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Despite What We’ve Been Told, Majority Believes Climate Change is Happening in the Present.


A quick internet search for “climate change images” quickly yields the familiar photo of a lone polar bear on a shrinking block of ice. Despite hinting at an impending crisis, such images make climate change seem abstract — an event that is far away (for most of us), for animals we’ve probably never encountered.

The idea that climate change is perceived as “psychologically distant” – happening in the future, in distant places, to other people or animals – has long been presented as an important barrier to action on climate change.

Despite the intuitive appeal of this idea, new research published today in One Earth magazine of behavioral scientists from the University of Groningen is now challenging it. The authors argue that the psychological distance from climate change has been overestimated – according to their results, most people consider climate change to be “psychologically close”.

An overview of the evidence

To examine how widespread psychological distancing from climate change really is — and whether it could prevent climate action — the researchers systematically reviewed the available evidence.

First, they analyzed data from 27 polls from around the world – including China, the US, the UK, Australia and the EU – and found that most people view climate change as now and nearby. And this wasn’t just in recent polls. Data from if way back in 1997 indicated that nearly half of US respondents believed climate change was already underway.

Second, based on an analysis of past studies, they found people who view climate change as more distant not necessarily engage in fewer climate action. Indeed, some studies have shown that the opposite pattern. People who felt that climate change is affecting people in distant locations were more motivated to support climate action.

In short, the evidence for the idea that psychological distancing holds us back from climate action is very mixed.

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

As I wrote in an article about the new study, these results remind us of that evidence should always trump intuition when it comes to applying psychological theory. The conclusions also reverberate previous phone calls by me and colleagues to be careful about the relevance of psychological distance when it comes to climate action.

Polar bears became an early symbol of the devastating effects of climate change in the media.

So how should we communicate about the climate?

Climate communication strategies and guidelines from numerous different organizations have popularized the idea that climate change is perceived as psychologically distant.

Our own Australian Psychological Association recommends reducing the psychological distance by making the local impacts of climate change more visible. For example, by drawing attention to the increase in the number of extreme heat days in the city or region.

But when it comes to more climate action, is that good advice?

There is a trade-off between using psychological distance to attract attention and the idea that it provides a scientific explanation for why people don’t do something.

I have often used the idea of ​​psychological distance in conversations, and spoke to journalists about it, because it starts a conversation and can be a good way to address otherwise hard-to-reach audiences. But there is a risk of confusing the narrative appeal with the scientific underpinnings.

At worst, repeating ideas about psychological distancing can lead people to overestimate the extent to which others think climate change is psychologically distancing. In turn this action can demotivate. If everyone thinks this is a problem for the future, why should it be? i do something about it now?

Read more: For governments dependent on fossil fuels, climate action must start at home

We already know it’s here, let’s act now

Another implication is that advocacy groups and governments could waste effort on information campaigns aimed at reducing the psychological distance from climate change. If people know that climate change is near and now, why do we need to reinforce that idea?

Our efforts might be better spent building people’s belief that climate action can be taken (“self-efficacy”), and that those actions will be effective (“response effectiveness”).

This implies the need to make environmentally friendly actions, such as driving less or eating more plant-based foods, easier and cheaper. But it also emphasizes the need for structural and social changes that stimulate behavioral change: from offering subsidies for electric vehicles or sustainable energy installations to international agreements on CO2 emissions.

There is also a need to remind people of the moral necessity take action.

Read more: Climate change: media analysis in multiple countries shows basic science skepticism is dying out

Climate change has not come ‘closer’

There is no doubt that climate change is becoming more ‘real’ and more concerning for most of us. From 2018 to 2022, the number of Australians “very concerned” about climate change almost doubled, from 24% to 42%.

These attitude changes are almost certainly related to the Black Summer wildfires of 2019-20. But does explaining this shift as a reduction in psychological distance add anything to our scientific understanding?

The results of this new study strongly suggest that the answer is no. It’s time we stopped viewing psychological distancing as a barrier to action.

We know that climate change is affecting polar bears, but we also know that it is affecting us right now. Our efforts must now focus on behavioral change, both at the societal and individual levels.

Read more: Why attending a climate strike can change your mind (especially your own)

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