Research & Insights

How Climate Conspiracy Theories Hurt the Environment

New research suggests that the prevalence of climate-conspiracy theories may be bad for the environment.

According to findings from a study published in a 2015 issue of Personality and Individual Differences, people exposed to claims that environmental groups are faking information about climate change are likely to conclude that global warming is a hoax and that there’s no peril to the planet.

For his study, psychologist Sander van der Linden of Princeton University recruited 316 participants.

Conspiracy theories are defined as theories which “purport…that some covert and powerful individual(s), organization(s) or group(s) are intentionally plotting to accomplish some sinister goal.” In this case, the conspiracy theories revolved around the idea that climate change is a massive hoax.

The participants were divided into three groups. The first group watched a two-minute video from the climate-conspiracy movie “The Great Global Warming Swindle.” The second group watched an inspirational clip from the United Nations video, “Raise Your Voice about Climate Change.” The third group – the control – did a puzzle for two minutes.

Afterwards, the participants were asked questions about their political affiliation, whether or not they knew that most scientists agree on climate change (i.e. “to the best of your knowledge, what percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening?), their pro-environmental behaviors (whether they would sign a petition to combat climate change), and their general level of pro-social tendencies (whether they would donate to a charity within the next six months).

van der Linden found that seeing the conspiracy video had a strong impact on participants. People who saw the conspiracy movie were more likely to agree with the statement “global warming is a hoax” and “judged the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change significantly lower” than participants who saw the inspirational video. They were also much less likely to sign the climate change petition.

van der Linden notes that “the finding that brief, direct contact with conspiracy theories…can be sufficient to significantly decrease pro-environmental decision-making, including reduced confidence in the scientific consensus on climate change.”

For movement builders, this provides important context for the decisions people are making about the environment, especially as climate change conspiracy theories grow and mutate.

Personality and Individual Differences

Sander van der Linden, Princeton University

Posted: September 23, 2015
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