Do “Climate Change” Skeptics Behave in a More “Sustainable” Way?

A few days ago, I ran across an interesting study that I think is worth discussing. Like most studies that try to understand human behavior, its results are incredibly tentative. Nevertheless, they are interesting, and they also are consistent with a trend that I have noticed among my colleagues and friends.

The researchers wanted to probe how a person’s belief in human-induced “climate change” affects his or her personal behaviors. They recruited 600 people from Amazon Mechanical Turk (I had never heard of it until reading the study), and assessed both their beliefs about human-induced climate change as well as their behavior when it came to four types of “pro-environmental” activities: recycling, using public transportation, purchasing environmentally-friendly consumer products, and utilizing reusable shopping bags.

One very important aspect of this study is that the researchers didn’t just do this once. They did it seven times throughout one year. That way, they could track beliefs and behaviors as they ebbed and flowed. Unfortunately, it is hard to keep people interested in a study like this, so while they started with 600 participants, only 291 actually completed all seven evaluations. However, some participants missed just a few evaluations, so an average of 413 participants were evaluated in each of the second through seventh analyses.

Some of the results were not at all surprising. Based on people answering several questions about climate change, they found that they could generally categorize their participants as either “Highly Concerned,” “Cautiously Worried,” or “Skeptical.” However, they found that those beliefs did change a bit depending on the weather, with people trending more towards “Highly Concerned” during the warmer parts of the year. As the authors note, this is consistent with a lot of other studies. They also found that the “Highly Concerned” group was much more likely to advocate for government policies to combat climate change.

The surprising result, however, was that the “Skeptical” group was significantly more likely to engage in three of the four pro-environmental behaviors listed above than were the “Cautiously Worried” or the “Highly Concerned.” The “Skeptical” group was more likely to take public transportation, purchase environmentally-friendly consumer products, and utilize reusable shopping bags. The “Highly Concerned” and “Skeptical” groups recycled at pretty much the same frequency, but the “Cautiously Worried” recycled at a lower frequency.

Now, of course, the authors list several limitations to their study, and it is certainly possible that this surprising result is a consequence of one of those limitations. However, it is at least consistent with my observations. In general, those I know who have a more conservative outlook tend to be the ones who are more skeptical of human-induced climate change. They are also the ones who tend to be more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.

The authors offer a few possible explanations for their surprising result. Here are two of the more interesting:

Perhaps [the “Highly Concerned”] engaged in moral licensing, whereby their concern about climate change psychologically liberated them from engaging in (and reporting) pro-environmental behavior. Or, perhaps the “Highly Concerned” felt that federal policies were the more effective means of addressing climate change (vs. individual pro-environmental behaviors).

I personally think the explanation is simpler. I tend to engage in “pro-environmental” behaviors because they generally make sense. I recycle because it is a reasonable way to reduce waste. I take public transport when I can because it is generally less expensive and reduces traffic congestion. I tend to buy environmentally-friendly consumer products because it is an easy way to support a healthy environment. I don’t tend to utilize reusable shopping bags, but my wife does. I engage in other pro-environmental behaviors (such as installing LED lighting when it makes sense) because ultimately, it saves money and once again, is an easy way to protect the environment.

Such behaviors have nothing to do with concern about human-induced climate change. They simply make sense. Based solely on my observations (which could be very skewed), those who tend to concentrate on things that make sense are also significantly more likely to be skeptical of human-induced climate change.

8 Comments

  1. Jake says:

    I definitely think it’s the moral licensing one.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I think that certainly explains people like Vice President Gore.

  2. William says:

    When you said that people seem to change there belief in climate change depending on the weather I thought of one time this winter when it was strangely warm and a friend of mine was talking to his friend and said that climate change was real because it was really warm out. When I saw him and his friend the next week it was significantly cooler and his friend told him that he was wrong about that climate change stuff because it was freezing outside. It may have been just to friends joking around but it also shows that the public is very misinformed on climate change because it’s easy to control people when they don’t know what you’re really talking about.

  3. Kaydi says:

    Did the study also examine dietary choices? I think that is also a significant way to reduce our impact on the environment, be more sustainable, save on healthcare costs, and reduce our grocery bill. Simply abstaining from or reducing the amount of animal foods and processed foods we consume can have a huge impact and I hope that it is something Christians can lead the way on. I also believe this is a moral issue and the way that most animals are farmed today goes completely against God’s will (factory farming, artificial insemination-beastiality, horrific conditions in slaughter houses-far from being Kosher like they claim to be). This is a topic that is severely lacking amongst Christians it would seem especially when most church gatherings involve cancer causing, artery clogging foods being served. We need to be educated and encourage one another towards a healthier lifestyle. Regardless of climate change belief, I am using personal action as a means of change instead of relying on the government to do it for me. It is a shame what this study uncovered and hopefully it will reveal the climate changers seeming hypocrisy and move them towards personal action in their own lives.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      The study did not examine dietary choices. It looked only at the four behaviors listed in the article.

    2. John D. says:

      Nice comment Kaydi! Stewardship is definitely important. Too many churches serving overly processed foods, bake sales serving grocery store bought baked goods, etc., etc. I was saddened to see the Catholic Church as endorsing GMO wheat as acceptable to be used in the Host.

      1. Kaydi says:

        Thank you for your feedback, it is very encouraging to me! I am glad that I am not the only one passionate about this topic. Yes, that is very disconcerting that they deem GMO wheat as acceptable when there are plenty of authentic options readily available, I had know idea this was their stance, thank you for sharing!

  4. Zach says:

    Interesting, Jay. I engage in energy saving around the house because it makes sense (logical) to have a lower electric bill, like replacing the CFLs with LEDs as the former burn out. Ditto for turning off the heat in the winter unless my kids are with me, and recycling just about everything I can because it makes sense to reduce waste. I’ll put my measly 7 units of college geology over that of most of the SJWs and Gaia-worshippers with regards to how powerful and dynamic earth’s systems are as well as its long history (assuming an Old Earth model here…).

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