Linking climate change and moral judgements

Linking climate change and moral judgements

State of the Climate Global Analysis, October 2012. Photo Credits:

Stephen Rooney

“As climate change fails to generate strong moral intuitions, it does not motivate an urgent need for action in the way that other moral imperatives do.”

Whilst there is consensus among the science community pertaining to the reality and extent of rapid anthropogenic climate change and the necessity of urgent action to mitigate its effects, public opinion can generally be characterised as being apathetic.

Simply put, climate change does not generate a sense of urgency, nor does it motivate action to quite the same extent that other moral imperatives do.  The question is, can this phenomenon be attributed to the way in which the climate change message is communicated to the layman, or is there a deeper, psychological reason behind this apathy?

In a thought provoking article entitled Climate change and moral judgement  published in the Nature Climate Change journal (Volume 2, April 2012), the authors Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff from the Department of Psychology of the University of Oregon examine six reasons why climate change “poses significant challenges to our moral judgement system” subsequently describing “six strategies that communicators might use to confront these challenges.”

The article explicitly acknowledges that the challenges identified and the proposed strategies to combat them do not constitute an exhaustive list, but nevertheless highlights the abstract, probabilistic, and intangible nature of climate change that dampens emotional reactions to information about the issue and fails to “activate our moral intuitions.”

Succinctly put, the six reasons identified in the article as to why climate change poses significant challenges to our moral judgement system are:

1. Abstractness and cognitive complexity

Climate change “possesses few features that generate rapid, emotional, visceral reactions: it is an abstract, temporally and spatially different phenomenon consisting of many different, disparate and seemingly incongruous events.”  Understanding climate change “requires cold, cognitively demanding, and ultimately relatively less motivating, moral reasoning” and sadly, we often adopt the path of least resistance when it comes to informing our worldview via cognitive or intellectual scrutiny.  The issues for which we feel most passionately tend to come from the heart and not from the head.

2. The blamelessness of unintentional action

Most people see climate change as a regrettable externality or side effect of producing the energy required to “provide the trappings of modern life.”  Intentionality plays a key role in whether or not one reacts to a given negative externality and that many see climate change as an “unintentional phenomenon with no single villain” may decrease motivation to act.

3. Guilty bias

People instinctively react in a defensive way when blamed for causing a negative outcome.  Furthermore, individuals “often engage in biased cognitive processes to minimize perceptions of their own complicity.”

4. Uncertainty breeds wishful thinking

People are overly optimistic when faced with evidence that is less than incontrovertible.  Indeed “uncertainty about future outcomes generally increases self-oriented behaviour and … promotes optimistic biases.”

5. Moral tribalism

Climate change has become politicised and with liberals placing the emphasis on the individual-centric values of harm and fairness, whilst conservatives emphasise protecting the in-group values of loyalty, respect for authority and purity/sanctity, the framing of climate change has proven to be politically divisive.  As a result of this framing, many conservatives “have been left not just uninvolved in action on climate change, but morally hostile to it.”

6. Long time-horizons and far-away places

The less similar are victims of climate change considered to be to members of the in-group, the less morally obligated people feel to act on their behalf.  The fact that ‘victims’ of climate change are considered to be far away – either in space or time – has the consequence that these ‘victims’ are regarded as members of the out-group.

Typhoon Bopha trajectory, a day before it made landfall in Mindanao, Philippines on 4 Dec. 2012. Source:

Considering these six challenges, the question arises as to what can be done therefore to reinforce people’s perception of climate change as a moral issue and of “ameliorative action as a moral obligation?”  The authors suggest six inter-related strategies for communicators to reiterate action on climate change as a moral imperative.  These six strategies are:

1. Use existing moral values

By framing climate change in terms of more mainstream, traditional values, this provides “diverse pathways by which individuals with very different backgrounds can … come to a shared belief regarding the necessity of action.”

2. Burdens versus benefits

Focusing on the costs of failing to mitigate climate change rather than the benefits of mitigating the effects of climate change to future generations imbues people with a stronger motivation to act.

3. Emotional carrots, not sticks

Motivating through appeals to hope, pride, and gratitude rather than the negative emotions of guilt, shame, and anxiety is far more efficacious.  It has even been demonstrated that pro-social behaviour arising from an appeal to these positive emotions “leads to increase in subjective well-being.”  In short, one feels good for doing good.

4. Be wary of extrinsic motivators

Promoting ‘green business’ as being economically good for business may seem to be an effective strategy, but there is tension between materialism and environmentalism if economic incentives are employed as a motivator for action.

5. Expand group identity

Effectively, this strategy is to increase the sense of unity and connectedness between people now and the aforementioned ‘victims’ of climate change which are separated from us spatially and temporally.

6. Highlight positive social norms

This strategy aims to target an individual’s need for approval and acceptance by others and aims to exploit the susceptibility of an individual to be influenced by the behaviour of those considered important or prestigious.

Rescue efforts in Compostela Valley in Southern Mindanao, Philippines where over 1,000 are confirmed dead and many more missing. Photo Credit:

Whilst it may be easy to criticise the six prescriptions provided by the authors – which although interesting, undoubtedly lack depth – the important questions raised, such as whether there is a link between climate change being perceived as a moral imperative and the execution of proactive action, are many.

Under the strategy of using existing moral values, the important role played by religious institutions in increasing the salience of the issue of climate change is mentioned and the importance of imbuing a sense of duty to act by appealing to ‘stewardship’ cannot be underestimated.

Moving from imbuing a sense of duty to act to actually inspiring action itself is something for the Church to consider and this is the very question on which the authors end their article: “Understanding how to connect the very global and abstract issue of climate change to our very local and human moral intuitions may play a critical role in rallying first our hearts, and then our hands, to action.”


One thought on “Linking climate change and moral judgements

  1. Lets’s hope Pope Francis see Climate Change as one of our greatest moral challenges. We need leadership to encourage change.

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