Climate Change and Cognitive Biases

Climate change and cognitive biases

This extended blog will review a brief history of climate change and how the evolution of the human mind works against us through cognitive biases, when we attempt to understand climate change science, and the change required to curb global warming. We will look at the training required of a scientist to be able to perform quality research that guides our understanding of our climate, and briefly look into the kinds of sources of information to trust on this issue.


Climate Change – the basics

The Earth’s climate has been changing across its 4.54 billion year life-span. Indeed the climate has continued to change since life first formed on earth approximately 4 billion years ago, following the formation of the oceans about 4.41 billion years ago. More recently, within the past 650,000, there have been 7 cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the end of the last Ice Age occurring about 11,700 years ago. Modern Humans have been around for about 200,000 years, with ancestors ranging back millions of years. Homo sapiens (i.e., modern humans) invented agriculture about 10,000 years ago, which provided more access to food. With more food available, our population could increase. And we have been growing faster and faster in population ever since, with only a recent slowing of the population growth rate. With more mouths to feed, we required more food, more technology and more changes in how we live.


There has been a rapid change in our climate across a very short period of time, since the industrial revolution in the 1750s. Since the industrial revolution, we have been producing energy for heating, building, manufacturing, transport, electricity, agriculture, living and waste, and more. With these processes, there are by-products of many sorts including gas emissions such as; carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, carbon sulphide, hydroflurocarbon (HFCs), and more. Many of these gases are greenhouse gasses, which cause the Greenhouse Effect (i.e., global warming and climate change).


The theory regarding the Greenhouse Effect, where concentrations of specific gasses cause a warming of our atmosphere, was first identified in the late 1800s. Greenhouse gasses absorb and emit infrared radiation emitted by the Earth, which trap the heat. Common greenhouse gasses include; water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and many others in smaller amounts. However, the impacts of these gasses are not equal. Water vapour stays in the atmosphere for about 9 days, whereas other greenhouse gasses (e.g., CO2) stay in the atmosphere for years, centuries, or longer.  The problematic greenhouse gasses such as CO2, have a much larger greenhouse effect than water vapour. Water vapour is not primarily influenced by human activity, whereas many of the others are largely influenced by human activity, industry, and production.


The concentrations of CO2 have remained below 300 parts per million, for the past 650,000 years or more, despite warming and cooling changes across that time, which was previously due to the earth’s relative positioning to the sun and subsequent impact of solar energy (i.e., from the sun). However, since the industrial revolution in 1750, the CO2 levels have raised to over 410 parts per million. This has been due to the production of CO2 and other problematic greenhouse gasses produced by our changes in technology, industry, and lifestyle. Without global intervention, the climate will continue to warm. Current estimates of temperate changes range from a 1 degree Celsius increase in the short term, and up to 6 degrees Celsius increase or more in the longer term (i.e., end of the century). These changes in temperature are NOT about a temperature tolerances for humans, such as enjoying a 24 degree day versus feeling unpleasantly hot on a 30 degree day. It is about an average increase in temperature of the atmosphere, year round. These changes have already lead to; a warming of the earth’s global temperate, less snow and glacial cover, warming of the oceans, acidification of the oceans, rising sea levels, and more extreme weather events. All of these events will continue to intensify, impacting all areas of our life, and every natural part of the planet.


How do we know that we can trust the Scientists and the Science?

Research into global warming/climate change has been studied in some capacity for over 100 years. The amount of research in this area has significantly increased across this time. For some common and interesting facts about climate change that we can all understand, I would recommend reading through as a very readable, and reliable starting point.


