10 Things We Learnt From Reddit About Understanding Climate Change

Two professors of cognitive psychology – Stephan Lewandowsky, from the University of Bristol, and Klaus Oberauer, from the University of Zurich – did a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) this week.

The topic up for discussion was: “The conflict between our brains and our globe: How will we meet the challenges of the 21st century despite our cognitive limitations?”

Climate change was (unsurprisingly) brought up repeatedly. Here are 10 things we learnt about understanding climate change:

1. Climate change is a BIG problem

Let’s face it: even the most optimistic among us can be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what it means to tackle climate change. How can we push past this barrier?

I think [this is] a core problem about climate change: Even people who are willing to accept the scientific evidence are paralysed by the enormity of the task,” Lewandowsky said.

If you scare people without offering a solution then they manage their fear by denying the problem. So, the most important thing is to reinforce that there are solutions and that little steps do add up to something in the end. The situation is serious, yes, but in my view it is not hopeless.”

But what about the notion that yes, climate change exists, but we don’t need to worry because we’ll find ways to 'live with it'?

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There are certain aspects of climate change that will affect us all and “transcend boundaries,” Lewandowsky answered. This includes sea-level rise, extreme weather events such as flooding and drought, along with the spread of vector-borne diseases and mass migration.

But, as Lewandowsky explained: “There is evidence that if people construe climate change as something that affects them personally, they are more likely to take it seriously and act on the consequences.”

2. Trust the scientific consensus

Given many people may not have the time or scientific background to distinguish between misinformation and fact, one Reddit user asked: what’s the best way to have “a relatively logical opinion of things?”

Oberauer acknowledged that it can often be difficult to distinguish reliable information from propaganda, “given that the propagandists… are often very skilled at pretending to have all the features that characterise reliable information.”

So, what should we do? “On factual questions, I think by and large it is a good idea to trust scientists more than non-scientists,” Oberauer said, “and among the scientists, to trust the predominant consensus (if there is one) more than the maverick position.”

Why is this the best course of action? “That is because a broad consensus among scientists is most likely the result of converging opinions of very clever people who come from very different backgrounds (different personal interests, different biases and prejudices, different knowledge),” Oberauer explained. “It is extremely unlikely that the majority of scientists in a field could be biased or corrupted in the same direction.”

3. Talk about solutions and values

Many of us have been in the situation where a family member insists climate change isn’t real; that it’s just a silly hoax. What’s the best way to respond?

It is an extremely difficult situation and there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer,” said Lewandowsky. “Chances are, though, that [they] have made up their mind and are committed to their motivated cognition–that is, taking on their beliefs head-on is unlikely to be successful and may just result in anguish and frustration all around.”


Christine Westerback via Creative Commons

So instead, Lewandowsky recommends talking about solutions and values. For example, clean energy helps reduce pollution and thus respiratory diseases, which improves health and the chance to live longer. “So talking about a clean-energy future is often possible without mention of climate change – and indeed I have met people who love their solar panels and are dreaming of electric cars but think climate change is a hoax.”

He adds that there is some evidence pointing to how “Conservatives (who are most likely to oppose the findings from climate science) have strong values relating to ‘purity’, which entails a responsibility to look after the environment.”

4. Cognitive limitations do exist

As Oberauer explained: “The limited capacity of our cognition becomes manifest in many ways. One is that we can remember only a limited amount of new information (for instance, try to remember the names of 10 people newly introduced to you), and that there is a limit on the amount of information that we can juggle with in solving a problem (e.g., solving a complicated algebra problem without external aid such as paper and pencil).”

He continued: “Our research points to interference between mental representations as one major cause: Trying to keep many ideas in mind at the same time we risk that they interfere with each other.”

5. But these limitations can be overcome

While probabilities, and weighing risks, can be difficult to understand, Lewandowsky argues that “it is going too far to say that the brain isn’t capable of understanding probabilities.”

It is certainly true that people (sometimes) underestimate the probabilities of rare events,” he explained. “However, that does not need to prevent us from acting rationally: One of the great things about being human is that we can self-reflect and identify our own weaknesses and then take corrective action.”

(Recommended reading: Gigerenzer, G.; Gaissmaier, W.; Kurz-Milcke, E.; Schwartz, L. M. & Woloshin, S. Helping Doctors and Patients Make Sense of Health Statistics Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2008, 8, 53–96.)

6. Politics is a barrier

One Reddit participant raised the issue that when it comes to climate science, many of us aren’t skilled at understanding statistical probabilities, risks and margins of error, and subsequently, climate deniers can then use this to their advantage to sow seeds of confusion.

Lewandowsky agreed this can be a problem: “the very nature of climate data makes them susceptible to misleading interpretation by bad-faith actors.”

But he argued the broader issue is one of politics rather than statistical knowledge.

As he put it: “People also don’t understand lung cancer statistics and yet we were able to legislate tobacco control measures. In the same way, there is no reason why we couldn't also deal with climate change without everybody understanding the statistics.”

