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Staying over-optimistic about the future: Uncovering attentional biases to climate change messages

  • Geoffrey Beattie ORCID logo EMAIL logo , Melissa Marselle , Laura McGuire and Damien Litchfield
From the journal Semiotica


There is considerable concern that the public are not getting the message about climate change. One possible explanation is “optimism bias,” where individuals overestimate the likelihood of positive events happening to them and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. Evidence from behavioral neuroscience suggest that this bias is underpinned by selective information processing, specifically through a reduced level of neural coding of undesirable information, and an unconscious tendency for optimists to avoid fixating negative information. Here we test how this bias in attention could relate to the processing of climate change messages. Using eye tracking, we found that level of dispositional optimism affected visual fixations on climate change messages. Optimists spent less time (overall dwell time) attending to any arguments about climate changes (either “for” or “against”) with substantially shorter individual fixations on aspects of arguments for climate change, i.e., those that reflect the scientific consensus but are bad news. We also found that when asked to summarize what they had read, non-optimists were more likely to frame their recall in terms of the arguments “for” climate change; optimists were significantly more likely to frame it in terms of a debate between two opposing positions. Those highest in dispositional optimism seemed to have the strongest and most pronounced level of optimism bias when it came to estimating the probability of being personally affected by climate change. We discuss the importance of overcoming this cognitive bias to develop more effective strategies for communicating about climate change.

Funding statement: British Academy, (Grant/Award Number: ‘SG143114’).


We would like to thank the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grants Scheme for an award to the first author to allow him to research some of these issues.


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A Climate change in general

There has been a lot of heated discussion lately of the role of human beings in climate change. Climate change sceptics argue that even if the planet is warming up, it is not clear that it is because of human behavior. They point out errors in previous United Nations IPCC reports and accuse the global warming “industry” of ratcheting up the risks of climate change, which have subsequently led to the cripplingly expensive introduction of green energy policies.

But the arguments that climate change is caused by humans are considered by many to be convincing. The latest United Nations IPCC report, published in 2014, confirms that climate scientists appear more certain than ever before that human behavior is the key culprit for global warming. Based on all scientific evidence, the report concluded it was 95 % likely that the rise in global temperatures were due to human activity, such as greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

Previous IPCC reports on climate impact have been plagued by errors that have damaged the body’s credibility. Most famously, in the 2007 report, it said that glaciers in the Himalayas could disappear by 2035, a claim it has since withdrawn. One reason for errors in the IPCC reports could be the over-reliance on computer models of predicted data, rather than on physical science.

The recent IPCC report raised the threat of climate change to a whole new level – based on new scientific evidence – warning of sweeping consequences to life and livelihood. The report concluded climate change is already having detrimental effects – melting sea ice in the Arctic, killing off coral reefs in the oceans, and leading to heat waves, heavy rains and mega-disasters. And the worst was yet to come.

But sceptics say almost every global environmental scare of the past half century has been exaggeratedfrom the population “bomb,” pesticides and acid rain, to the ozone hole, genetically engineered crops and killer bees. In every case, sceptics argue, scientists gain a lot of funding from these scares and before quietly agreeing that the problem wasn’t that bad; global warming is no different.

Climate scientists say this is irrelevant. The good news from the IPCC report is that many of consequences of climate change can be reduced by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC report states with high confidence that risks associated with rising global temperatures – such as water scarcity, sea-level rise, heat waves, and floods – can be reduced by cutting human greenhouse gas emissions.

B Climate change and its relation to flooding in the UK

The recent United Nations IPCC report on climate change stated extreme weather patterns, including a higher risk of flooding, are a consequence of rising greenhouse gas emissions – with Europe, Asia, and small island states highlighted as being particularly vulnerable. An author of the latest IPCC report warned, “Britain should brace itself for a rise in floods, heatwaves, and coastal storms. The UK is likely to face a growing number of extreme weather events as a result of global warming.”

However, attributing extreme weather events to human influence is only an emerging area of research, and is acknowledged by climate scientists to be extremely challenging. Computer models used to explore the impacts of different levels of greenhouse gases are weaker on rainfall than on temperature. For example, “Climate and weather is an extraordinarily complex new form of science. I don’t blame the climate scientists for not knowing the answers,” said one senior politician.

But some do clearly believe that the flooding experienced in England this winter was a consequence of climate change. “What we’ve seen this winter with the floods is consistent with what we would expect to see in a changing climate,” said an leading academic. “The floods in Britain, and other weather-related disasters on Earth, are clear indications of the effects of global warming caused by the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels.”

Yet, others insist that there is no link between the storms that have battered England this winter and global warming. The UK Environment Secretary did not say whether the winter floods were caused by climate change. This argument is supported by a UK academic who said, “Scientists just don’t know whether the persistence of the rainfall this winter was due to climate change or not.”

But, the record rainfall and storms that caused flooding this winter could be part of a trend of unprecedented extreme weather caused by global warming according to some senior scientists. Four of the five wettest years recorded in the UK occurred in the past 14 years. Over that same period, the UK also had the seven warmest years.

But a major factor of the extreme weather this winter was the position of the jet stream. A Met Office expert said, “There is no evidence that global warming can cause the jet stream to get stuck in the way it has this past winter. If this is due to climate change, it is outside scientific knowledge.” Indeed, the recent IPCC report did not mention that climate change had any effect on the jet stream getting stuck.

C Climate change and its consequences for food scarcity and violent conflict

The recent United Nations IPCC report on climate change drew a clear line connecting climate change to food scarcity, and conflict. The report states that climate change will indirectly increase the risk of violent conflict, by increasing hunger and fight over resources. The leader of the World Bank agrees, “Fights over water and food will erupt in the next 5–10 years as a result of climate change.”

But, not all agree with the IPCC’s conclusion. “There is no evidence that global warming directly increases conflict. The causes of conflict are primarily political and economic, not climatic. Warlords may exploit draught, flooding, starvation, or agricultural disasters. What drives their fight is not the rain, the temperature, or the sea levelbut power, territory, and money” says one leading academic.

This recent IPCC report, however, highlights that climate change had already cut into the global food supply. Global crop yields were beginning to decline – especially for wheat – raising doubts as to whether production could keep up with population growth. Under some scenarios, the report said, climate change could lead to dramatic drops in global wheat production as well as reductions in maize.

But contradictory evidence is also available. For example, the recent United Nations IPCC report also states that northern parts of Asia will benefit from global warming, resulting in increased production of wheat and other cereals. Furthermore, satellites have recorded a 14 % increase in greenery on the planet in the past 30 years, partially because of greater greenhouse gas emissions, which enable plants to grow faster and use less water.

Some governments are taking this seriously and have started to investigate the national security implications of climate change. The US Defence Department has called climate change a “threat multiplier” that could increase the risk of military conflict. Climate-induced crises, such as drought and mass migration, could topple governments, bolster terrorist movements, and destabilize regions.

However, resource scarcity might encourage cooperation. “When people face climate dangers or scarcity, they may decide to fight, but similarly they may decide to co-operate. For example, a consequence of the 2004 ‘Boxing Day’ tsunami in Southeast Asia was greater cooperation among states and peace in Aceh,” said a university researcher.

Published Online: 2017-9-1
Published in Print: 2017-9-26

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