Firstly, let’s understand the training of the scientist. I will generalise, however, this will be a common path. The scientist (or future scientist) has completed primary education, and secondary education. The scientist probably performed well with logic and reasoning, mathematics, and core science based subjects at secondary school (Try this link for some starter information on the scientific method – The scientist then went on to university level study and completed a bachelor’s degree in a science-based discipline. They also probably did really well in that degree which was about 3 years long. They learned and understood the content and the new ideas, and were able to apply these ways of thinking to many situations, and new situations. They were among the top of their university class. Due to their high academic grades, and understanding of science, the scientist then went on to do an Honours year at university, where they learned more, and started practicing research with a well trained and practiced supervisor. Again, the scientist performed well and then completed a Masters degree at university, and often a Doctoral degree where they practiced their skills in performing more intricate research with supervision. Their doctoral completion depends upon their research being accepted by leading professionals in their field. The scientist then may do a post-doctoral fellowship where they practice and complete research with colleagues. If the scientist then completes research that has been well conducted, with sound methods, statistics, and results, then they can apply for it to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is where journal reviewers critically evaluate research for its soundness, and decide whether it has been conducted to a high enough level to publish. If it does get published, then all other researchers and scientists can read it, critically evaluate it, and try to replicate or disprove those ideas. The scientist understands complex statistics, and how they can be used to control for some factors and isolate others. They use complex computations of data to establish changes, differences in meaningful ways. The scientist is seeking the truth. They are trying to disprove ideas to see how sturdy the idea is. Scientists aren’t necessarily on a team for scientists, they are on a team for science, for the truth, and that means agreeing to try to disprove each other, and test each other’s ideas to get there. Strangely enough, that is the unspoken code between scientists. For the love of pure science!


Scientists mostly work for academic institutions like universities. In peer reviewed journals, it is customary to note any conflicts of interest, which includes any private funding provided to conduct the research. Academic research is often funded from public funding, such as the Australian Research Council. However, it important to be mindful about where the funding for research comes from, and any conflicts of interest. For example, Think Tanks have a range of different financial contributing organisations, often with political biases. CSIRO for instance, is our government funded research Think Tank with sound research and science practices – very limited bias. However, Political parties often fund their own Think Tanks. The Australian Labor Party has the Chifley Research Centre, while the Liberal Party has the Menzies Research Centre, the Greens have The Green Institute, and National Party has the Page Research Centre. Often these politically funded Thank Tanks do research with aims to push their own political views. There are many other Think Tanks in the world, and in Australia. We should be very critical about research from politically funded Think Tanks as they have significant conflicts of interest. For example, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is an Australian Think Tank that previously aimed to undermine and discredit the science associated with passive smoking. It is no surprise that they were partly funded by tobacco companies. Unfortunately, the IPA rejects climate change science and funds science change deniers in Australia. You can research all of these Think Tanks yourself. So we should mostly stick to the peer-reviewed academic journals. How do you access those? Well, you can get a membership at a university library and start browsing their online databases of journals. There are some open access (i.e., you don’t have to pay and can access from the internet) peer-reviewed journals such as But even then, without the training and education on interpreting all of this information, how does one make heads or tails of it all?! Well, perhaps you can’t. And there lies our problem. We have to rely on the opinion of scientists, and the reporting of the science. You can certainly read through the research in basic terms on the websites outlined earlier such as the NASA website. However, we should find sources that are as credible as possible, so remember to question the source that is publishing the information. So let’s finish with the important point and statistic that is easy to understand. 97 percent of scientists (i.e., thousands of scientists) publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals on climate change, agree that the earth’s climate is warming, and that it is due to human activity. This includes producing damaging greenhouse gases, and taking away carbon absorption mechanisms such as forests and jungles.


Cognitive Biases and Fallacies


Why are some people conflicted when it comes to understanding climate change?

