The disconnect is puzzling: Our planet is warming, but our attitudes are cooling. Fewer and fewer Americans believe the evidence of global warming caused by human activity. (Scroll down to see this week’s posts on various aspects of the issue.)
But, why? Why have our beliefs cooled?
Cooling attitudes about global warming would be understandable if conflicting evidence had started to appear. For instance, if NASA’s analysis of surface temperature had showed only a modest elevation or even a dip, we would question the reality of global warming. If scientists reversed their opinions, we might cool our beliefs. But none of that has happened.
Worries about the economy have diverted attention away from less immediate issues like climate change. But this doesn’t explain why attitudes have cooled. It should simply mean that our value priorities have shifted for the time being—fix the economy and create jobs, then get back to the environment. Beliefs about global warming didn’t have to cool for a shift in value priorities to take place.
Here’s what I think is happening: It’s a psychological trick that we play on ourselves.
Those who see the need to address global warming and the need to fix the economy have a conflict. Economic problems are so severe that we can’t do both at the same time. Yet it’s irresponsible to neglect global warming. This causes internal conflict, or what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—the psychic distress that arises when there’s conflict between two important beliefs.
To resolve this distress, we change one belief to make it consistent with the other. Applied to cooling attitudes, the contorted (but convenient) logic goes like this: We can’t do anything about global warming, but we are good and responsible people, so maybe global warming isn’t so real after all.
“An Inconvenient Truth” is Al Gore’s well-known slide show about global warming, a presentation he has given more than 1,000 times here in the U.S. and abroad. An award-winning documentary by the same title featured Gore’s educational efforts. And, it is now being made into an opera.
The new inconvenient truth might be that we are willing to delude ourselves about global warming.
What do you think of my analysis? Do you buy it?