Climate Change Denial

August 20, 2014

Climate Change: the Slippery, Shape Shifting, Jelly Mould Threat

George Marshall @ 5:41 pm

Climate is not the perfect cognitive challenge but its amorphous nature creates the ideal conditions for human denial and cognitive bias to come to the fore

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is not hopeful. “I am very sorry,” he told me, “but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”

Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics for his research on the psychological biases that distort rational decision-making. One of these is “loss aversion”, which means that people are far more sensitive to losses than gains. He regards climate change as a perfect trigger: a distant problem that requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future. This combination is exceptionally hard for us to accept, he told me.

Kahneman’s views are widely shared by the other cognitive psychologists I interviewed for my new book  Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. As Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist and best selling author on happiness, told me: “A psychologist could barely dream up a better scenario for paralysis.”

People from other disciplines also seem to view climate change as a “perfect” problem. Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, describes it as the “perfect market failure”. Philosopher Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington in Seattle says it is a “perfect moral storm”.

Everyone is confident that they have found the real reason why we find it so hard to act on climate change. Climate scientists say that people don’t understand the science. Environmental campaigners say that the political process is corrupted by oil companies. Oil companies say that the political process is corrupted by environmental campaigners. Mark Berliner, a professor of statistics at Ohio State University, says that our failure comes from our “aversion to statistical thinking.” And communications specialists such as myself say—lo and behold—that the main reason why people have not responded to this threat has been because of failed communications.

If climate change really is the “elephant in the room”, it is a pitch black room, and, like the blind men in Rumi’s ancient fable, we are all feeling different parts of it and drawing our own, culturally biased conclusions about what they might be.

Which points to the real problem: climate change is exceptionally amorphous, even slippery, problem. It is multivalent—that is to say, it is open to multiple meanings and interpretations. It provides us with no defining qualities that would give it a clear identity: no deadlines, no geographic location, no single cause or solution and, critically, no obvious enemy. Our brains scan it for the usual cues that we use to process information about the world and evaluate threats. And we find none.

And so we impose our own and shape shape it, like jelly (jell-o to Americans) in the mould of our own values and worldviews. This is a dangerous situation, leaving climate change wide open for miscategorization and, another of Kahneman’s biases, an assimiliation bias that shapes climate change according to peoples pre-held assumptions.

Which raises a further question: is climate change really cognitively challenging at all? Or does it just seem so because of the stories that communicators shape around it?

For example, the media and many campaigners present it as an overwhelming and possibly hopeless struggle – leading to feelings of powerlessness. Scientists reinforce distance with computer predictions set two generations in the future and their constant talk of uncertainty. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses the word “uncertain” more than once per page.

Discussions about economics, meanwhile, invariably turn into self defeating cost-benefit analyses. Stern offers a choice between spending 1 per cent of annual income now, or risking losing 20 per cent of it in 50 years’ time. What sounds like an easy choice (a ‘no-brainer’ we could say) to him is actually disconcertingly similar to the language used in Daniel Kahneman’s famous experiments into temporal discounting. And, not surprisingly it produces the same result: phrased as a choice, people are innately biased to postponing action and taking a gamble on the future. What is more, politicians and business leaders are especially to prone to what Kahneman would call the ‘optimism bias’ – the tendency to overestimate their own luck and skill- and are all too willing to take this gamble.

Clearly cost and uncertainty cannot be overwhelming or universal psychological barriers when polls consistently find that 15 per cent of people fully accept the threat and are willing to make personal sacrifices to avert it. What is important is that these people have political convictions that can readily trump the cognitive challenges. Most of the people in this group have left wing politics or environmentalist values and have managed to turn climate change into a narrative that fits with their existing criticisms of industry and growth.

Conservatives may justify climate inaction on the grounds of cost and uncertainty but they, too, are able to accept both for other issues that speak to their core values. Mitt Romney, the first US presidential candidate to openly deny climate change, justified increasing spending for the military because “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.” Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a 1 per cent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.”

Strongly held values can explain the convictions of those at the ends of the political spectrum, but they do not adequately explain the apparent indifference of the large majority in between. If asked, most agree that climate change is a serious threat, but without prompting they cannot even recall that it exists.

This disavowal is similar to that found around human rights abuses, argued the late Stanley Cohen, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. He suggested that we know very well what is happening but “enter into unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged”.

Our response to climate change is uncannily similar to an even more universal avoidance: our unwillingness to face our own mortality. Neuroscientist Janis Dickinson of Cornell University in New York argues that the overt images of death and decay associated with climate change (along with its deeper implications of societal decline and collapse) are proxies for the denial of mortality. She draws on the large body of research evidence of Terror Management Theory, first developed by the anthropologist Ernest Becker, that finds that people respond to death salience with an aggressive assertion of their own in-group identity. Dickinson argues that this is entirely consistent with the angry denial and political polarization found around climate change.

