Climate change and the burning question

Our planet is around one degree warmer than pre-industrial levels. And we're already witnessing the devastating effects of more extreme weather.

So what’s our problem?

In'The Burning Question' Mike Berners Lee and Duncan Clark identify the psychological and social barriers to tackling climate change. Here’s an edited extract.

An unbelievable problem

If you wanted to invent a problem to induce confusion, disbelief and the turning of blind eyes, it would be hard to come up with something better than climate change.

It’s caused by a build-up of gases we can’t see, smell or taste. The effects play out through a weather and climatic system that is by its nature unpredictable and variable.

Adding to the abstract nature of the problem is that the most dangerous impacts are many years away.

This mix of abstraction, complexity and long-term uncertainty provides the human mind with all the wiggle room it needs for avoiding or playing down the uncomfortable facts – and in some ways we might be innately predisposed to doing just that.

We like to see ourselves as rational creatures, but we’re often ready to buy into whatever is most comfortable or enjoyable to believe.

And most of us like to believe that the future looks rosy. Psychologists have been documenting these kinds of systematic biases in our thinking for decades.

Another psychological barrier to dealing with climate change is our tendency for short-termism. Some evolutionary biologists argue that this short-termism is just as hard-wired as our optimism bias.

Perhaps the most serious psychological barrier to tackling climate change is the way we interpret facts to support our values, prejudices and the expectation of our social groups. This trait is sometimes described as “confirmation bias”.

Eg, it’s convenient for people with libertarian political perspectives to see global warming as not being dangerous – as it avoids acknowledging the need for government regulation.    


For decades, many of those investing in oil, coal and gas use have pumped money into persuading people – especially in America – that climate change doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter or will be impossibly expensive to solve.

Parts of the up-market media regularly publish misleading material, eg:

  • editorial page of the “Wall Street Journal”
  • Christopher Booker’s column in the “Sunday Telegraph”
  • documentaries like Channel 4’s “Great Global Warming Swindle”.

An analysis by the US Union of Concerned Scientists found that Fox News was scientifically inaccurate on climate change 93% of the time. And the “Wall Street Journal” opinion page was misleading 81% of the time.

The mainstream media is also surprisingly negative towards the technologies that could replace fossil fuels.

A month's study of UK broadsheet and tabloid newspapers found that more than half of the articles covering the renewables industry were negative – and only 28% positive.

Similarly, the hit car show “Top Gear” has twice faked an electric car running out of power to make for a more entertaining storyline.

Social inertia

Humans are social creatures and the ways we act are significantly determined by what everyone else is doing.

As social psychologists point out - when a fire alarm goes off, we don’t look for smoke to determine whether to evacuate. We look to see whether anyone else is running for the door.

So when most people, politicians and businesses aren’t doing anything about climate change, we feel a natural reluctance to be the first to jump – even if we think it’s a good idea.

Is consumer culture a factor?

Many commentators believe that one reason we’re so reluctant to get engaged with climate change is that our culture has become so focused on consumption.

This not only drives up our carbon emissions, the argument goes, but also stops us engaging the big issues. 

Whether the desire to consume is partly innate, there’s no doubt that in various ways modern culture pushes us along – most obviously through advertising.

The evidence that advertising increases our consumption and carbon emissions - as opposed to redirecting our spending from one product to another - is “inconclusive” according to a report by the Public Interest Research Centre.

But common sense suggests the barrage of adverts promoting things such as inefficient cars or long-haul short breaks must be unhelpful.

Advertising reinforces values based on image and status - that could make people less likely to engage with a collective challenge like climate change.

Some senior people in the industry are surprisingly up-front about this.

Rory Sutherland, as President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, wrote: “I am much keener that we should accept the vast moral implications of what we all do and debate them openly rather than fudge the issue.”

That surely is a discussion worth having.

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