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The scientific evidence that human behaviour leads to climate change is overwhelming. Yet, there is still a small group of people who do not believe climate change is real or bad for us. How to explain this denial of climate science and how can we best deal with this? Social psychologist Bastiaan Rutjens and communication researcher Robin Tschötschel both study people’s reaction to climate science. ‘These small pockets of people who reject the scientific evidence for climate change keep the idea alive.’

man sticks his head in the sand

Robin Tschötschel is a PhD candidate at the Department of Communication Science and studies media coverage of climate change in the US and Germany. He has done a survey experiment testing how people respond to messages about scientific consensus. Bastiaan Rutjens is assistant professor at the Psychology department with a main research interest in the psychology of science. Rutjens studies attitudes towards science and why people distrust science in areas like climate change.

What do we know about the numbers of people who believe climate change is not real?  

‘When looking at this type of skepticism we see differences between the US and European countries’, starts Tschötschel. ‘In most of the European countries - especially in Western European countries like the Netherlands, Germany and France - a very small minority believes climate change is not real or bad for us, usually around ten percent. This number has been pretty stable in the past five years, if not decreasing. In the US, 30 % of the population think global warming is due mostly to natural changes in the environment. This number has been relatively stable throughout the Trump presidency, but it is still hard to say where the trend will go because the Biden presidency hasn't lasted so long yet.’

Bastiaan Rutjens
Copyright: UvA
Low numbers do not mean climate skepticism is not a problem anymore Bastiaan Rutjens

‘My research supports this picture that climate skepticism is quite low and stable or slightly decreasing’, adds Rutjens. ‘That also goes for many other forms of science skepticism, with the exception of skepticism about Genetically Modified Food, which is substantially higher.’ But this does not mean that climate skepticism is no longer a problem argues Rutjens. ‘These small pockets of people who reject the scientific evidence for climate change can be vocal enough to keep the idea alive and exert influence. We also find them among politicians and political parties who are strongly motivated to uphold this belief that climate change is maybe just natural fluctuation.’

Why do people so strongly reject scientific evidence for climate change?

‘People are typically motivated to not accept the scientific evidence because it clashes with their interests and political ideologies’, explains Rutjens, ‘like free market ideologies and political conservatism. So you see more climate skepticism on the right side of the political spectrum, especially in the US, Canada and Australia. In the Netherlands you still see it among parties like Forum for Democracy.’

Robin Tschötschel
Copyright: Robin Tschotschel
We should also look at skepticism about how to respond to climate change Robin Tschötschel

‘There is another dimension of skepticism we should take into account here’, continues Tschötschel, ‘namely “response skepticism”. People can be skeptical how much needs to be done against climate change, even when they believe climate change is real. When you support a free market ideology or are opposed to “big government” action, you might not want a substantial transformation of the economy in reaction to climate change, but prefer the status quo regardless, or think technology will solve the problem with little change necessary.’

‘We should indeed distinguish between rejecting the scientific evidence in the case of climate change versus debate about the best way to combat the problem’, agrees Rutjens. ‘Progressives find it easier to think about change and to accept that big transitions are needed than people with a more conservative outlook.’

Does communicating about scientific consensus help?

‘In the US and other Anglophone countries there is good evidence that communicating messages about scientific concensus boosts peoples beliefs in climate science and their support for policies and behavioural change’, tells Tschötschel. ‘But in Germany people don't really respond to such messages. Most people’s beliefs are already quite high and the group that is still skeptical is not so easily influenced.’

‘The group of people who are on the fence and find it hard to make up their minds would probably be influenced by consensus messages, but this middle group is shrinking now that most people believe climate change is real ’, adds Rutjens. ‘So we are left with an extreme and fringy group not accepting climate change and probably not being that open to any type of influence whatsoever.’

‘This vocal minority is partly so influential because the media and politicians, but also we as scientists, pay a lot of attention to them’, warns Tschötschel, ‘A relevant question is if we should try to convince the last fanatics or better focus on the large majority and how to help translate their existing concern about climate change into political action?’

Are there other instruments we can use?

‘We basically see two problems concerning science rejection’, explains Rutjens. ‘One is that rejection is triggered by different ideologies, worldviews and beliefs, depending on the domain of science. As a result there is not much overlap in who are skeptical across the spectrum and these ideologies and worldviews are hard to change. The other problem is that providing people with more information is often not sufficient and in some cases more knowledge can even backfire.’

Psychological distance is a mechanism we can actually change Bastiaan Rutjens

‘What we can do is finding dynamics that we can actually change. We are currently studying the effect of psychological distance, the distance people feel towards science in time, space, socially and conceptually (i.e., science is too abstract). We have created a scale that measures general psychological distance to science and this scale helped to predict science skepticism over and beyond domains and ideologies and worldviews. A first set of experiments shows that manipulations in which we reduced psychological distance – making science feel closer to their personal lives -led people to voice less skepticism.’

‘Ingroup messengers — people that an audience can directly relate to — seem to play a role in bridging political gaps’, adds Tschötschel. ‘For example, we found that when a member from an extreme right party would say climate change is real, people who support this party tend to more strongly agree with climate science. Still, they would most likely not see the need to shut down the coal plants.’

When people feel part of the solution, they will be more receptive for the message of sustainable transitions Robin Tschötschel

‘For many people climate change is still an abstract problem’, continues Rutjens, ‘that doesn't really impinge on their personal life. We should avoid that we only offer solutions to people that will change their lives in such a way that it creates new, very concrete problems. For example, getting unemployed because you work in the wrong industry.’ ‘Yes, if you are offered a way to make the car industry sustainable or to produce other transportation technologies and feel part of the solution, you will be more receptive for the message of sustainable transitions, than when your job is just shut down’, concludes Tschötschel.

Dr. B.T. (Bastiaan) Rutjens

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Social Psychology

R.S. (Robin) Tschötschel MSc

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Political Communication & Journalism