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

Please provide your comments, share these with anyone who might like them and embed them anywhere you want.

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  1. Georgia says:

    Thank you for this deconstruction of what is happening in people’s minds re climate. I can see myself being buffeted by the social norms that are solidifying around the different ways to deny it. I have learned that I have accepted that it is not to be discussed in certain circles, and reminds me of how being gay is the same; it’s ok so long as you don’t mention it, in some circles at least. I get so exasperated when friends tell me the “facts” about climate change that they seem to have sourced from the latest or strongest round of social myths, which contradict what I have read in the science. It is true that they believe more strongly in what they have heard most often from most people, than what comes from the more reliable sources such as peer reviewed science. I am recently in love with someone who lives interstate and am flying as often as I need to to be with her. I justify this by offsetting my seat and believing our love justifies the air travel. I have solar panels on my roof and am trying to get my petrol car converted to electric. I have tried at work to raise awareness, but the denial tricks are so ingrained. Thank you for this explanation of the ways in which we construct belief and for opening my mind to my own weaknesses in the face of fact. …thank you for listening too x x for the Earth

  2. Mark R says:

    Excellent, excellent exposition. The biggest obstacle I have to acting fully in my own life is the consequent, permanent sacrifices that are required. It is impossible to be a human being and not contradict oneself, so hypocrisy is no surprise in each of us, especially with this issue. I have no hope for the future, since humans have so stubbornly resisted facing up to this crisis. Thus, “what happens next” is the most compelling question for me, and for all of us now.

  3. Martin Parkinson says:

    Triffic – thanks for posting this – nice to actually see you rather than just read your words.

    So, did you reply to that local woman who seemed surprisingly keen to talk about Chinese energy policy? This is something that I wonder about for myself – whether and how to engage in this sort of conversation. I suppose my personal offset is that as I don’t fly, don’t drive and am basically a boring stay-at-home, then I’m let off the socially embarrassing requirement to preach!

  4. Robert M Stahl says:

    In this youtube video featuring Noam Chomsky, he states a case for an entire classification of scientists being kept out of the public debate, and I think this is the most important point and left out here. I appreciate the stance of educating the public to the facts of bad juxtaposition in magazines and everywhere else, a noble cause, but see this video and know that James Lovelock is at the forefront of this classification system that is different in the first place. Look at some of the videos of him and tell me why his contribution is not put in, or put in context in general public discourse. Now, THERE is a juxtaposition out of place!

  5. Kristin Rule says:

    Dear George, thanks so much for your thoughts, research and passion into this issue. I’ve been searching for some answers as to how the obvious can be so easily ignored. You’ve certainly provided a wonderful platform from which I can explore this further. I will be sharing this with anyone who is not afraid to confront/grow their own perspectives and self awareness. Kind Regards, Kristin

  6. James Atkins says:

    This is a great blog and video. Thank you! Have you done any work into the related question as to why it is that there is an uneven distribution of climate change denial/skepticism across the political spectrum – a lot of them are huddled in the right-wing camp esp. the Tea Party kind of right wing? I have guessed that is something about the ability to empathise across time and space, but if you know of some serious work on it, I would be interested to hear of it.

  7. Chas Booth says:

    Brilliant presentation. I’ve been mentioning it to friends and colleagues for the last week.

    Do you have a copy of your slides (as pdf?) to download anywhere?

  8. I appreciate your posting on a critical topic about which most people seem unaware. The stakes have just gone up dramatically as the climate destabilization debate has been hijacked by corporate funded artificial personas. Corporate-funded online astroturfing has become a direct threat to public discourse. See

    This automated powerwash of false voices washes away actual human speech, shifting the Overton Window by brute force.

  9. What about the branding of climate change as a ‘new religion’ in some quarters? Nigel Lawson tends to do this, suggesting that rational debate is being stifled. The main thrust is to suggest the climate change campaign is either puritan or similar (at least psychologically) to apocalyptic mythology, and imposes an orthodoxy which we are not allowed to challenge. This seems to me the most difficult form of denial of all to deal with.

  10. Jaakko says:

    George, if I may call you by your first name,

    First of all, I hope you still read these comments.

    I’m a simple naval officer living in an Arctic country (Finland). I Just came back from the U.S. after a three year tour as the defense attache.

    I really enjoyed your analysis on how people react to these things. I saw the whole scope of reactions to news and facts about climate change, and some of the statements really surprised me. I just could’t understand them.

    I cannot say anymore, as I’m still working for the Finnish Defence. But thank you for sharing your enjoyable anlysis.


