Climate Change Denial

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March 12, 2008

Donkeys, Ice Cream and Climate Change

George Marshall @ 12:51 pm

donkeys-ice-cream-reduced.jpgWhy do the websites of progressive civil society organisations pay virtually no attention to climate change?

Here’s an interesting experiment. You can measure how seriously an organisation takes an issue by finding how many times it mentions it on their websites. After all, a website will contain its entire public output: every report, press release and leaflet. You can do it easily on Google. All you have to do is type the word (or phrase in inverted commas) you want to search followed by the word “site” and a colon followed by the domain name.

Two years ago, out of curiosity I typed 
climate change”
into Google. Absolutely nothing turned up. Amnesty International, the world’s most prestigious human rights organisation had not one single mention anywhere on its website of an issue that, a according to IPPC estimates will generate 150 million refugees by 2050 and, by the reckoning of the Pentagon and MoD, will become one of the key causes of future conflict.

The Human Rights Watch website mentioned climate change 16 times. This is slightly better until you consider the chances that any random phrase will appear on a large website. For the sake of comparison, I ran a wordsearch on two terms that have absolutely nothing to do with human rights; donkeys and ice cream. I must admit that I have had it in for donkeys ever since I discovered that the British Donkey Sanctuary raises a staggering £20 million a year to “rescue donkeys in distress”. It seems that Human Rights Watch also rates donkeys far above climate change- it mentioned them 67 times. And even ice cream received 25 mentions.

By now you see where I am going. I continued to run the same three wordsearches past a whole cluster of human rights and development organisations. The following all gave the phase “climate change” less than five mentions or less web attention that the two control terms:

Physicians for Human Rights, Oxfam US, CARE US, World Vision US, Save the Children UK, Survival International (the leading indigenous people’s campaign organisation), International Women’s Health Coalition, Womankind Worldwide, YWCA, European Council on Refugees and Exiles (the main umbrella body for refugee organisations) Refugees International, Family Health International.

Later that year I invited leading decision makers from the human rights and development sectors to explain what was going on. They came up with several cogent arguments for their lack of engagement- a belief that the issue was already being dealt with or that it was an ‘environmental issue and outside their mission; a fear of ‘mission creep’; and uncertainty about how they could usefully intervene.

But I think there were deeper reasons. The people who lead liberal organisations seem to find it just as difficult to accept climate change into their world view as people from the free market right. Their politics were molded by the issues of the 1970s and 1980s- social inequality, nuclear proliferation, neo-colonialism, gender issues, racism, homophobia. When they say that it is hard to see what their organisation can do, they are projecting their own confusion over how to absorb and respond to this vast new issue.

The end result is that progressive organisations do not merely sideline or underplay climate change: they actively censor all mention of it from their materials. Internally they argue that it is outside the area of issues relevant to their work. Publicly they do not deny the importance of climate change: they don’t say anything about it at all.

In doing this they are reflecting a wider social denial strategy, noted in several academic studies. The large majority of people, whilst noting that climate change is a serious issue, will admit to never talking about it in their daily life. They are managing the problem by actively excluding it from what sociologists call their ‘norms of attention’. Ironically this strategy mimics a common social response to human rights abuses: when asked, people admit that they heard the screams in the night or they noticed that people had disappeared, but, through  a socially negotiated compact, they never discussed what they know to be happening with each other.

Last week I repeated the wordsearch experiment. There are positive signs of change. Some major development organisations have broken ranks and are now giving climate change the attention it deserves. Oxfam UK, for example, gives it 1,700 mentions. Save the Children has finally got the message and has increased the number of mentions tenfold.

However the human rights organisations are still far from engaged. The Amnesty website now mentions “climate change” 57 times, but the control terms ‘ice cream’ and ‘donkey’ merit 71 and 141 mentions respectively.

In February, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that the issue of climate change is becoming of greater concern to his group, ‘particularly because of the refugee issue’ link… . But he refused to be drawn on when it might work on the issue. It is clear that the HRW website is still deliberately excluding mention of climate change. It now mentions climate change 32 times; ice cream is at 33 and donkeys are at 122. I could add that sweets are at 60 and chips are at 164.

Who knows, after another two years of climate disasters, front page news and apocalyptic research Human Rights Watch might pay more interest to the greatest threat to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people than it does to confectionary, snack foods and cute animals with big brown eyes.

My original wordsearch, interviews and analysis can be found in my chapter ‘Asleep on their watch: where were the NGOs?’ in: David Cromwell and Mark Levene (eds) Surviving Climate Change: The Struggle to Avert Global Catastrophe, Pluto Press 2007.

