Climate Change Denial

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July 25, 2007


George Marshall @ 5:56 pm

dog-poo.jpgRecent MORI poll data reveals that that most people still believe that climate change is undecided, in the future, somewhere else and someone else’s problem – all, need I say, classic denial strategies. As a local concern it rates behind dog poo.

Ipsos-MORI’s new report ‘Tipping Point or Turning Point- a report on social attitudes to climate change’ makes disturbing reading.

As noted in previous postings the mendacious, cynical and utterly irresponsible Swindle programme (and the media that praised it) has been seized upon as an excuse for delaying decision making. 40% of people agree that ‘climate change is too complex and uncertain for scientists to make useful forecasts’. And 56% of people agree that ‘many leading experts still question if human activity is contributing to climate change?’A quarter of people tend to agree that “too much fuss is made about climate change nowadays”.

The sense of doubt seeded by the denial industry has also encouraged two thirds of people to say ‘I need more information to form a clear opinion about climate change’. When they say this, I don’t believe that they actually want more information – there is plenty out there if they want it. I think they are happily adopting the excuse that the science is undecided to create an obstacle to personal engagement.

A third of people say that they have not personally seen any evidence of climate change and 60% of people say that it will have ‘little or no’ impacts on them personally. However, when asked how much effect it ‘will have on future generations’ the response reverses- 89% of people say a lot or a great deal.

What is interesting about this is that people are far more confident about these future impacts than they are about the science itself or the evidence that it is based on. So people’s confidence in the reality of the problem increases the further they can push it away.

There is a similar response to questions relating to the location of the impacts. Whilst 45% see climate change as “the most serious threat to future global well being’, less than 20% see ‘the environment’ as “the most important issue facing Britain today”.

The good news is that terrorism and climate change have swapped places in terms of their perceived global threat. The bad news is that people have no perception at all of climate change as a personal or local threat. When asked which three issues cause them ‘the most concern in their local environment’ only 25% rate climate change. 54% of people are most concerned about car fumes, litter, graffiti and ‘dog mess’. Clearly people’s definition of environment is flexible enough to include any number of personal grievances

The vast majority of people in the MORI polling abnegate personal responsibility for the problem. When asked how much influence different actors can have on limiting climate change, 60% of people said that they personally have little or none influence. 80% of them believe that government  or industry should deal with it.

So, once again, people become more confident about agency the further away from themselves they place it.  They are also disconcertingly confident that ‘Britain can make a real difference to stopping global climate change’ (two thirds agree) and that the ‘world community can find a solution’  to the problems posed by climate change (46% agree).

This optimism, whilst touching, derives from the definition of climate change as someone else’s problem. It is hardly justified by people’s response to the question : What is the number one thing you are doing to tackle climate change? 37% say nothing. No more than 2% claim to be doing any of the measures which would significantly reduce their emissions.

The leading personal action- after doing nothing- is recycling. As noted by MORI, recycling has become a token behaviour. I would go further and say that it is not so much tokenistic as fetishistic and that it is a classic displacement activity

People display alarming ignorance of the actions that would ‘do the most to help reduce climate change’. 40% mention recycling but only 17% mention reducing travel or energy use.  11% mention taking fewer foreign holidays.

When people perceive that they are failing to match their actions with an issue that most of them regard as a major problem (for someone or other), they resolve the dissonance by reinterpreting the things they ‘should-do’ to align with the things they ‘do-do’. So they redefine all the evidence to persuade themselves that their personal responsibility rests with tiny totemistic actions like re-using plastic bags.

We really are deep in the do-do.

Thanks to MORI for sharing the draft of ‘Tipping Point or Turning Point- a report on social attitudes to climate change’. It can be downloaded at

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July 21, 2007


George Marshall @ 10:01 pm

The Live Earth concerts played strongly to people’s denial strategies by promoting tokenistic activities and encouraging a bystander mentality, argues George Marshall.

The Live Earth concerts aimed to use music and modern media, in the words of the organisers, to “trigger a global movement to solve the climate crisis”. 

I sincerely hope that it works, but I fear that our refusal to acknowledge climate change has very deep roots – too deep to be addressed by feel-good concerts. After all, we have known about climate change for a surprisingly long time and all those voluminous reports and portentous political statements have done is to help us to develop the knack of separating what we know from what we do. 