Lewandowsky also added that when it comes to politics and climate change, a person’s world view (ideology) can be a “powerful predictor of attitudes towards science.”

I can ask people 4–5 questions about the free market, and that tells me 66 per cent of the variance in their attitudes towards climate change. Nothing else that I know of comes even close.”

7. Understand personal bias

Are humans inherently biased towards personal gain? Well, sure. “If you want to motivate people, offering them a reward is usually a good idea!” Lewandowsky said. “However, that is far from the whole story.”

There is a plethora of research that shows that people are far more altruistic than classic economic theory expects.” (Recommended reading: Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. The nature of human altruism, Nature, 2003, 425, 785-791)

But let’s take this one step farther. Let’s look at those who receive funding from fossil fuel companies to undermine action on climate change, or those whose profits rely on fossil fuel extraction: how does cognitive bias play into their understanding/acceptance of climate science?

And, how does the mind reconcile  the two opposing things (fossil fuel extraction must continue in order to earn money, but it can't continue if action on climate change is taken)?


Pete Markham via Flickr

I think often those people appeal to ‘future wealth’ and ‘helping poor people in Africa’ to justify their actions,” Lewandowsky answered.

But politics aside, he argues this attitude is not a priori absurd or immoral. “It is indeed possible to construct economic scenarios that favour continued business as usual. In my view, those scenarios are flawed but they are not inherently absurd – they are, however, Trojan horses for moral travesties.

Specifically, the issue is whether the benefits of not cutting emissions now (i.e. lower petrol prices) are directed to the same people who later on pay the cost (e.g., from sea level rise). Now, it's quite clear to me that this will not happen: Western countries currently benefit disproportionately from Business as Usual, but the future cost of climate change will be borne by other countries. Thus, even seemingly ‘rational’ economic considerations can become highly unethical if they do not consider this fact.”

(Recommended reading: Singer, P. Climate Change: A Commentary on MacCracken, Toman and Gardiner Environmental Values, 2006, 15, 415–422; Posner, E. A. & Sunstein, C. R. Climate change justice The Georgetown Law Journal, 2008, 96, 1565–1612.)

8. Technology can help debunk misinformation

The internet is a source of endless information – and, with that, comes an infinite source of myths and misinformation. Countering it may seem impossible; this is where technology might be able to help.

For example, Google’s idea to rank websites based on facts when you search is one option Lewandowsky supports “in principle”.

Technology can also be used, in combination with social science, to identify “sock puppets” (a fake internet persona created by an unknown person) and “people who seek to scam online fora via multiple identities.” It can also be used to help keep trolls out of comment streams, Lewandowsky suggests.

As he explains: “There is evidence to suggest that comment streams are important and can unduly shape people's perception of an issue (i.e. not by the facts or arguments but by the emotive quality), and so this is a real challenge to deal with that’ll require both technology and clever social architectures.”

9. Nudge and inoculate

There have been many advances in understanding flaws in human rationality – one user asked: how do we prevent this from being exploited by propagandists?

Psychological knowledge can be exploited for good and for bad goals, just like any other scientific knowledge,” acknowledged Lewandowsky.

Concerning resistance to propaganda, we know from work on inoculation theory that warning people ahead of time can help them not be unduly swayed by propaganda”. (Recommended reading: Banas, J. A. & Rains, S. A. A Meta-Analysis of Research on Inoculation Theory Communication Monographs, 2010, 77, 281–311.)

He continued: “Another way in which we can ensure that psychological knowledge is used appropriately is by following the ‘nudge’ approach, which entails the design of choice architectures to nudge people's behaviour without removing their freedom of choice. Those architectures can be designed by free democratic debate (e.g., whether to opt in or opt out of organ donations).”

10. Dictatorships are not the answer

Do we need a more ‘totalitarian’ style government to enforce the policies needed to address climate change? Short answer: no.

Lewandowsky’s longer answer, however, turns the question on its head: “Concerning the future, I would be far more concerned about the totalitarianism that may threaten us if we do nothing about climate change.

Imagine the current number of refugees in the Mediterranean multiplied by a factor of 10 or 100: How much stress would that put on our democracies? Indeed, there is evidence that climate change and violent conflict are strongly associated… and violent conflict and democracy don’t exactly go together well.” (Recommended reading: Hsiang, S. M. & Burke, M. Climate, conflict, and social stability: What does the evidence say? Climatic Change, 2014, 123, 39–55.)

He continued: “By contrast, pricing externalities (by putting a price on carbon) is a trivial stressor for a functioning democracy.

So if we act before the problem becomes unmanageable then I see no conflict between climate mitigation and democracy – it is only if we leave it too late that we will have created a serious threat of totalitarianism by our inaction. Bottom line: to avoid totalitarianism, act on climate change now.”

I personally believe that to master future challenges we need a lot more democracy than less of it,” Lewandowsky added. “Whether we will achieve that is an open question but it’s ours to address and answer by our actions.”

Photo: Peter via Flickr