And we appear to cope with climate change in similar ways to our fear of death too- recognising its reality but deliberately creating distance and stripping it of the qualities that would cause us anxiety. We cannot stand to think of the death of our own children, but we accept that they will die after we ourselves have died. Similarly, we can avoid the fear of climate change by placing its impacts beyond our own life span. In focus groups, people often do this quite openly, justifying their indifference with the observation that it is all in the future, when they will be long since dead and gone.

For all of these reasons, it is a mistake to assume that the scientific evidence of climate change will flow directly into action – or, conversely, that climate denial can be dismissed as mere misinformation. The systems that govern our attitudes are just as complex as those that govern energy and carbon, and just as subject to feedbacks that exaggerate small differences between people. The problem itself is far from perfect and the situation is not hopeless, but dealing with it will require a more sophisticated analysis of human cognition and the role of socially shared values in building conviction.

This article is an expended version of an article in appeared in New Scientist  issue 2982 on 18th August 2014 in the print edition under the headline “Hear no climate evil” and online as  Understand faulty thinking to tackle climate change link…

The ideas and interviews were taken from George Marshall’s new book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change published by Bloomsbury US.

Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that

12 responses to “Climate Change: the Slippery, Shape Shifting, Jelly Mould Threat”

  1. hugh curran says:

    This is an impressive & insightful article which reflects my own experiences. Even among intellectually gifted friends & bright students I see the same aversion to the prospects of climate change. Some are resigned, some see only a bleak future, some turn away or change the subject. For most, the issue seems too amorphous & there is the feeling that little or nothing can be done that would make a difference. Most turn the conversation to the political arena & blame the denial machine of the right wing.

  2. peter joseph says:

    Another lucid, mildly depressing essay. Thank you. What might happen if word got out that taking definitive action would stimulate the economy, create good jobs, lessen international tensions over oil supplies, put money in people’s pockets and engage the creativity of millions? Would that not address “loss aversion?”

    A new study commissioned by Citizens’ Climate Lobby (.org), done by a reputable economic modeling firm ( shows that a US revenue-neutral carbon fee with 100% recycling to households does that. Do you suppose that could be a game-changer? Might we get somewhere if the medicine both tastes good and is good for us?

    Trying to have some hope here. I have grandkids who will live till the next century.

    • George writes: I think your argument entirely complements what I say (which, after all, comes from much more detailed and complex discussion in the book),that climate change is perceived as a socially constructed narrative and that the primary reason people accept or reject it is because of that narrative, not the underlying evidence or science. You are proposing a counter narrative which may well be true and it works well for me, but then I am already persuaded. The fact is that the word got out a generation ago and many people have been pushing the jobs low carbon economy line for many years- Amory Lovins has been doing it all his life- and it has still not captured the wide public interest. Clearly it does not yet contain the clear identity markers and values that can speak wider. I am not disagreeing with it at all, but I am suggesting that we need to ask some searching questions about why such supposedly appealing arguments do not generate the support they should.

  3. tapasananda says:

    dear george
    I think you have previously likened this issue to death denial
    I worked in hospice for a few years
    i saw this very often
    my major was in philosophy at dartmouth
    there i took a course in marcel proust
    time recaptured
    he deals deftly with the issue of death denial
    the problem now is that we deny the death of other
    innocent persons as yet unborn
    vivekananda in india has a stirring call to those who look away
    keep at it
    I have venue if you come to west michigan
    swami tapasananda

  4. Gail Zawacki says:

    The reason people deny and dissemble about climate change is simple, and it’s not messaging or an inability to plan ahead or any of the other excuses (think of how people built cathedrals and pyramids that required the work of generations.) The reason is that everyone knows, in a visceral way deep inside them, that slowing (never mind stopping; it’s too late) catastrophic climate change would require drastic, draconian sacrifices on the part of the developed world, and an end to the aspirations of people in the undeveloped world. There simply isn’t any so-called green or renewable (which is neither) that can possibly replace (let alone expand) the concentrated energy derived from ancient fossil fuels.

    So everyone is rather anxiously going day to day, squabbling over the scraps of industrial civilization, hoping this orgy of consumption will never end but suspecting it will, and soon.

