Cognitive Barriers to Understanding Climate Change

In 2018, a World Bank Report stated that the effects of climate change would reduce the standard of living of almost half of India’s population. Farmer incomes were estimated to reduce by 20-25%. Global carbon emissions went up to an all-time high and the duration of heat waves increased globally. In light of these alarming changes, one would expect for individuals and governmental policies to push towards positive change. However, the extent of pro-environmental behaviour and change seems to be unsatisfactory. In this article, I explore the cognitive barriers to understanding climate change as potential reasons for lack of positive action. 

Pro-environmental behaviour can be understood as actions and behaviours that directly or indirectly protect or preserve one’s environment or natural surroundings. This could include, but is not limited to, taking conscious steps to reduce personal energy consumption, changing one’s diet to eat more sustainably or reducing waste production. Within environmental psychology, there exist several frameworks that attempt to identify and understand the relationships between environmental awareness and pro-environmental behaviours. 

Early Linear Models adopted a straightforward approach to understanding thought and behaviour. These models proposed that awareness of environmental issues would directly lead to pro-environmental behaviour. However, this assumption was falsified when research found that attitudes and behaviours can be, and often are, inconsistent with each other. In the 1970s, as theories of planned behaviour came about, human behaviour began being understood as rational and methodical. As a result, a number of variables were identified as mediating between thought and action in the environmental context. Along with possession of information about environmental issues, it was found that individuals require an awareness of possible action pathways as well as the belief that their actions can actually make a positive impact. Other variables that indirectly affected the relationship between thought and action included a sense of personal responsibility and verbal communication about committing to pro-environmental action. 

However, the concept of climate change in itself poses several barriers to human cognition. To begin with, several environmental problems relate to long-term effects and changes. These changes are abstract to the common man. The intangibility of several environmental changes makes it imperceptible to people. Since the average person would miss subtle changes in their environment, he has no concrete understanding of climate change to begin with. Instead, he depends entirely on secondary information in order to learn about it. Only very specific images or symbols are sometimes able to elicit strong emotional responses from people. For instance, in November 2018, images and videos of the poaching of Rhinos were widely circulated across social media platforms because they were graphic and displayed the violence that such poaching involved. These images garner an emotional response because of their sensitive and provocative nature. Most environmental issues are also incredibly complex and layered. Since the layperson lacks a basic understanding of Environmental Sciences, he can only comprehend these issues in a simplified form. Again, this reduces individual engagement with, and sufficient comprehension of, the nature of the issues at hand. Research has shown that people tend to have positive expectations of their lives. This is why, when negative events take place, they have a much more intense effect on people than a positive event of a comparable scale. This is called the negativity bias. If people tend to have positive expectations of their lives, anticipating potentially life-threatening natural calamities and environmental changes would lie out of their realm of possibility. As Amitav Ghosh rightly says in his non-fiction book “The Great Derangement”- climate change is not just a crisis of the environment, but also a crisis of human imagination. 

Additionally, it has been found that people learn more and better from first-hand experiences than from secondary sources of information. The Construal Level Theory explains this by saying that human beings can only directly experience events occuring in their present. Every other event essentially needs to imagine or “construed” by them. Experiencing an event firsthand allows for an environment rich in sensory stimulations and thus creates stronger visual images and memories of the event. The paradox lies in the fact that comprehending climate change requires us to imagine and anticipate that which we may never directly experience. It calls for a comprehension of gradual changes that would affect generations to come. In order to accurately understand the long-term effects of climate change, individuals would be faced with the challenging task of mentally construing vivid and contextual images of the same. Doing so requires extensive knowledge of what those changes would look like and how they would feel- information that the layperson does not have. Thus, imagining future changes calls for heavy usage of cognitive resources.

Studies on public understandings of climate change constantly emphasize the need to highlight the more immediate effects of climate change as a strategy to garner attention and positive responses from the readers or audience. One such study exposed participants to two environmental awareness posters- one that contained information about the wider effects of climate change and another that contained information about effects specific to their area of residence. It was found that participants were more willing to address the issue of climate change when exposed to the latter poster as compared to the former one. Several similar studies have been conducted to analyse and compare people’s responses to climate change when it is framed locally and globally. However, none of these studies have been able to provide a conclusive significant difference in participant engagement with climate-related issues. 

The Construal Level theory argues that different levels of perceived distance from such threats affects people’s mental representations of the threat as well as the factors they consider when thinking about the threat. According to this theory, when events or behaviours are presented as occurring in the near-future, people tend to focus more on concrete, situation-specific aspects. On the other hand, when they are presented as occurring in the distant future, people are more likely to focus on more abstract aspects like personal values and orientations. Environmental writing, documentation, and activism call for one fundamental understanding- that the world is more than us and there are multiple species that contribute to the biodiversity of this planet. In order for people to reach this realisation and act accordingly, their larger values and orientations need to be appealed to. However, as stated in this theory, if the immediate effects of climate change are constantly emphasized, people will overlook their broader values, and focus instead on more specific concerns. These could be minor, practical details like whether or not changing their behaviours would be convenient in their present situation, what the situation would demand of their current schedule and functioning and the physical effort or time constraints changing their behaviours would entail. This would take away from the broader values of harmony between man and nature, and the acknowledgement of biodiversity and non-human agency, all of which are important pillars of the climate change narrative. 

Environmental narratives determine how people understand and engage with their surroundings. From the research outlined earlier, it seems like having a comprehensive and integrated narrative of the environment is the only way forward. This narrative must integrate environmental issues with economics, food, lifestyle, health, and industry to emphasize climate change as a public concern, as well as a personally relevant issue. Although focusing on local contexts seems like the answer, the above outlined research indicates no such conclusive results. It might help instead to emphasize that local and global contexts are not independent of each-other. It is, after all, human action in several local contexts that has led to a global level crisis. Understanding how climate change is interwoven with other aspects of human life across the globe could help create a strong narrative to encourage pro-environmental behaviour.

Arundhati Ail