How Perceived Disagreement on Climate Change is Impeding Sustainable Consumption

In a recent blog post, we used Greendex Survey data to show that those who do not experience the negative effects of climate change are also less likely to choose a sustainable lifestyle. In this post we aim to further explore the factors that may be delaying people’s likelihood of making more sustainable purchases.
In the final months of 2013, the Psychonomics Society hosted reputable philosophers and scientists to discuss the cognitive factors that underlie perceptions of human impact on climate change (also known as “anthropogenic climate change”). The group also determined what factors impede the public’s motivation to consume sustainably. The discussion was informative and inspiring.
One of the major factors proposed to impede sustainable consumption is the perceived disagreement between scientists on whether human behaviour is causing climate change. Teresa Myers from George Mason University, one of the speakers at the event, argues that this perceived disagreement arises due to a cognitive bias called the “continued influence effect”. This effect suggests that people continually rely on information that confirms their current beliefs, even if that information is wrong. The continued influence effect helps explain why 51% of Americans believe a debate exists between scientists (see graph below), despite the fact that 97% of climate researchers agree that humans are in fact causing climate change.

How do we mitigate this belief? Research presented during the symposia shows that developing evidence-based communication messages that promote agreement within the scientific community not only enhances trust in science, but also appears to promote consumer engagement on climate change, and minimize the well documented discrepancy between conservatives and liberals on issues related to global warming. Findings from the 2012 Greendex survey supports these claims, as shown in the graph below, with the countries that perceive an agreement between scientists on anthropomorphic climate change (notable the Chinese, Brazilians, Argentineans, and Mexicans), also willing to pay more for an energy-saving product if doing so is likely to promote energy cost savings in the long run. These countries also believe we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations.

But, here’s some food for thought: if 97% of scientists agree that human activity impacts climate change, should we continue to preoccupy ourselves with this debate and use this perceived discrepancy as a crutch for avoiding sustainable consumption? As shown in a graph published by NASA, a consensus exists between four respected international science institutions that global temperatures are rapidly rising, regardless of the cause. Perhaps rather than getting caught up in the question of whether human action contributes to global warming, we should instead be focused on the future by asking ourselves: how do we move forward in the era of a warming planet?

This post was written by former GlobeScan Senior Research Analyst, Dr. Melaina Vinski.