Interestingly, many people struggle to accept the science. Unfortunately, almost all of those that don’t accept the science are not scientists, nor are they qualified to deny the science. Strange? Surprising? Well, perhaps not. However, we need to look at our ancestral heritage of humans to understand why this is happening. As we learned earlier, life first emerged on earth about 4 billion years ago – and it has been evolving ever since. We now have different types of life, such as plants and animals (along with the other life kingdoms). Most of the species of life that have ever existed on earth do not exist today. Life has evolved, changed. For different types of life that have survived for long periods of time, it has had adaptive features which have assisted it for survival. We have many of these types of features as humans (Homo sapiens), many of which have been adaptive, such as opposable thumbs, and an adrenaline reaction for protection to a perceived threat. We also have many cognitive biases and cognitive fallacies (i.e., automatic ways of thinking) that have helped us survive and cope as a species. We must remember though, that successful adaptation as a species primarily means that we have been able to simply reproduce, and survive – And so many of our core thinking processes exist to keep us alive, and to reproduce. We are not naturally inclined to understand complex ideas, especially ideas that might impact or threaten our future generations’ lives. Modern civilization and society has developed far quicker than we have evolved, even though we try to design our society to suit us (as opposed to the other way around). If we look at the different biases and fallacies in our thinking, we can understand why humans can have difficulty in understanding complex ideas, threatening ideas, and ideas that we simply hope aren’t true. Let’s look at 3 cognitive biases that impact our ability to understand the complexities of the climate change problem; confirmation bias, sunk-cost fallacy, and loss aversion.

A confirmation bias is when our mind naturally seeks out and attends to information that confirms our existing idea. For example, a person might think that tall people are more intelligent than short people. And so the person emphasises every time that they meet a tall person, and finds something intelligent about them. They may also look for features of short people that are seen as less intelligent. This builds a statistically skewed sample. Unfortunately, it only takes a small number of confirming pieces of evidence for a person to build a ‘proof’ in their mind, which is then difficult to counteract and undo. It is often difficult to counteract because the existing idea that they were trying to confirm often fits closer to how the person emotionally hopes that the world is, as opposed to how it actually is. Another example includes a person who wants to believe that certain conspiracies exist as it fits better with their version of the world. For example, that may want to say that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre was an inside job. Now with such a large event, there are hundreds of thousands of data pieces involved. Yet, with a confirmation bias, once a person finds perhaps 5 to 10 pieces of data that aligns with their theory, they are convinced that their original theory was right! I’m not saying that conspiracies don’t exist, of course they do – but we must be careful of this type of thinking leading to false conclusions. If a conspiracy exists, we should still apply critical thinking and reasoning skills to understanding it. And now we can imagine how this confirmation bias might play out when a person is thinking about climate change – an event with many data points! A confirmation bias is a bias we all have. Scientists and the scientific process works to acknowledge this bias, and test around it. Furthermore, scientists usually set their core aim to find the truth of things, and not to ‘prove’ (confirmation bias) an existing belief. In fact, the scientific process often aims to disprove ideas, specifically for this reason!

Loss aversion is a bias where humans prefer to avoid losses as opposed to equivalent gains. This may have people valuing maintaining current ways of life, and assets, and economy, and not wanting to make change, despite the potential advantages that would come with change for the future. Unfortunately, we are mostly focussed on living now, and we are not well suited to being concerned about ambiguous risks that don’t directly impact our life right now (Also see Present Bias).

Sunk-cost fallacy is when we tend to continue with an endeavour or pursuing and option, despite evidence showing the option to be incorrect, simply because we have invested resources, money or time in to the endeavour already. This may be one of the reasons that some of us are seeking to continue with our current trajectory, despite the probably future impacts of climate change.


Before we list off a range of other biases and fallacies that impact a person’s ability to take on ideas around climate change, it is important to look at the idea of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is an internal tension or disharmony that is produced due to two or more internal beliefs, ideas, or values that are contradicting. For example, cognitive dissonance will occur when a person knows that smoking cigarettes is a poor health choice, yet they smoke cigarettes. So we try to reduce this dissonance or tension in different ways, such as; telling ourselves that our grandfather smoked all his life and lived to 83 years of age (minimising the effect), by avoiding advertising about the health impacts by walking away from the television (perhaps for a cigarette break), or ideally, stopping smoking. Agreeing with a certain ideas may conflict with a person’s comfortable life, and so they try to protect the mind from taking on that truth, as it would cause too much discomfort! Many of the cognitive biases are aimed to; maximise short term pleasure, avoid perceived pain and emotional discomfort, to maintain our self-esteem, reduce complex thinking, keep us alive, and maximise mating opportunities.


