Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Psych: Global Warming & Just World Beliefs

My friend GC just posted a link to a paper by two UC Berkeley scholars, which he says "details how the Just World Fallacy prevent[s] people from believing that their innocent children will bear the consequences of their parents' dirty industries." He further commented: don't those people "of the Just World inclination, who believe in a magical world of order, stability and good-guys-win-bad-guys-lose tend to be ... fundamental religious types?"

It's an interesting paper, so I'm glad that he posted it. However, I don't exactly agree with his assessment. Aside from his irreverence toward "fundamentalists" (so yeah ... he could have been a little bit more respectful, because they have a right to their beliefs, even though many people might not agree with them), I also have a couple of issues with the paper's assertions -- or at least would like to add to GC's interpretation of it.

First of all, there are plenty of religious people who believe in global warming and who are strongly in favor of taking action to mitigate it. Second, I don't know if a Just World theory requires you to put your trust in a deus ex machina swooping in to save the day -- or proclaim that the world could never even be in danger in the first place (as some GOP candidates for chair of the Energy and Commerce have.)

There may be some irony here, but I actually thought the Just World types were the environmentalists -- who believe that humankind will somehow get its act together, despite the odds, and unite to save the planet because it's the right thing to do for our generation and for future generations. The polluting industries that refuse to take responsibility for their harmful impacts, as well as the corrupt politicians who enable them, will get what's coming to them. We'll recognize our connection to the Earth, its ecosystems, and the many living creatures that share the planet with us; and we'll be more thoughtful about development, more sensitive in our actions and how we choose to structure our societies.

I'm not even kidding: at the end of the day, we have to believe in a brighter future like that to keep on doing what we're doing, to persevere in this line of work. But while we remain optimistic that as human beings gain greater understanding, growing wiser and more empathetic, we'll get there one day, neither do we have illusions about the numerous obstacles and difficulties that remain. We see the problems every day -- the ignorance, short-sightedness, or outright greed, that causes people to sacrifice the planet and the future for short-term gain.

My point: even if you recognize the threat of global warming, perhaps you can still believe in a Just World. But you may also believe that you have to work to establish and/or maintain such a world.

So I agree with the paper's authors, in terms of the necessity of reframing some aspects of the issue, and reaching out to the demographic segments who currently shrink from acknowledging the potential severities of climate change. But perhaps in all of this, another world view could be raised: a belief that justice can prevail in the long run, but that you must act to secure it in the present.

Finally, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said:The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This phrase of Dr. King's was also referenced in a speech by Barack Obama (who remains a champion in the fight against climate change), who notes, "It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice."


"Apocalypse soon? Dire Message Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting 'Just World' Beliefs"
By Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer


Though scientific evidence for the existence of global warming continues to mount, in the U.S. and other countries belief in global warming has stagnated or even decreased in recent years. One possible explanation for this pattern is that information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, ultimately resulting in decreased willingness to counteract climate change. Two experiments provide support for this explanation of the dynamics of belief in global warming, suggesting that less dire messaging could be more effective for promoting public understanding of climate change research.


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