  5. Gail Zawacki says:

    “we need to ask some searching questions about why such supposedly appealing arguments do not generate the support they should.” The reason is that people perceive, correctly, that “such supposedly appealing arguments” are a fantasy. There is no way that 7 billion and counting people can survive on earth without the inputs of fossil fuels and furthermore, nobody wants to relinquish the great conveniences of modern life whether it is highly advanced medical care or the latest iteration of the iphone. The only climate scientists I know of who have sworn off flying, for instance, are Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows. The rest of them climb into planes and helicopters to study melting ice or dying forests or whatever so they can inform us yet again that the biosphere is dying. I went to WVA for a mountaintop coal mining shutdown action and the local counter-protesters carried signs “don’t like coal, light a candle”. Quite accurate really, we can’t provide electricity to everyone or even a fraction with “alternatives” – each of which carries with it terrible environmental costs as well. The human race is indeed a plague and we have well and truly wrecked any chance of being “sustainable” long ago, probably back from when we discovered fire and certainly since we drove the megafauna to extinction.

  6. Thanks for the article George, with more questions than answers; not a bad thing. Some of the comments that follow about ‘draconian sacrifices’ show that until we clearly identify the benefit of change, action will be always beyond our reach. Whilst the meta-changes needed in our economic system are beyond most politician and business leaders’ experience or imagination, many of the sacrifices are not draconian, but badly sold.

    I’ve yet to discover many downsides to driving a 15 year old car with nearly 200,000 miles on the clock; yes, I go to the garage more often than I would with a new car, but on the flip side, don’t have to earn the money for depreciation against a new one.

    In making the decision not to fly on holiday again, some nine years ago, I’ve been consigned to the amazing cycling holidays in Europe with my kids, and to exploring the Outer Hebrides by sea kayak, sleeping wild on beaches not because I can’t afford a hotel, but because the views and quiet don’t even come close.

    At a talk a couple of weeks back, our presenter, a contributor to the IPCC, said world along the lines of “but what can we do about our politicians? How do we get them to change?”. In this theoretically hyper-connected Facebooked world of ours, is not conceivable that communities could create the goals and direction that lead to resilience, and then invited politicians to respond with their manifesto commitments? Participative democracy could give us some of the keys we need; the question is whether we’ll use them to open the doors of change…

  7. George,
    Excellent article. We released a similar piece that came out just in time to cite your parallel post.

    I particularly like your comments dismissing easy “real reasons” for explaining what we see.

  8. Hearthstone says:

    The question is not what we are going to do about the frightful mess we are creating, but, rather–what kind of future we, collectively, want to have.
    We have been trying to fix problems since time immemorial, but not knowing what we want, we have been creating more and more problems with our fixes …
    More at – http://www.ModelEarth.Org .

    Thank you, Hearthstone.

  9. Julie says:

    Some days, I think it’s because parents in our culture hate their children and don’t give a flying f!ck about their future.

    We’re told we can’t use a “sacrifice” frame cuz it’ll turn people off. But we haven’t really even asked people to make sacrifices yet, have we? We haven’t actually said, “This climate change thing? It’s killing your child’s future. Now sacrifice one TV show per week to write letters to your elected officials and create some political will.”

  10. robb rogers says:

    Climate change “is multivalent—that is to say, it is open to multiple meanings and interpretations. It provides us with no defining qualities that would give it a clear identity: no deadlines, no geographic location, no single cause or solution and, critically, no obvious enemy. Our brains scan it for the usual cues that we use to process information about the world and evaluate threats. And we find none.”

    “–no defining qualities:” We are fouling our nest burning fossil fuels. Even kindergartners get this.
    “–no obvious enemy:” “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” –Pogo
    “–cues, …and threats:” Graph history of human population growth. Overlay with graph of CO2 pollution: note both curves parallel since the Industrial Revolution.

    My 7th graders have little difficulty parsing the Key Elements of this dynamic and recognizing, defining characteristics of Capitalism and Western Industrial cultural values responsible for rationalizing the continued pollution of our ecosystem.
    My 7th graders clearly see the decision-makers of corporate capitalists distant from the damaged seas and atmosphere and toxified and eroded lands, and the corporate media and state propagandists diverting attention continuously.
    My 7th graders can grasp the concept of our human failure to conceive of US as a single species, and planet Earth as our single geographic ecosystem.

    Global Warming/Climate Change is indeed complex, however 12-year olds, invited to embrace system dynamics and analyze the relationships of their key elements do indeed manage to come to well-reasoned, fact-supported conclusions about causes and likely effects.

    Time we mature adults gave our Time to what is important. Self-delusion is killing us. The relief of embracing complexity, doing some critical analysis, and rolling up our sleeves holds the possibility of clear headedness, and curative collective action.

  11. Stuart Mathieson says:

    When I read that climate change is perceived as an “amorphous” problem I am reminded of our tendency to attribute agency (individual or group) as the threat. This pattern is apparent among both assertors and deniers. It us thus easier to protect our core belief systems. We are not very well hard wired to think scientifically when push comes to shove. Our brains evolved in a time when environmental change was slow and immediate threats were likely to be other creatures. Many will have noticed how easily and quickly we react to incompletely perceived animal movement in the wilds or the dark.

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