Most people in denial over climate change, according to psychologists

Most people in denial over climate change, according to psychologists

The majority of people in Britain are in denial about the risk of global warming in our lifetimes, according to a new study into the psychology of climate change.

By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent
Published: 12:01AM BST 03 Oct 2009

The Met Office has warned that if the world continues to burn fossil fuels at the current rate temperatures will rise above four degrees C in the next fifty years.

This will cause sea level rise, droughts, floods and mass collapse of eco-systems.

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However Clive Hamilton, Professor of public ethics at the Australian National University, said the majority of the population is still in denial about the risks of climate change.

He compared the situation to the psychology of the British and German populations before the Second World War and said the only way to make people change their behaviour is to “ramp up the fear factor.”

Prof Hamilton applied traditional psychological reactions to the threat of future risk.

In a paper presented to an Oxford University conference this week, he said people react in three different ways to a frightening situation: denial, apathy or action.

In the case of climate change, he said a minority of people in Britain are in complete denial and refuse to believe man-made greenhouse gases are causing the temperatures to rise. He said a smaller minority are taking action by lobbying Government and adapting their lifestyles through driving less, not eating meat and generally living a low carbon lifestyle.

However, Prof Hamilton said the majority of people use “maladaptive coping strategies” such as ignoring the situation, blaming someone else or simply having a good time.

He said people do this to cope with the anxiety.

“This means telling ourselves the scientists are probably exaggerating – if it was that bad surely the Government would be doing something,” he said. “Or telling ourselves it is a long way off so I will worry about it then or if I change my light bulbs it will not be my fault. It can mean blaming other people like the Chinese for building more coal-fired power stations or pleasure seeking by driving fast cars, eating exotic food and living the high life.”

Prof Hamilton said scientists have played down the risks of global warming for fear of overloading people with information.

“There is a widespread belief in the scientific community that the public cannot handle the truth and so they have been pulling their punches. Global warming is unique amongst environmental problems – which are often exaggerated – in that it is now clear that the scientists have been understating the true implications.”

In December more than 190 countries will meet in Copenhagen to try to thrash out a new international deal on climate change. For any agreement to be struck it is likely that rich countries will have to agree to cut carbon emissions by consuming less energy.

Prof Hamilton said scientists now have a duty to inform the public about the risks of climate change so action is taken and people are ready to adapt their lifestyles.

“There is a view we should not scare people because it makes them go down their burrows and close the door but I think the situation is so serious that although people are afraid they are not fearful enough given the science,” he said. “Personally I cannot see any alternative to ramping up the fear factor.”


~ by Cory Morningstar on October 3, 2009.

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