Too Much Doom & Gloom is Not Why People Stopped Believing in Climate Change


Photo: nosha, Flickr, CC BY-SA

While I do think it's true that we can overload on apocalyptic imagery in discussions and stories about climate change, that's not why people have stopped believing that it's real. A recent study from UC Berkeley purported to find that too much doom and gloom was turning people off to the very idea of global warming, because it "threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable." Faced with a concept that poses such a threat, people flat-out reject it, the paper argues. But that seems to be a lousy way to explain what's happening with climate change. We've seen a steady decline in the number of people who tell pollsters they believe in climate change -- those polls show numbers dropping from the 70s two or three years ago to the low 50s (or below) now. Not good. So what's the problem? If you subscribe to the takeaway of this study, then all that talk of rising sea levels and incoming droughts and more extreme storms threatened people so much that they simply refused to believe it. They went into denial.

But this struck me as suspicious, so I held off on posting about the Berkeley study. And a few other folks found the concept unlikely as well. As Dave Roberts points out over at Grist, the time when the most people believed in climate change was precisely during the height of the so-called 'doom and gloom' talk -- the time when popularity of Al Gore's film Inconvenient Truth was at a peak, and surrounding press hoopla was consistently delving into the scary impacts of climate change.

Now, in the years since the frenzy over climate change, the discourse has come to be dominated by far less scary topics like clean energy, green jobs, and climate politics. And that's when belief started dropping off. Think about it -- you'd be hard pressed to find any truly scary stories about climate change impacts in the mainstream media over the last year or two. The MSM has bought the narrative that the public thinks it exaggerated climate change, and now only presents occasional, tepid coverage -- at best.

So what's really to blame? I think Roberts has it right:

the explanation seems simple enough: the economy has been in the tank and partisanship has been on the rise. This study indicates that people's acceptance of climate change tends to rise and fall with the economy. And as the latest from Pew and Gallup make clear, the vast bulk of the shift in climate change attitudes since 2008 has come from a dropoff among conservatives (and conservative-leaning independents). The economy plus partisanship.
That pretty much explains it. The narrative of the doom and gloom being too much for folks to handle may be more exciting, and provide some interesting fodder for debate -- and the study may indeed reveal some pertinent insights into human psychology -- but the reason poll numbers gauging American belief in climate change have dropped appears to be much more straightforward.

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