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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!”
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.”
  8. 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.
  9. 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!
  10. 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.”
  11. 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.”
  12. 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?
  13. The “Cassandra effect” is our habituation to repeated alarms – terror attacks, pandemics, asteroids, earthquakes, ozone depletion, floods, forest fires, famines, tsunamis and radioactive fallout.
  14. 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!”
  15. 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.
  16. 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.

  1. Deal with information, motivation and behaviour related to climate change holistically.
  2. Acknowledge the emotions created by the prospects for catastrophic change particularly fear, grief and anger (Joanna Macy).
  3. Moderate “alarm reactions” with specific suggestions to avoid the danger.
  4. Recognize or reframe the issues as national defence, public health, religious-ethical as well as “environmental” issues.
  5. Stress success and possibilities over “doom and gloom”. There are LOTS of good examples in books and on TV!
  6. Recognize diverse personal interests and social constituencies and work within their unique narratives: urban – rural, male – female, young – old, liberal – conservative, knowledgeable – naive.
  7. Connect people’s immediate needs and interests to the long term goals of “sustainability.”
  8. 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.
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  • There is another complexity relating to the use of the phrase ‘climate change denial’.
    Generally speaking, you cannot find a person who denies climate change. In fact,the suggestion of a duality of limited oppositional possibility is itself outside the parameters of scientific method. The same should be said about the idea of ‘climate scientists’, a new field playing with mathematical modeling of limited parameters and utilizing assigned values to processes difficult to detect and perhaps impossible to measure…and ignoring any possibility of variable parameters affecting the scenario. To then take these as legitimate forecasting techniques would go beyond any established boundary of understanding and proven methodology – and would be built itself upon speculation.
    Let aside the speculations and pejorative attacks of motivation of dissent. Why should such speculation be taken both as a given and guide ?
    For starters, none seem to allow for the depletion of natural resources. I saw one report which indicated that there are not 3 years supply of coal left in Appalachia at the current rate of despoilation. Another tells of 1 billion people under threat of imminent starvation.
    Looking at the activities of fracking destroying drinkable water and GM seeds destroying heritage seedstocks plus failing as a crop to weeds onw would have to say that there will be a drastic culling of humankind which will curtail pollution sveerly – though none too soon.
    So we are looking at projections flawed on the basis of not being based in the reality in which we exist…but in an artifical game…and which do not reflect factors of changing consumption realistically.
    Suzuki Elders have already noted the variations in planetary temperature which exist in prehistory. Without any understanding and accounting of such, our models are mere fantasy.

  • Bob – many thanks for this well thought out presentation. I too am working these days to better understand what lies underneath the reluctance of many to openly acknowledge climate change,and/or take some personal action (of any size) – or even to have a reasonable conversation about climate change. For me, always interested in building and supporting grassroots movement(s), understanding resistance (of regular folks) helps me better formulate more effective communication and action. This was, for sure, useful in my women’s movement days in the 1970’s/80’s and beyond.

    I recently read a book that is helping me put together a deeper analysis/understanding of this matter – “Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity” by Mike Hulme of the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, UK (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Prof. Hulme is a climate change scientist who is also doing some thoughtful philosophical ‘wondering.’ He details (and detail is the key word here!), with great heart and knowledge, these reasons for why we disagree about climate change.
    1. Because science is not doing the job we expect or want it to.
    2. Individuals and societies ascribe values to activities, assets, constructs and resources, and we ascribe these values differently.
    3. Because we believe different things about our duty to others, nature and our deities.
    4. Because we experience fear, and evaluate risk, differently.
    5. Because we recieve multiple and conflicting messages about climate change and we interpret them in different ways.
    6. Because we understand “development” diferently.
    7. Because we seek to govern in different ways.
    8. Because, by framing climate change as a mega problem it demands a mega solution which creates a political logjam – – it becomes tied to food security, poverty, forests, biodiversity, loss, etc.

    He describes climate change as a “wicked problem” – by this he means it is unique, with no definiteive formulation, which requires not one, but many “clumsy” solutions. And he speaks of four myths: The Lament of Eden (borne of nostalgia), Presaging the Apocalypse (borne of fear), Constructing Babel (borne of pride/excessive self confidence and the desire to dominate) and Celebrating Jubilee (borne of justice).

    He ends up in a place that took me by surprise – – “solving climate change should not be focus of our efforts any more than we should be ‘solving’ the idea of human rights or liberal democracy…we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change – the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discoureses and material flows that climate change reveals – to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.” (p. 362)

    And, important for me, as a human being trying to get along/work with others as well as someone trying to make meaning of our environmental dilemma, he reminds, “let us at least recognize that the sources of our disagreement aboutr climate change lie deep within us, in our values and in our sense of identify and purpose. They do not reside ‘out there’ as a result of our inability to grasp knowingly some ultimate physical reality…our disagreements should, at best, always lead us to learn more about ourselves – our lament for th epast, our fear of the future, our desire for control and our instinct for justice—our engagement with climate change and the disagreement that it spawns should always be a form of enlightenment.” (p 364)

    This book gives me much to reflect on – I highly recommend it.

  • That’s a wonderful job of browbeating people to accept reported ‘scientific concensus.’ Why have I then been able to find so much variation in analysis ?
    But the kicker is dead simple…though the thrust to sell alarm is a wonder itself.
    There is no such thing as scientific prediction of the future.
    Nor have I seen argument for modeling as prediction which respects the limits of human understanding.

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