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22 responses to “Donkeys, Ice Cream and Climate Change”

  1. Sue J says:

    On a similar point, I have realised that schools are not really factoring it into their thinking either. Last autumn I did the rounds of secondary schools with my son, and sat through a memorable presentation in which the head teacher painted a glowing picture of how the school would enable the pupils to gain the knowledge they would need to play their part in the fast-paced, high-tech society that awaits them after school. I wanted to shout out “What about teaching them how to live in a post-carbon world?!” but of course (to save my son’s embarassment!) I didn’t. It is really quite alarming that schools are educating their pupils about living in a world that is fast disappearing, and will look very different by the time they leave school. I would be interested to know if you have done any research on this.

  2. John L. McCormick says:

    George, any .org having a board of directors is focused on that which they are funded/paid to focus upon.

    Having worked with several NGOs, it is frustrating to see and experience how linear they become…no comprehensive thinking and willingness to encompass greater concerns than those they already include in their domain.

    And, to broaden out to ‘environmental’ issues, they would have to staff up to meet that challenge. More staff = higher budget = raising more funds in a tight funding market.

    I have tried numerous times to engage NGOs working in the US on international rescue and relief to understand how their account will be overwhelmed when environmental refugees number in the millions. The conversation overwhelms. OXFAM appears to have gotten the message and struggling to find a meaningful response plan.

    And, in their defense, humanitarian groups say ‘ we can hardly handle Darfur. We cannot look at future problems’.

    Sad reality. NGOs track the funding dollars and go in that direction.

    John McCormick

  3. Taking up Sue’s comment re climate change, peak oil and the educational sector, at least OFSTED are aware of some of these deficiencies and I quote:

    ‘Geography is not doing enough to help children develop a picture of climate change, learn to lead sustainable lives and find their feet as global citizens of the 21st century.

    Yet at a time when geographical issues such as floods, rising sea levels, conflict resolution, famines and trade disputes constantly make the headlines, there is evidence that the provision of geography teaching in schools is declining.’

    Many children interviewed in Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) said that they found geography to be boring and irrelevant and the number of children choosing to study the subject at Key Stage 4 (age 14-16) continues to fall.

    Well…the incorporation of climate change issues into the geography curriculum should be a priority and a no-brainer. How on earth can we complain that our kids have no respect for their elders when our educational appointees in loco parentis devote their lives to hoodwinking them about the future?

  4. Jonathan says:

    Denial strategies are an interesting theme within a new book, The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. There are so many cognitive biases, aspects of the human condition that cause us to misinterpret or ignore the world around us and the consequences of our actions.

    These mechanisms mean smokers go on smoking even though they know it will kill them and we continue burning carbon even though the consequences are well known and increasingly inevitable.

  5. Annie Levy says:

    Guess what? If you type in “climate change”, your search will not match any documents (at least as of 13 March 2008). Donkey salvation activists are in serious denial that global warming will not impact the donkey community, and harshly at that. What do you think all those refugees will be riding when they come braying at our borders? Hee haw!

  6. Rog says:

    I have recently been impressed with the way that Oxfam have taken on climate change as an issue. I wonder if being such a large organisation gives them more ability to spend resources on this issue.

    “ice cream” gets 5 matches.

  7. Sam says:


    I am afraid I think that this study is fundamentaly flawed.

    Typing the phrase “climate change” is a specific database search string and is very unlikely to get many hits because people need to have written that precise string for it to be recognised by the search engine.

    Obviously, you can’t just use “climate” instead because that can be attributed to any number of circumstances and would take a very long time to search through the 44,300 results you get back to see if they are related. I would propose a more suitable word search which is likely to guarantee some sort of climate link and the best I have come up with is the rather unimaginative “environmental” (not to be confused with environment which could be related to anything), and get 17,700 responses.

    On the basis of that evidence you would say that are more proactive than the study initially suggests.

    Now I realise that “environmental” is probably going to be tenuous in relation to a number of the hits returned but I would suggest that many of the hits are in some way related to the whole climate change issue.

    [George replies- thank you Sam for giving this so much thought. But I don’t quite see what you mean. “Climate change” is not a complex string: it is the key phrase for describing this problem. So it is reasonable to assess the issue by the frequency with which people write ‘that precise string’. I looked through a few pages of the ‘environmental’ references and almost all refered to the repression of environmental activists. I also looked through many pages of the ‘climate’ search and, not surprisingly, found that every reference came from the use of the colloquial phrase ‘climate of’ terror/fear/etc. I should add, to be fair to Amnesty, that there are also some references to ‘global warming’- a staggering 44 of them, behind ‘bacon’, or ‘egg’ or ‘chips’, or ‘tea’.]

