Climate Change Denial

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January 10, 2011


George Marshall @ 12:35 pm

I post a video presentation that provides accessible (and hopefully entertaining) summary of current research into the psychology of climate change- in particular the key question explored by this blog: why it is so hard to accept ? It covers a lot of ground in just 20 minutes and I hope that you enjoy it.

It comes from a keynote presentation I made at the University of the West of England back in 2009 and it was never intended to be shared (I didn’t even know they were taping it). One day I would love do something on this topic that is much tighter and really well designed – maybe something as zappy and engaging as The Story of Stuff (by the wonderful Annie Leonard) but in the mean time this will just have to do.

It comes in three parts- they don’t need to be viewed sequentially…in fact I think Part Two is the most interesting section to start with:

Part One: Risk, Belief and Attention.
I argue that we do not feel threatened by climate change because it is almost perfectly constructed to bypass our innate capacity to evaluate risk. For this reason I suggest that the raw information and evidence is unlikely to persuade us and actual belief will need to be socially constructed. I argue that the way that we are socially negotiating climate change has some unsettling similarities to the way that we have historically denied human rights abuses- in particular the ways that we define climate change as being outside the area of legitimate social concern.

Part Two: Stories
I argue that we mediate information about climate change in a social context and make sense of it through constructed narratives or storylines.
These storylines have been under a constant state of change since the 1980s (and earlier). I argue that a historical and ideological convenience led to climate change being defined as an ‘environmental problem’ and that many of the metaphors and images we associate with it follow this definition which arbitrarily restricts the resonance of the issue. As evidence I discuss why the websites of human rights organisations give more attention to ice cream than to climate change.

Part Three- Evasion Strategies
In part three, drawing on the social attitudes research, I look in detail at a range of the specific strategies that people adopt to avoid dealing with climate change. These include:
Distancing – defining climate change as far away, in the future or someone else’s problem.
Compartmentalising – finding ways to resolve the dissonance between highly polluting personal behaviour and knowledge of its impacts.
Positive Framing – how we seek to turn climate change into a personal advantage.
Ethical Offsets – how we adopt the easiest behaviours as proof of our virtue.
Cynicism– the commercial appropriation of climate change images.
What happens next? – surprisingly – what happens next

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