The Psychology of Climate Change Denial
by Bob Worcester
Whisper out loud the name of someone you know that could be affected by catastrophic climate change. Making it personal is hard to do but necessary. Climate change is potentially the single most critical issue humanity will face in the 21st century. If it does not affect some of us directly now, it will affect those we love and care about. Why, in the 40 or so years that we have known that catastrophic climate change is possible, have we, as individuals, a nation or a species, not taken effective action to avert this possibility? We can focus primarily on the psychological dimension of this problem but political, economic and cultural factors also constrain affective action on climate change.
The people who engage seriously in genuine climate research are saying that burning fossil fuels is contributing to dramatic changes in the climate that lie outside the range of previous human experience and possibly beyond the limits of human ingenuity to intervene. Some concerned scientists indicated in the 1990s that there was a 10-20 year window of opportunity to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHG) to safe levels before the worst effects of climate change became inevitable. It has been over 20 years now and very little has been done to curb GHG emissions and there is nothing on the public policy horizon for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, public interest in the issue has been declining recently as massive PR campaigns and powerful lobbies promote “ethical oil” from the tar sands, “clean coal” and cynical “scepticism” to obscure the issues and to polarize and paralyze the political process. They have been quite successful at doing that.
Like many people I find this deeply discouraging, particularly because my children and grandchildren will likely suffer the consequences. So the question is “why have efforts to address climate change failed and what, if anything, can be learned from that failure?” The issue is complicated and can be examined at the personal, political and cultural levels of analysis.
Psychologists focus their attention on individuals and it is not hard to see why many individuals find it difficult to get their heads around the idea of catastrophic climate change. The consequences of climate change can be literally “unthinkable.” An inability to acknowledge something that is very stressful has been called “denial” and is seen as a highly ineffective coping strategy. “Denial” is, however, a strong word that suggests a powerful motivation to ignore reality to a pathological degree. Here is a list of more commonly available cognitive strategies with examples that psychologists have identified.
- “Cognitive dissonance reduction” refers to the general human tendency to maintain the perception of “consistency” between what we think and what we do. When there is an inconsistency we will either change our thoughts or our actions. For example – “I am a good person who would not knowingly endanger the safety of my children, yet when I am driving them to hockey I might use my cell phone. I might slightly exceed the speed limit. I might skip doing up their seat belt if it’s just a short trip. I might even have a drink or two or three for the road.” How would I deal with the “dissonance” if these inconsistencies were pointed out to me? I can change my behaviour or I can change my perception of what is an acceptable risk.If I can see the odds of an accident as a reasonably acceptable “one in a million” then I am still a good person.If driving my car has an “unlikely” relationship to the droughts in Africa then I am still OK. Since the actual risk is “uncertain” my perceptions can be flexible and easier to change than my actual behaviour.
- People generally find it difficult to relate to low probabilities, to distant events and to long time frames. What are the odds that we will have a Fukushima-scale quake by next Friday? Next year? It happened “way over there” and it may not happen here for decades. This is not a “denial” that there an earthquake problem, it may simply be a limitation on our cognitive abilities.
- Most people have a localized “hierarchy of needs.” Immediate needs often trump more important ones. We feed our dogs but not the homeless. We would take the bus if we only had more time. We tend to prioritize our family first, our neighbours second and the rest of the world if we can get around to it later.
- Rationalizations are like mental offsets. A token effort relieves us of the obligation to do more. “I drove my car today but I rode my bike last week and I bought a local $2 garlic at the farmers’ market.”
- Psychological reactance is the reaction to imposed restrictions. We tend to find that the things we can’t have become more attractive. “Don’t tell me to have a nice day! – I WANT shark fin soup and a HUMMER!”
- Reduced self-efficacy is the feeling that “I can’t do everything, I might as well do nothing besides there is really nothing I can do.”
- The “rose-coloured glass effect” is a common psychological defence against negative outcomes. “Things will work out somehow, someday”. “Technology will save us.” “We always muddle through.”
- Cynicism relieves us of the need to take something seriously. `”76% of all statistics are made up”. “I don’t trust government, the media, grant hungry scientists or scruffy environmentalists.”
- Social identity protection helps us maintain our sense of ourselves despite negative feedback. “I am not a latte-sucking Kitsilano yuppie who can afford a Prius – I like trucks – BIG trucks!”
- Social norm conformity — we all have a strong desire to appear “normal” to our peers. “Everyone around here commutes by car and no one here recycles except those tree huggers.”
- Uncertainty /complexity paralysis can occur when there are strong conflicting possibilities. “Let’s just wait and see.” “Its better to do nothing than the wrong thing.” “I don’t know where to begin.”
- Selective attention and confirmation bias filters information to fit the way we see the world. “It’s cold today – what does that say about global warming?”
- The “Cassandra effect” is our habituation to repeated alarms – terror attacks, pandemics, asteroids, earthquakes, ozone depletion, floods, forest fires, famines, tsunamis and radioactive fallout.
- The “commons effect” is the feeling that my contribution to a problem is so small, how could it matter? “If I idle my car for 5 minutes it produces 100 grams of CO2. When a jumbo jet takes off it produces a tonne. It would take thousands of idling cars to match that!”
- Habitual behaviour is hard to change and the familiar is usually preferred. “I like my old gas guzzler and I think incandescent light is nicer than fluorescent lighting.”
- Apathy can help cope with the unthinkable. “We are here for a good time not a long time – it’s not really my concern.”
This is not an exhaustive list of mental strategies. The key is recognizing ineffective coping strategies and taking steps toward dealing effectively with a real problem. It may also be necessary to take these strategies into account when developing messages and proposing actions to deal with these difficult issues. People respond differently to the same information and “doom and gloom” scenarios are understandably hard to deal with. Psychology focuses on individual reactions but group dynamics are also important. The sociology of climate change denial, however, is a topic for another day. These cognitive factors suggest ways of approaching individuals who are attempting to deal with their role in climate change. Here are some suggestions.
- Deal with information, motivation and behaviour related to climate change holistically.
- Acknowledge the emotions created by the prospects for catastrophic change particularly fear, grief and anger (Joanna Macy).
- Moderate “alarm reactions” with specific suggestions to avoid the danger.
- Recognize or reframe the issues as national defence, public health, religious-ethical as well as “environmental” issues.
- Stress success and possibilities over “doom and gloom”. There are LOTS of good examples in books and on TV!
- Recognize diverse personal interests and social constituencies and work within their unique narratives: urban – rural, male – female, young – old, liberal – conservative, knowledgeable – naive.
- Connect people’s immediate needs and interests to the long term goals of “sustainability.”
- Build community “interdependence.” Caring and consideration for “seven generations” got our species through the last million years of evolution and is probably our best shot for the next million years.