead corn/rice stalks,dead leaves etc could be pelletised as fuel for homes & boilers without using fossil fuels.

  7. Paul Looney December 25, 2014 at 9:49 am - Reply

    This is one of the most informative videos about the psychology behind climate change denial I have seen…actually the only one. As I have stated in several of my posts on this subject, I am not a climatologist.

    I find it interesting and informative that the talking heads behind not accepting climate change are such eminent scientists as Sean Hannity, Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, and all of the other “climate experts” paraded in front of a gullible nation. Sorry, I am going to include Al Gore here as well. While I think he was well meaning, I believe his message became a bit too emotional and less rational.

    I do not see any complete denial of some change…even the “climate deniers” posit their positions in terms of ” we are not causing it.” Few are of the opinion that nothing is happening.

    We are splitting hairs on an important issue. The goal should no longer be who is right, something many scientists are determined to establish. It should be more geared toward providing means for changing behavior and reasons why.

    Economic incentives, like the now retreating price of gasoline, actually got many people to purchase more fuel efficient cars. High natural gas prices made people work toward lowering their winter heating bills by establishing more insulated abodes.

    Now with both of those incentives temporarily going away, what is the incentive? We seem to be swayed more by what is easy or what requires less thought or personal commitment.

    It was a depressing but true image in the video to see young people looking bored or inattentive to news reports about climate change. Sad but true. Scientists are not making the impact that we should be making. Maybe because we are not getting across the idea of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Remember the ridicule that Donald Rumsfeld endured when using similar terminology about the middle east war?

    People who are not educated in the sciences need to somehow learn to accept scientific uncertainty while understanding the issue being described. That is the challenge for us as scientists.

    Making personal changes and living like we mean it is a first step. Next we need to make science a priority for the nation to provide the minds that will help us overcome the coming problems that will be a part of our children’s lives in a very personal way.

    It could be that we just need to see the pundits raised with the idea of a limitless world with limitless resources slowly become part of the reluctant fringe.

    One of the good parts of the film was that there is a general belief by more than half of the people that climate change is real and that something needs to be done. That is our hope for the near future.

  8. Steven Weaver December 25, 2014 at 9:48 am - Reply

    I wish that they would give us some published and peer reviewed evidence for their claims. The statement about the Western US being 1 degree warmer on a month by month basis since 1979, I had not seen before. In 1979 the revered Carl Sagan was leading an alarmist movement about the New Ice Age. Most climate change models seem to be based on either the warm decade of the 1980s, or the .5 degree annual rise in average temps since 1905. This article seems to raise more questions than it answers. I had not heard about the dead cornstalks and dead leaves raising the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, but the author seems to say that this is a seasonal thing and actually refers to the recuperative powers of the earth and atmosphere; a big no no for climate change scientists to admit. In fact this is a natural process which returns nutrients to the soil, and the leaves would fall off of the trees if man was here or not. Each acre of land out west here would have something decomposing and adding nutrients to the land whether it was ancient forest, tall grass prairie, wetland, or desert. I guess I missed the point. Please help me Candice! The world was starving so scientists created a way to feed the world with more corn grain etc. Now we are being told that this is bad and we should have local food. That has been tried all over the world and proven to have failed in most places.

  9. David H. Davis, Certified Wildlife Biologist ® December 25, 2014 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Have heard of optimism and confirmation bias, but not P.A.I.N. or at least I have never heard of it summed up so well.

  10. Len Rosen December 25, 2014 at 9:41 am - Reply

    I think it is obvious why people struggle with the issue of climate change. Anything that creeps up on you, that is insidious, produces little sense of urgency on the part of the viewer. Remember the Indian Ocean tsunami. People watched the sea recede. People could see a change along the horizon. But it was still in the distance. It was only when it actually struck that they began to run away.We see extreme weather events and catalog them along with past extremes. After awhile we rationalize these rare events as being just the weather. When a storm surge creeps further up the beach we seldom see the damage for long because someone comes along a dumps more sand to hide the evidence. So the facts on the ground disappear.

    Yesterday I wrote about Miami Beach and its climate change strategy. They are building a stormwater system but to fund it they need tax revenue which cities in Florida get from property taxes. So they are issuing permits for more beachfront condos to get $300 million for the project. Now how crazy is that when all the studies done on Florida show rising sea levels as being among the greatest threats to cities like Miami Beach? See:

    We humans are the frog in the pot on the stove set on simmer. We choose to ignore the evidence put forth by the human minds studying the science while the water in the pot heats up.

  11. Sinnadurai Sripadmanaban December 25, 2014 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Man won’t accept anything which hams(no rain,sea level rise,famine etc) him,this is nature even for other life forms..

  12. WILLIAM DAVIS, P.E December 25, 2014 at 9:37 am - Reply

    Answer is actually very simple – no one wants to accept the fact that mankind may have an impact on something that big and as a freind said follow the money.
    If climate impact is true where does that put many major companies and thier big dollar stock holders.

  13. Russell Pickett December 25, 2014 at 9:36 am - Reply

    The climate is always changing and has for billions of years.

  14. Tom Dietz December 24, 2014 at 7:30 am - Reply

    I find this very frustrating. All the psychology cited is correct and is nicely summarized. But the report seems to just randomly pick well established pieces of psychology and assert that this is what explains why we have low acceptance of climate change. These are hypotheses that need to be tested –something hard to do with the limited funding available for environmental social science. And when it comes to the efforts promote climate change denial, the report moves from the peer reviewed literature to speculative journalism. Google Scholar Aaron McCright, for example, and you will see there is a very strong and substantial literature on the efforts to keep policy uninformed by science.

  15. Teresa Lees December 23, 2014 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    How shall we educate the young so as not to leave them running scared or worse – apathetic? If we don’t teach the facts then do we teach the young to have an emotional response instead?

  16. Bobbi Beyer December 23, 2014 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    Interesting video. To ignore climate change is to be blind.

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