Psychological distance is not essentially a barrier to local weather motivation — watts with that?

Essay by Eric Worrall

The Australian Psychological Society argues that psychological distance can be a barrier to climate action. But UNSW professor Ben Newell counters that the evidence is unclear.

Most people already think climate change is “here and now,” despite what we’ve been told

Published: Apr 22, 2023 1:01 am AEST
Ben Newell
Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Director of the UNSW Institute for Climate Risk and Response, UNSW Sydney

A review of the evidence

To examine just how pervasive psychological detachment from climate change really is—and whether it might prevent climate action—the researchers systematically reviewed the available evidence.

First, they analyzed data from 27 opinion polls from around the world – including China, the US, the UK, Australia and the EU – and found that most people perceive climate change as now and near. And not just in the last polls. Data from 1997 shows that nearly half of US respondents believe climate change is already happening.

Second, based on an analysis of previous studies, they found that people who perceive climate change as more distant do not necessarily do less climate change mitigation. In fact, some studies have shown the opposite pattern. People who felt climate change was affecting people far away were more motivated to support climate action.

In short, the evidence supporting the idea that psychological distance is keeping us from climate action is very mixed.

Third, after examining 30 studies, the team found very little evidence that experiments aimed at changing people’s perceptions of the psychological distance of climate change actually increase their climate action. For example, studies in which people watch videos about the effects of climate change in local and distant locations do not show that these people have different intentions to engage in environmental behavior.

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I suspect the hidden variable clouding the evidence is how informed and intelligent their test subjects are.

A tinderbox waiting for a spark – photo 5 minutes from my home.

For example, if I participated in a climate psychology study and saw a film that claimed that climate change is making wildfires more common in my area, I wouldn’t be persuaded by the climate argument, I’d be angry at trying to take blame for incompetent land management to avert. My reaction to the film being shown by psychologists or climate propagandists would be tempered by my personal knowledge of local conditions. The hidden variable in my case would be my awareness of the poor local efforts to reduce fuel pollution and mitigate fire risk, and the futility of trying to reduce fire risk by intensifying irrelevant green activities like more conscientious recycling of household waste.

On the other hand, if I were a climate believer, an image of a suffering polar bear would be just as likely to trigger me as a much more immediate and personal alleged climate issue. If I were a believer, if I were already inclined to view climate propaganda films through the lens of a prejudice that most weather disasters are evidence of the unfolding climate catastrophe, I would see both distant and personal images alike as compelling evidence that we run away from time.

The only real solution to making all this climate propaganda work is to remove the hidden variable, squash skeptical voices, stop attempts to provide alternative explanations for supposed climate catastrophes like the increased risk of wildfires. But alarmists already know that, so they keep trying to censor us. Alarmists have publicly admitted that they cannot win as long as anyone is allowed to publicly contradict their narrative.

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