The Psychology of Climate Crisis Denial

By December 7, 2009 February 24th, 2013 Deniers and Delayers

Irrefutable and unequivocally are two very exact words that have been used by the most authoritative bodies of science to qualify the validity, current impacts and dangerous planetary risks associated with the climate crisis. The debate over causation was over in the 20th Century. What is the deal?

There have been an increasing number of publications discussing this most extraordinary issue, and the pages of this journal of discovery have seen their own share of suggestions about why the disbelief and contrarianism continue under such a high degree of certainty as is shown in the climate science. Here are some explanations that I have gathered from several publications:

  • Individual’s are reluctant to give up their comfortable lifestyles. We don’t want to travel less, do less, eat less, or by any means, consume less.

  • Every day we see up to a couple of hundred advertisement and are possibly exposed to several thousand. The great majority of these advertisements, possibly over a million per year, tell us that we can have a better life through consuming their product. How are we supposed to reduce with pressure like this?

  • It is human nature to block or shut out terrifying information.  Those of us who have not known a cancer victim that has been in complete denial are either lucky or really young.

  • Everyone else is in denial.

  • Climate change is a great way to practice procrastination. 

  • Blame China or India.

  • Conclude that one person is no match for the "global solution".

  • Almost everyone is not being affected, and has never been affected by climate change.

  • The supposed coldest and wettest periods in history having occurred in some areas recently means that global warming is not real – how could it be?

  • How can we know what the future will bring? We have never, ever known what the future holds for us. This is possibly the biggest counter-intuitive climate science issue there is.

  • Our society has never experienced climate change before, we do not know how to behave. We do not understand a climate that is different from the one we know.

  • Unstoppable and irreversible are descriptors that have only been used for weather events in the past.  Our society knows that weather events may be deadly, but will not impact the globe, or for that matter really that many individuals.

  • Climate change is associated with the only thing that the public knows about climate – the weather. Very few understand the difference between weather and climate.

  • Weather Persons, TV weather personalities, etc. are vastly different from climate scientists. Climate concerns time periods longer than thirty years, Weather concerns time periods less than 14 days.

  • Other authority figures, like the Bush Administration have an enormous impact on public thinking, not to mention the false authority of negative propaganda put out by moneyed interests.

  • Religion is possibly the biggest reason for denial. More than half of Americans have Creationsists’ beliefs. How can an individual believe that the Earth is only 10,000 years old and at the same time understand hundreds of thousands of years of climate data from ice cores, or millions of years of climate data from sediment?

  • Climate scientists, like all scientists are conservative. The language that they use  generally doesn’t mean what the non scientists public understands these words to mean. Scientists rarely use definitive verbs, because even when something is 99.7% likely, it is still not an absolute certainty. Definitive verbs imply absolute certainty. A scientists’ ethics prevent him or her from imply absolute certainty unless the event in question is 100% certain.

  • The outright lies: A common one is that warming has plateaued in the last decade.  This could not be further from the truth. Global temperatures have plateaued, or even peaked, in 2006, not 2000. The global temperature chart on the right shows no plateau, and unless one is blind to the annual variability, or chaos in the record, one would be hard pressed to say that our global temperature has even peaked, much less plateaued. What happened between 1940 and 1980 was a plateau. It happened because of particulate pollution form rapid industrialization without pollution controls. When pollution controls went into effect in the late 1970s, the problem was rapidly corrected.

  • There is another downright contrarian lie that the media is perpetrating now that is particularly telling of the gall of the perpetrators.  The lie is that climate scientists are having a particularly hard time explaining "why" our climate has plateaued.  Well, dangit, our climate has not plateaued, and the scientists have an excellent explanation of why the last few years have not continued on to set new record high global temperatures. So this is a double lie. The reason(s) that our global average temperature has not gone on to  set continued records is ENSO, the PDO and the 22-year Sunspot Cycle (see here).

  • The ADD American public:  Television, conspicuous consumption and instant gratification have created an Attention Deficit Disordered public. Science is not an easy read, climate science is even worse than most sciences. Climate scientists are not unlike other scientists either, they are not educators or entertainers. Consequently, there is little public patience. Or is just plain irresponsibility?

  • The psychology that I am most concerned about however is that of compassion, responsibility, ethics and morals.  I know it is widespread, but I am afraid it is even more widespread than I fear. People just do not care. If it is not affecting them here and now, for whatever justifications are handy at the movement, they don’t care.

Anthony Grayling , a philosophy professor at the University of London.

Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox University in Galesburg, Illinois.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy, professor of social philosophy at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.

Scientific American, November 30, 2009