The climate change paradigm has many active ingredients which make us susceptible to trigger many cognitive biases and fallacies, including; it triggers fear and threat perception, it has the potential for short term loss of way of life, it will require change, the outcomes or threats are not easily comprehendible, and the worse risks are future based and somewhat uncertain. While science works hard to acknowledge and work around these biases and distortions, you can recognise how a person can slide down the ‘YouTube rabbit-hole’ with mistruths. These mistruths ultimately miseducate people with climate change denialism, using their protective biases against them. The more we can be aware of our biases, the better we can avoid being controlled and misguided by them. Here is a list of cognitive biases and fallacies for you to be aware of with climate change information, and to improve your overall critical thinking. While reading these, try to be emotionally ready to test your world view, and sit with uncomfortable emotions. Ask yourself these questions:


Am I trying to fit this information with my own view of the world?

Is this how the facts actually fall, or how I hope they fall?

Am I emotionally connected to a particular version of the facts?

Finally, aim to get used to finding the truth, regardless of how you feel about it.


Confirmation bias: see in text above.


Pattern recognition bias is when we look and search for patterns and links between things, even if they do not exist. This bias was helpful in the past for basic reasoning of our environment (e.g., the seasons of the year, cycle of the tides); however, when used with complex events, and combined with other biases, we can be prone to conspiracy-type thinking.


Assimilation bias is the tendency to rate information that fits with our beliefs to be more positive and reliable, and information that does not fit with our beliefs, to be negative and of poor quality. This is why people often agree with, and vote for, a particular political party for many years, or watch particular news programs (e.g., ABC news versus Sky news). People will continue to seek out information and attend positively to information that fits with their pre-existing beliefs. This means that those that already deny climate change, will often find information, and watch documentaries that continue to support their beliefs.


Self-serving bias is a tendency to interpret information in a way that maintains or increases one’s self-esteem. This means that we see things how we want to see them, as opposed to how they actually are. This is important for how the information about climate change is framed.


Sunk-cost fallacy See in text above.


Loss aversion See in text above.


Representation heuristic is when we use a known sample and generalise it to another situation to gauge likelihood. For example, this is when a person incorrectly thinks that cold weather, or a cold period, is indicative that global warming is not happening as it is seen as a representation of the full climate.


Projection bias is our tendency to project our current values and preferences into the future, as if a future self will match our current self.  Certainly a person’s preferences in 40 years will be different as they change, the world changes, and the climate changes.


Optimism bias is when we think that things will turn out better for ourselves than statistics would predict. This is a protective bias that makes us feel safe, aim for our goals, and helps our self-esteem. However, this bias leads to a significant underestimation of risks, and a significant reduction in perceived likelihood of negative things happening. Just remember, the known universe is 13.5 billion years old, and humans have only been around for 0.0015% of that time.  Things may not work out without responsible action.


Habits are routine behaviours that are performed regularly, often with particular reward. We like habits as humans. They give us predictable outcomes, and make life seem predictable. That is also why they are hard to change. Our positive neurochemical responses to habits make them hard to break.


Time-discounting bias is when individuals place a preference on goods or outcomes at a particular time. The time may be more present focussed for some individuals, or more future focussed for other people.


Dunning-Kruger Effect is a bias where people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they actually are. The original researchers suggest that people falling to this effect lack the mental ability to recognise their mistakes, thereby making them confident, yet biased self-evaluators.


Commitment bias is when people or groups continue to support their ideas and behaviour, despite clear evidence contradicting their original commitment. This is very similar to the sunk-cost fallacy, however, where the sunk-cost is about investment, the commitment bias is about our need to feel right (i.e., correct) about an idea.


Cognitive dissonance is an internal tension or disharmony that is produced due to two or more internal beliefs, ideas, or values that are contradicting (See more in section above).


