Moving past climate denial

Katharine Hayhoe
Deniers feel that the impacts of climate breakdown don’t matter, but the solutions pose an imminent threat, new research shows.


Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent Canadian climate researcher and political science professor, based in Texas, argues that the crux of winning people over on climate change is not so much about battling with climate science deniers as it is about overcoming a wide aversion to perceived solutions.

Hayhoe announced on her UK tour last week: "“Frankly I don’t care if we all agree on the science!”

Her team's research suggests that people reject or fail to act on the science of climate change because they misunderstand the extent of the impact that climate change itself, and the solutions, will have on their lives. 

Solution aversion

Hayhoe told a Bristol audience last Friday that she’s stopped caring whether people believe the science or not. Instead, she encouraged people to move away from believing the solutions consist of things that are “unpalatable and unpleasant.”

Crucially, what matters is showing everyone that they can be part of the solution and that the necessary changes will improve their lives.

Giving a speech at the Cabot Institute, Hayhoe highlighted how she thinks we should be tackling social attitudes and how to move away from endlessly attempting to explain the science to people who don’t want to listen and instead look at achieving action and beneficial solutions that people will welcome, regardless of beliefs. 

She highlighted interesting social research on climate change denial, and how rejecting the problem of climate change comes down to peculiar demographic factors, a fear of the unknown and a problem of ‘solution aversion.’  

She listed examples of frequent but extreme accusations that she is confronted with by deniers and those resistant to moving away from fossil fuel driven economies: “We are told that solving climate change will destroy the economy and let the communists and socialists run the world. Worst case scenario: that the United Nations is led by the Anti Christ! That’s not a joke - I get emails that literally say that!"

Threat meter

Hayhoe continued: “We are told that tackling climate breakdown will allow China to destroy the United States’ technological capacity and leadership, which frankly they are already doing in the clean energy sector. 

“We are told these things and we are also told we can only fix climate breakdown if we stop having any children, if we never travel again, if we all go vegan, and a whole host of things which, for many people, are not acceptable. 

“Our threat meter is unbalanced, we feel that the impacts don’t matter, but the solutions pose an imminent threat. And that is what drives our rejection of the problem.”

Hayhoe also quoted research from the 2018 US National Assessment on Climate Change, which showed strong positive correlations between areas of global poverty and the worst predicted climate change impacts.

However there appeared to be a low level of belief among those in countries with lower predicted impacts that they would be personally affected. 

Science literacy 

In a separate study carried out in 2018 on British social attitudes to climate change, whilst around 90 percent of people responding to research questions said they believed climate change was happening, less than 40 percent believed it was caused by humans, and less than 30 percent said they were worried about it, Hayhoe revealed.

And it’s not about level of education. Hayhoe’s team found that apathy over climate change is often surprisingly and wrongly attributed to education level: “We conducted a study to test this account and found no support for it.

"Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.”

In contrast to those perceptions, Hayhoe said: “Climate change isn’t a distant issue any more. It’s affecting every single one of us, in every part of the US, across almost every sector.’’

“Frankly I don’t care if we agree on the science, at this point, as long as we can agree on the solutions, and agree that clean energy is good, it helps our economy, it improves energy, it cleans up our air pollution, it doesn’t use any water - which is a very important issue in Texas where I live - and it brings home the cheque."

Dangerous myths

Hayhoe added: “And studies have shown that when people are actually invested in a part of the solution then all of a sudden the science isn’t such a big deal any more. In fact they might even be willing to agree with it because they are part of the solution already.

“I don’t think changing people’s mind about the science is nearly as effective as changing people’s minds about the solutions - explaining the positive, beneficial outcomes. The biggest thing I learned from the US National Climate Assessment process is how we interact with information.”

Katharine noted that in Texas, where she works as a climate researcher at Texas Tech University, a large number of people still don’t believe climate change is caused by humans, despite an increase in the intensity of extreme weather events, but they are nevertheless more receptive to hearing how solutions will improve their lives:

“Where I live is already naturally most at risk because we get pretty much everything - ice storms, blizzards, hail, severe thunderstorms, dust storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, heatwaves, floods!” 

Showing social research evidence from the Assessment, she pointed out: “The most dangerous myth we’ve bought into is that climate change is a distant issue, only affecting future generations and places that are far away:

“Climate change is not a distant issue for the US any more, but is now affecting virtually all US citizens in some way, across almost every sector.”

This Author 

Alex Morss is a freelance ecologist, writer, editor and educator and one of Avon Wildlife Trust's Wildlife Champions.

Image: Katharine Hayhoe. 

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