  8. John Revington says:

    I just listened to an interesting discussion about the psychology of human responses to climate change. It’s at:

    It made me wonder whether “why are we doing so little about climate change” is the most productive question to ask. After all, there is much about my own behaviour that I am totally at a loss to explain. Perhaps a more productive question is: “How can we persuade people to do more?” (Of course the words “we” and “people” will mean different things to different people).

    One of the questions the above discussion raised is whether democratic governments will be able to take the hard decisions needed to respond adequately to the problem. An optimistic view would be that if governments realise that people take the issue seriously, then they will have the courage to act.

    Was I supposed to be talking about donkeys and icecream? Well, at least I’ve mentioned them.

  9. I agree with the point of this, but I do see results for climate change on the amnesty website, even the specific phrase:

    [George writes: As I said in the article, I did the orginal search 2 years ago and since then the phrase ‘climate change” has started to slip bertween the cracks and make it onto the Amnesty website. The search you suggest gets 47 hits. But then try hamburger (63 hits), chocolate- (104 hits), chips (274). And when you search for any other serious global problem the scale of Amnesty’s indifference to this issue is really apparent. Try “cancer (1,630); “HIV” (4,600); “terrorism” (13,800); racism (24,300). I say what I said before- Amnesty is deliberately avoiding the connections between climate change and human rights]

  10. Danny Bloom says:

    John Revington, good post. I think the question of why aren’t we doing more about climate change might not be all that important because it is most likely that it is already too late to do anything about climate change. We passed the tipping point 40 years ago, maybe 10 years ago, maybe a year ago, but whatever, we continue to spew co2 into the air, the co2 spigot has not been turned off one bit and will not be turned off one bit in the near future, so maybe the question we should really be asking, a la James Lovelock, is: how should we plan and prepare for human population retreats in northern regions where breeding pairs of humans can continue the human species during a long period of northern habitation and what will these ”polar cities” look like?

    Why isn’t anyone addressing this question? Even as mere speculation? If there is nothing that can be done to stop what it coming, drip by drip, then shouldn’t we be preparing for future generations now? Or does nobody care about future generations, like 30 generations down the road. We have the chance now to plan for their future. Why is nobody asking those questions?

    Except for Professor Lovelock? See my polar cities website for some images and info, too.

  11. John Revington says:

    In my posting (March 19) I certainly did not claim, as Danny Bloom does (April 13)that it is too late to do anything about climate change. My suggestion is simply that we do not need to know why our response has been inadequate in order to mend our ways.

    I haven’t yet read George Marshall’s book ‘Carbon Detox’ but it has received rave reviews and I’m sure that for those who do not think it’s too late, it contains plenty of useful insights.

  12. cindy says:

    I was at the climate negotiations in Bali in December and ALL the big development groups were there in droves – all have joined the Climate Action Network. Oxfam, Christian Aid, Action Aid (in fact Oxfam had more people there than WWF and Greenpeace) Third World Network also very much present.

    They are all very much engaged at that policy level, strongly representing developing world civil society.

    However, not sure about Amnesty, HRW, etc.

  13. Merrick says:

    George, don’t be too harsh on the donkeys; it’s not their fault that everyone loves them.

    In the same way that humans are responsible for so much environmental catastrophe yet we shouldn’t hate everything pertaining to them, so we can love our donkeys whilst agreeing that they are overfunded.

    Anyone who tells me that they don’t get soppy over a good donkey is either weirdly phobic or lying.

    Regarding the NGOs, I think John McCormick’s right; they have to follow the funders to stay alive.

    For example, it’s plain that whales get people to open their wallets to Greenpeace more than anything else. So when – as happened – the Icelandic government decided to obliterate the largest pristine wilderness in Europe in order to build a climate-assaulting dam to power a climate-assaulting aluminium smelter, Greenpeace stayed schtum. It would’ve clashed with their efforts to tempt Iceland into stopping whaling.

    To them the whales are a sort of uber-donkey. No whale campaign, no money for whales or anything else.

    I suspect they underestimate the ability of funders to grasp new relevant issues, especially if explained from the trusted voice of the NGO itself. But I’m making that up, maybe I just hope people of conscience are more open and less sentimental than they really are.

