In August 1963, Martin Luther King began his speech to an enraptured audience. He spoke of injustice, tragedy and broken promises, then, as he moved through his script, there was a cry from the audience, “tell them about the dream Martin, tell them about the dream.”
As the clock ticks and we creep ever closer to a climate disaster of our own making, we must start asking ourselves some uncomfortable questions. Why is it, for example, that despite the overwhelming evidence for manmade climate change, many of us do not take action and worse still, some deny the reality of climate change altogether? It may come as a shock but it’s starting to look like humans cannot be trusted to behave entirely rationally. After all, what rational person would invest their hard-earned money in a lottery ticket, be more afraid of flying in a plane than the journey to the airport, or expect their housemates to clean up after themselves? When it comes to our attitudes towards climate change, some equally baffling psychological biases may also be at work.
Researchers from the University of California have investigated a phenomenon known as the ‘just-world belief’, a widely held and deeply ingrained conviction that the world is just, orderly and stable. The purpose of the research was to study whether individuals who held this belief were less likely to respond to dire messages about climate change since they threatened their strong convictions about a ‘just world’. Participants were first rated on their degree of conviction in a ‘just world’ and were later asked to read one of two articles about climate change. Both articles provided general scientific facts but while one of the articles concluded with dire warnings, the other concluded with a positive message highlighting possible solutions.
Fascinatingly, individuals with a high ‘just-world’ belief actually became significantly more sceptical about climate change when exposed to the dire warning message, while their scepticism was significantly reduced when exposed to the message which highlighted possible solutions. A second study, by the same researchers, went even further and simply primed individuals by exposing them to words related to either justice and fairness (‘just-world’ beliefs) or unpredictability and unfairness. Simply bringing notions of a ‘just world’ to mind was enough to lead to a significant increase in scepticism after participants were exposed to dire messages about climate change. The increase in scepticism was accompanied by a decrease in individuals’ willingness to change their lifestyle to reduce their carbon footprint.
These intriguing studies indicate that simply dishing out dire warnings about the effects of climate change may actually increase scepticism, even if those warnings are accurate, simply because they contradict deeply held beliefs. Alternatively, framing the climate change issue by highlighting solutions and opportunities for personal action may reduce scepticism and inspire more people to engage with the challenges we face. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage related to climate change swings wildly from dire warnings of death and destruction to conspiracy stories implying that climate change is a hoax. It is no wonder that many people uninspired and some are becoming more sceptical.
Returning to that great speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, Martin Luther King told people about the nightmare of discrimination and injustice but he didn’t stop there, in response to that cry from the crowd he uttered the immortal words, “I have a dream”. Setting out his inspiring vision for the future, he marked the defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement. The parallels are clear; perhaps it is time for a Martin Luther King moment in the fight against climate change.