Availability heuristic bias is when we use available personal examples that come to mind, to make a decision, as opposed to all of the data that should be gathered. Regarding climate change, people may use recent weather events or events from their experiences to adjust their perceived evidence of climate change.


Affect heuristic bias is when we make a short-cut decision based on how we feel, as opposed to the facts, especially when we don’t want to think deeply about an issue, and try to make quick and efficient decisions. Advertisers take advantage of this bias as often as possible.


Congruence bias occurs when people test one hypothesis and confirm that it is true (only appears true due to a confirmation bias), as opposed to testing all valid hypotheses or alternative hypotheses. This is an approach that some Think Tanks use in an attempt to create pseudoscientific outcomes that support their agenda.


Endowment effect is a bias when we a value an object that we own over objects that we do not own, even if the object is identical to the one we own. This is similar to the loss aversion bias, however, may also have some object attachment effects, and ‘extension of self’ effect to the object that we own. Combined with loss aversion, the endowment effect illustrates why people are unwilling to give up what they have, especially if they deem it to be personally ‘theirs’.


Framing effect is a cognitive bias where we make decisions on information depending how it is framed, i.e., framed positively or negatively. For example, if 2 equivalent ice creams are advertised (framed) as either 80% sugar free versus 20% sugar, most people select the 80% sugar free as it is framed as being without sugar in 80% (i.e., more positively). It is easy to see how this bias works with media representations of climate change framing.


Illusory truth effect is when we believe an idea to be true, simply because it was repeated to us a number of times. Yes, you read that correctly! This means that if climate change denial receives enough airtime in the news papers and media, that many people will believe it because of this effect.


Normalcy bias occurs when we assume that the future will function in a similar manner to the past and present, thereby underestimating the likelihood of future threats, disasters, and consequences.


Ostrich effect is when we tend to avoid negative information regarding an investment that we have made. The effect comes from the analogy of an Ostrich burying its head in the sand to avoid a threat.


Present bias is when we overvalue present based rewards or benefits at the expense of large and more beneficial rewards in the future.


Pro-innovation bias is the belief that society should embrace innovation to solve issues, as opposed to making large societal changes. Using innovation is often supported by people, as it means that life as we know it may not have to change. The philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote about the risks of pro-innovation with technology, regarding using technology before we understand its side effects. Examples include; nuclear power, the atom bomb, however, many examples of this bias exist at the every-day level. We use this bias because the innovation idea tells us that life will be easier, yet the consequences of it going wrong are often ignored.


Reactance bias is when we take a different view or position from any position that feels as if it is being forced upon us. This bias increases as more pressure is put upon us to take on a particular view, and occurs regardless of how truthful the alternative view or position is.


Status quo bias is an emotional bias where we prefer things to stay the way they already are (i.e., status quo). This is because we respond with calmness (often serotonin) to stability and predictability as humans, and we do not like change as it triggers stress, or anxiety – negative emotions that we aim to avoid.


Subjective validation is a bias where people deem information to be correct if it has personal meaning to then, regardless of the statistical truth. For example, a person might hear that chocolate has benefits for their health, and so they latch on to this information because they like chocolate!



Perhaps you can search for other cognitive biases and fallacies that might impact a person’s beliefs around climate change. Remember, there are many more biases and fallacies. Take some time to read through some. You can even get cognitive bias/fallacy apps on your phone. Use your new knowledge to shape your own critical thinking, and to be mindful of how you go about presenting ideas to other humans, knowing that these biases are likely to occur. Remember, when you are trying to present information to another human, if you trigger protective emotions or mechanisms, your chances of changing their ideas have probably gone down the drain! Also, just because someone accepts climate change, doesn’t mean that they too weren’t swayed by cognitive biases which simply had them fall on the same side as the scientifically supported position. Don’t forget about the positive pressure that we can put on our leaders – all of whom fall victim to these biases as well – they’re all human, after all!



Useful links:


Climate Change Information


Cognitive Biases Information

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