So Live Earth tried a new approach. If you can’t produce change with the cold facts, it reckoned, maybe you can capture people’s imagination by making climate change accessible, groovy, sexy and fun. It is a marketing logic that works well for consumer goods, and let’s face it, global rock concerts would shift any product. If Live Earth were Live Knitwear, Pringle would shoot into the FTSE 100. 

Live Earth will create some buzz and interest around climate change. But I do not believe it  can produce significant change because it fundamentally misunderstood the challenge. The reason we are not doing enough about climate change is not because we don’t know about it, or that it is not hip, or that we don’t care. The problem is that we are locked into patterns of collective denial and have adopted a wide range of strategies to avoid accepting personal responsibility. 

Psychologists observe that the more witnesses there are to a crime, the lower the chance  that any of them will intervene. Major assaults can happen in busy shopping streets and no  one does anything because they are all looking at their watches and saying, “I wonder when the police will get here?” I fear that Live Earth fell straight into a similar trap. It created two billion bystanders getting hip to the climate beat and demanding to know when someone is going to do something about this awful climate change thing. 

Such was the bloated egotism of the rock business that throughout the concerts we were told that our bystander role as participants in their concerts was itself an act against climate change. “Here we are”, it shouted though the speaker stacks, “two billion people all around the world standing shoulder to shoulder demanding that something happens about climate change”. 

Live Earth also played strongly to another powerful denial strategy- the adoption of minimal and tokenistic behaviours as proof of our virtue. We are constantly encouraged to believe that we are ‘making a difference’ and ‘saving the world’ with small steps that, in terms of our overall emissions, have little if any effect. 

For the month leading up to the concerts, the Live Earth website urged us to adopt what it called ‘cute solutions’ such as recycling our plastic bags and turning our electronics off standby- two measures which might salve our conscience but make very little difference to climate change. 

Live Earth also called on people to “answer the call” and sign a pledge which, despite its grand ambitions, has been encouraging people for a month to turn off their lights and use the bus once a week. In the UK we had Joss Stone patronizingly telling us to ‘go on, plant a tree, it’s that easy. It takes five minutes, just dig a little hole pop the little tree in and put the soil over it’. The keynote speech before Madonna came on was given to Terence Stamp, an actor with no experience in communicating climate change, who told us that we should turn off the lights when we leave the room- it’s not too much to ask’ because ‘‘when one leaf changes the whole tree changes’. 

The promotion of tiny and largely meaningless actions is at the heart of the Live Earth model of behaviour change. A follow up e-mail this week to all pledgers quoted an email from a ‘Meghan L. in Cardiff by the Sea’ with her ideas that ‘exemplify the kinds of change that we want to inspire’. They included such challenging proposals as: use cloth napkins more; use less plastic bags; minimize use of batteries; and nplug stuff we’re not using.

Are Live Earth’s ambitious really so low? Where is the fire, and the anger, and the leadership? The theory is that these bite sized simple first steps encourage and empower further actions. All the evidence – and there is plenty of it- is that this will not work. No mass movement or widespread social change has ever been inspired by napkins. It is mendacious to suggest that the low carbon economy can be created by these tiny measures. And dangerous too, because it encourages people to undervalue the seriousness of the issue or to adopt minimal tokenistic behaviours. 

This could have been a revolution if the music had been the backdrop to a mass rally with clear political objectives. Imagine millions of people taking to the streets around the world with a coherent agenda for slashing greenhouse gas emissions. But it was not. It was a set of rock concerts with climate infomercials spliced between bands singing about the people they fancy. The music contained virtually no mention of climate change and lacked the anger, fear and aggression needed to galvanise change. 

The 80,000 people in Wembley did not march on parliament- they marched to the car park and drove home, happy in the knowledge that they had really done something about climate change and had a fun day to boot. The viewers got up, stretched and boiled the kettle for a cup of tea using exactly the right amount of water.

Rather than concentrating on small steps or personal abstinence, Live Earth could be promoting a far more exciting vision of the sustainable low-carbon world we need to create: a world based around health, animal and social rights, justice for the poor, good housing for all, and the promotion of happiness rather than consumption. This is what would inspire real social and political change. 

My hope is that the campaign groups who are working with Live Earth, like the UK Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, will be able to follow up on these events and persuade a few of the participants to take substantive action. We will only have one shot at this kind of global circus before cynicism sets in or people say ‘oh, climate change, wasn’t that last year’s thing?’

This is an updated and rewritten version of an article that was published in The Guardian newspaper three days before Live Earth Link….


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