Climate change: healthy debate not a health debate

Want the earth to be cooler? Unleash the psychologists.

At least, that’s the argument presented by one of the keynote speakers at the 2010 International Congress of Applied Psychology, being held in Melbourne this week.

According to Robert Gifford, a Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, the profession needs to help scientists and policymakers overcome the psychological barriers to action on climate change – things like the public’s limited understanding of the dangers of global warming, ideological reluctance, and mistrust of government.

He’s not alone: it’s a developing area of study. The American Psychological Association has a Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change. In a report last year, it too found psychologists should try to overcome our psychological barriers to saving the planet.

Of course, all this assumes that having governments take aggressive action on climate change as soon as possible is inherently desirable.

And if you don’t think so, well, you have psychological problems. Or, at least, we as a society do.

In other words, if we think the costs of climate change policies could be greater than the benefits, if we think there are better uses for the money governments want to spend on the environment, if some of us don’t want to make the lifestyle changes necessary to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent, then we need psychological treatment.

Case closed.

But there is serious debate to be had about climate change. Debate about the best response to the changing climate and the degree to which we are responsible for that change. Debate about how we can adapt to a warmer or colder environment. Debate about whether Australia should bother trying to “lead the world” if the world isn’t interested in following.

Instead of tackling those questions, many climate activists would prefer to treat the existence of public uncertainty about the origin, costs and consequences of climate change as not just wrong, but corrupt, immoral, and, now, unhealthy.

This attitude has the stale whiff of authoritarianism. Not to the degree that dictatorships have used psychology as a tool of political power, jailing dissidents in mental institutions, sure. But it is distinctly authoritarian to respond to a political disagreement with a medical diagnosis.

The Australian Psychological Society claims the profession has a “special responsibility to be proactively involved in fostering more ecologically sensitive and sustainable behaviours and lifestyles”. This seems a little outside its brief.

Yet it accords with the trendy view that lawmakers should team up with psychologists to manipulate our decisions. People apparently need a little help from social engineers to ensure they make the “best” choices about their personal diet, finances, and lifestyle.

Thus the huge range of personal values and opinions held by individuals can be treated as if they are deviant in some way, and need professional and legal treatment.

No-one is disputing the electorate has misguided views about many public policy questions.

In his 2007 book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Bryan Caplan documented the four big economic biases – views held by the general public but rejected by economists who have spent years or decades studying them.

People tend to underestimate the value of labour-saving practices. They overlook the benefits of free trade. They believe the economy is always in decline, and they undervalue the social benefits of the voluntary interaction in the marketplace.

These beliefs account for much of the harmful demagoguery which surrounds economic debate.

Yet neither the Australian Psychological Society nor the American Psychological Association has a section on their website dedicated to the psychological barriers to sound economic policy making, as they do with climate change. Nor do their conferences focus on diagnosing the impediments to international support for lower tariffs.

Instead we all rightly treat economic policy as a legitimate area for discussion and disagreement. Climate change policy needs to be approached with the same open attitude.

The way the debate over climate change has developed has encouraged this sort of public policy dogmatism.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been promoted as the last word on climate.

The IPCC process is a bold attempt by a small number of experts to distil an enormous amount of scholarship into a single document, with enough coherence for politicians to act upon.

So the IPCC’s reports are not just dispassionate reviews of the scientific literature. They are riddled with economic assumptions, political judgements, and ethical and moral assessments.

That the general public is sceptical the IPCC has reached scholarly perfection – to question some of its judgments – is not an indication we all have psychological issues. It’s healthy debate.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review. You can follow Chris Berg on Twitter.