    The bit that saddens me most is the factionalising among those who *are* campaigning on climate. They too play that NGO game; my biofuel issue is more important than your coal issue.

    I suspect that there may be some truth in your idea that it’s to do with the political mindset of that generation of activists and their formative issues, but seeing climate activists treat sub-issues so gladiatorially I also believe there’s a big part of it that’s due to the narrow and inflexible structuring of NGOs.

  14. Toban Black says:

    I’ll bet that other related environmental problems (e.g. fresh water depletion, e.g. species extinctions) receive even less attention from those NGOs.

    Global warming receives more faux-green rhetoric than the other eco. problems — though there has been some more drastic measures taken on other forms of environmental degradation. (The anti-CFC Montreal Protocol is one such effort that I have in mind.)

  15. Getting the peace & disarmament movement involved in other issues such as the environment is an uphill struggles as well. At least we have the excuse of being poorly funded (compared with Amnesty, Greenpeace, FOE, etc etc). But we do try to make the links with climate change, human rights etc. Sometimes it’s difficult to extend the remit of the organisation; the best some can do is offer links on the website and where funds permit, collaborate at meetings/conferences.

    I attended a conference in Oxford in March which did attempt to make the links between war, peace and climate change, from a religious perspective. Collaborations between the likes of Pax Christi, Christian CND, Operation Noah and Christian Ecology Link were encouraged. Next step the secular groups working in these areas …

  16. peter says:

    With the rising awareness of climate change and the effect that we are all having on the environment comes the parellel awareness that whatever we do will have very little effect on the final outcome.

  17. Rather than asking the human rights organisations to treat climate change as an issue within their mandate (which I agree they should be doing), perhaps we should be asking Greenpeace etc. to underline climate change as a human rights issue. When I explain why I’m concerned about climate change, I talk about desertification in Africa, flooding of Bangladesh, etc. It is a very strong argument, because it concretises the impact of these changes on real people’s lives. Human rights and climate change are inextricably linked, but it isn’t only the human rights organisations who have neglected to emphasise this.

  18. Red says:

    You ask: Why do the websites of progressive civil society organisations pay virtually no attention to climate change?

    The answer is very simple. Environmentalism is a deeply conservative ideology. It has for a while been synonymous with ‘progressive’ and ‘left’ movements for a variety of reasons. But this relationship is becoming increasingly tenuous, as people begin to recognise the entirely retrogressive nature of the anti-industrial, anti-progress, and misantrhopic character of the green movement.

    The shrill hectoring of anyone who fails to make sufficient green noises by C-C activists doesn’t help your cause.

    Please, keep it up.

  19. Ellie says:

    It would also be hard for Amnesty / HRW (and even Oxfam etc) to take climate change seriously because they LOVE their aeroplane flights. Those well-paid London / New York-based consultants would get far less job satisfaction if they could not whizz off to exotic points around the globe to tell the locals what to do. Taking climate change seriously might even mean taking devolved power seriously; it might mean starting to promote genuinely sustainable NGOs in the countries they are supposed to be helping.

    Sorry if this sounds super-cynical but I have seen it from the inside, and it stinks.

  20. John K says:

    George Orwell wrote that “To see what is under your nose requires an intense struggle.” Amidst our confusion, or often willfully, we will miss the most simple and obvious things. This divorce from reality aids us in the pecking order, and can be observed in donkeys, also. Our powers of inattention are really exercised when it comes to the growth imperative. All around us are the innumerous signs of the destructive changes we have wrought and still we soldier on, bound to “economic growth.” Without trouncing the illogic of this evil, and banishing it from our “norms of attention,” how can any meaningful progress be made?

  21. Ian Rowberry says:

    My apologies – I may have been a bit hasty here, George. My point still holds true re. the search method, but I may have been getting you confused with the George C. Marshall Institute… (Is that your intention?!)

  22. Ian Rowberry says:

    Huh? The hasty comment never appeared – I assumed it was being moderated. Oh well. I just wanted to back up Matthew’s point that there are actually documents dating to 2002 on the Amnesty website that mention climate change. Still late to the party.

    FYI, if you google “honesty” with your website, for example, you get zero hits. Your search method could bite you back…

    [George says: hang on a minute- it’s a cute point, but my website is very small and there are lots of words that don’t appear on it. The vast international organisations I mention have huge websites and despite this “Honesty” only gets 47 mentions on the Amnesty site. It’s hardly a key term. Anyway, thanks for mentioning it: now I have three mentions on mine!]

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