In the most recent edition of Nature Climate Change, Ezra Markowitz has a great article on our weak moral intuitions about climate change. Why do we fail to act? From Markowitz’s blog post summarizing the findings:
1) First, for most people, climate change is a complex, distant (for now) and abstract phenomenon; as a result, it tends to produce fairly limited emotional reactions in people, starving the moral judgment system of the emotional input that it relies on.
2) Second, the moral judgment system is finely tuned to recognize specific types of moral transgressions, such as intentionally performed actions that cause harm to identifiable victims; yet as the philosopher Dale Jamieson and others have argued, climate change lacks many of these features: its victims are by-and-large strangers or not yet alive and it is a side-effect of modern life, not something anyone is intentionally trying to cause (there is no single moustache-twirling villain we can blame).
3) Third, Americans (in particular) are exposed to a lot of messages blaming them for causing climate change, many of which seem designed specifically to make people feel guilty; yet we are highly motivated to view ourselves as good, moral people. To maintain such positive self-assessments, people engage in a host of motivated moral reasoning techniques, many of which operate outside of conscious awareness. The net result is that instead of changing either their views of themselves as good or their harmful behaviors, people tend to reject those messages of blame and the issue behind them.
4) Fourth, uncertainty regarding the timing, severity, and location of future climate change impacts provides room for overly optimistic beliefs about the issue, allowing individuals to avoid feeling obligated to do something about the problem until the uncertainties are resolved (which of course is unlikely to occur any time soon).
5) Fifth, because the victims of climate change live faraway in both space (from Americans) and time, they are likely to be perceived as out-group members and thus as less deserving of moral standing. Such perceptions further weaken moral resolve.
And the potential solutions?
1) Engage the full range of moral values that people hold; framing climate change as an issue that involves considerations of purity, respect for authority and others, and loyalty to one’s community and nation may help generate novel moral intuitions.
2) Focus messages on the burdens that can be avoided by addressing climate change (e.g., outbreaks of disease; drought-induced hardships) rather than on the positive benefits (e.g., a stable climate) that will be gained or lost by our (in)action; burdens appear to engage the moral judgment system more powerfully than benefits.
3) Motivate action through messages that generate positive emotional responses—including hope, pride and gratitude—rather than those that appeal to guilt, shame and anxiety; positive emotions may produce longer-lasting and more sustainable motivation to address the issue, in part by providing a buffer against motivated moral reasoning.
4) Avoid linking action on climate change exclusively to extrinsic motives, such as job growth and economic stability; doing so weakens moral engagement by deemphasizing intrinsic values and motives.
5) Find ways to bring the faraway victims of climate change into individuals’ in-groups; one possible way to do so is to highlight the goals and values that those victims share with people living today.
6) Highlight widely-shared, positive social norms—such as prohibitions against being wasteful—as a way to both increase pro-climate action and increase the salience of morally-relevant considerations in the context climate change.
6) Sixth, much of the existing framing of climate change as a moral issue targets only a subset of people’s moral values, particularly those that are important to political liberals. As a result, potentially powerful triggers of moral intuition about climate change have largely been ignored by advocates and communicators, likely contributing to political polarization on the issue.