Why some conservatives are blind to climate change

Imagine this: A young professional couple at a party mentions they’re thinking of buying a home in a popular waterfront neighbourhood that scientists have found is vulnerable to coastal flooding.

That flood risk is made extra clear by murals in the neighbourhood marking the predicted water level rise. What’s more, media headlines have warned about sea level rise daily during the past week.

So, what gives? Can the young couple just not see the evidence in front of them?

In recent years, we have been exposed to an abundance of information about climate change. This often takes the form of news articles about carbon emissions and the hurricanes, floods and forest fires bolstered by climate change.

Despite the strong evidence that human activities are contributing to climate change, a small minority of the public disagrees with the scientific consensus.

Do you see what I see?

In the face of the evidence, how can we explain this division?

As psychology researchers, we wondered whether some people are just blind to cues of climate risk.

When we’re confronted by visually crowded settings, we tend to notice emotional words and tune out others. For example, if you were presented a series of words appearing one after another in quick succession — 10 words per second — you would struggle to name all of them. But you would be more likely to catch a word like “danger” than a neutral one.

We set up exactly that kind of scenario in our study. We recruited university students, as well as people in shopping malls in the Vancouver area and in Kamloops, B.C. Then we showed each of them a rapid sequence of words and asked them to pick out two targets, such as a set of digits (555555555) and a word in green font, in the sequence.


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