  11. opit says:

    You have just provided an exhaustive analysis based on a premise of allegations about what other people think. I found it much more instructive to find that out firsthand.
    Point : Climate Change Denial exists only in the minds of those who wish to shift the Overton Window from what is real to what is not.

  12. Crypto666 says:

    I have seen a number of articles attempting to describe the psychology behind climate skeptics, but nothing attempting to describe the believers’ underpinnings. It appears that if you don’t believe CO2 is controlling the climate, there must be something wrong with you. I personally feel that the chances of someone believing or denying is rooted in the person’s own self-image (self-worth, shame, guilt) than actual science. Being a scientist I work with scientists and I don’t know of any who do not have reservations about anthropogenic origins. That is what being a scientist is about; doubt.
    Let me tell you what is wrong with me; a skeptic. Part of my salary is funded by climate change studies. So I have put some time and thought into this matter, yet I still remain skeptical. Why? Well that is easy, I have always refused to buy in to fashion. I have reviewed a number of articles and research proposals from the scientists and groups promoting anthropogenic climate change. A recent article from a major university is the epitome what is wrong with CO2 science. In this article and many others they talk as though climate change is new; it is not. They talk as though the climate can be controlled; it cannot. They talk about ecological responses to climate change and events that are “sure” to occur; that is easy to say with certainty when it has ALREADY BEEN OBSERVED. Many of these articles appear to be written by people who have been locked up in academia all there life and have never actually worked in the real world. We have 100+ years of ecological research describing changes in climate that have already occurred, and are still occurring. It is not new. Some of this research gets mentioned by the IPCC studies, but then gets conveniently left out of spin-off research. For example, when they show how “stable” the climate has been for the past 8000 years with sediment studies, when in fact it was not stable. Then when the discussion turns to the shifting/migration of species in the environment due to changes in climate, they forget about the sediment studies that show how species have shifted historically over the past 8000 years and instead present this idea as new and unprecedented. That is clear evidence of CO2 science moving from the realm of science to that of religion. If you don’t believe me, read the Yale Framework for Land Mangers. I have never read an ecology article or study proposal that completely dismissed the volumes of research that preceded it; normally one wants to take previous research into account when doing new research.
    What I haven’t seen mentioned much is the evidence that shows that a majority of ancient civilizations, that did not burn fossil fuels, met their demise as a result of, at least in part, climate change.
    Hey, instead of talking about what is wrong with those who don’t follow fashion, let’s talk about the pitfalls of not following fashion, i.e. if you don’t believe there must be something wrong with you.
    The truth is if the CO2 science is correct in everything they claim, then it doesn’t matter; game over. If you truly believe, you should just give up. With our track record of correcting ecological problems, our (govt policy, etc) actions are more likely to accelerate our demise than they are to correct it. Wars start now….

    George writes: Thank you for your long and thoughtful contribution- of course we disagree about climate change, but I think you are entirely right to identify the role of fashion (which I would see as a kind of structured social norm) in forming views..and I would add that there is a complex psychology that underlies all beliefs- pro as well as anti- anthropogenic climate change. However, although I argue that public opinions on climate change are socially constructed beliefs (as are public opinions on any science based issue such as the links of smoking and cancer), there is an empirical basis that informs that belief and it’s certainly strong enough for me..]

  13. I figure it isn’t worthwhile trying to convince the real sceptics (or are they just people with vested interests) of climate change. How about this for an approach.

  14. Emanuel says:

    To Crypto666:
    “Being a scientist I work with scientists and I don’t know of any who do not have reservations about anthropogenic origins.”

    – I do not believe for one second you are a scientist after reading your comments; you say the majority of ancient civilizations met their demise as a result of climate change. That statement is not wrong, however, it is fallacious when taken out of context: even ancient climate change was at least partially due to human beings and their thirst for overconsumption. Even though fossil fuels weren’t present, overfarming, clear-cutting forrests, erosion, and generally unsustainable practices did exist in ancient times. Many civilizations met their demise because of social greed manifested in overconsumption which is what we’re going through presently. The difference: we DO have fossil fuels and we DO have a global market capable of harvesting resources in a way previously unimagined and impossible simply because this access to cheap, high-quality energy we call fossil fuels jump-started a technological revolution wave we’re still riding, but not for long. It was a good ride, but the greed of human nature will be our demise again. And of course peolpe are going to blame each other, but in reality EVERYONE is responsible for global climate change.
    Stop acting as if you’re skeptical and admit you really just want to continue to enjoy these superficial comforts current society is built on.

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