Climate Change Denial

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May 6, 2015


George Marshall @ 10:35 pm

I regard myself to be a radical. However, I now believe that the most radical thing that I can do is to break out of the safety zone of left/liberal environmentalism and actively engage with conservatives.

I have two decades in the radical environmental movement, and I believe strongly that the crisis of climate change requires systemic changes. I make no apology for this and am utterly convinced,  from my reading of history, that these changes will only emerge from strong and outspoken political movements.

But no movement will win unless it has strength of numbers and influence. We should not delude ourselves  that a highly motivated minority – what Marxists used to call the vanguard– can ever win this. This issue is far too large to be overcome without a near total commitment across society.

Yet, throughout the Anglophone world  there is a dangerous political polarisation around climate change. In one particularly disturbing US poll, attitudes to climate change were a better predictor of respondents’ political orientation than any other issue- including gun control, abortion and capital punishment. Denial of climate change is not just an opinion, it has become a dominant mark of people’s political identity.

This is no small problem. People with conservative values (some of whom may also vote for centre-left parties) constitute the majority in almost all countries. In US surveys people who identify strongly with these values outnumber those who identify with liberal/left values by a factor of 2:1.

In my book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, I argued that climate change exists for us in the form of socially constructed narratives built upon our values and identity. It is these narratives- not the underlying science or even the evidence of our own eyes- that leads us to accept or reject the issue.

Unfortunately one of the dominant values in the climate movement is a disregard , if not outright contempt, for the right-leaning mainstream and their concerns. Activists often talk with disgust of the selfishness, greed and stupidity of conservatives. This is intolerant and unpleasant. The denigration conveniently ignores the diversity of opinion and life experience among conservatives. A struggling rural family, an elderly Christian on a small pension, a community shopkeeper and a Wall Street Banker are combined into one faceless enemy.

More often, though, conservatives are just ignored. Few people in the climate movement want to deal with them, talk to them, or find out more about them. They simply don’t exist.

Last week I led a communications workshop for one of the largest international environmental networks: one I respect and have worked with for many years. I asked them “do you think that the climate change movement has a problem with its diversity?” Absolutely, they replied, it’s too dominated by middle aged men, too white, too middle-class, not enough involvement from minorities or indigenous peoples, not many disabled people. Nobody mentioned the absence of conservatives, and certainly no-one in the room was admitting to being one.

Diversity’ is a powerful frame for progressives but its components have been entirely defined by the struggles of marginalised groups for representation. It makes us blind to our own failure to involve the majority of our fellow citizens.

Last year I was thrilled to attend the People’s Climate March in New York (I think I can justify the carbon-I was there on a six -state book tour). 350,000 people marched with placards declaring “To Change Everything We Need Everyone“. But, just as diversity only includes the groups that conform to the progressive ideology, the definition of everyone excludes the majority of the population. There was a great deal of progressive diversity at the march: indigenous peoples headed it up, followed by environmental justice groups of all colours and ethnicities and labour unions. As someone who has campaigned for over twenty years for indigenous rights, and led large programmes with trades unions, I was thrilled to see  such broad representation.

But as I watched the banners and placards pass by, I imagined how this would seem to mainstream America. The dominant messages were about banning, stopping, protecting, boycotting things. Among them were hard left-wing messages about overthrowing capitalism and destroying Wall Street. A woman with a placard reading Never, Never, Never, Ever Vote Republican (see above) was clapped and whistled. To balance this a posse of cigar-chomping Republican frat boys turned up with cut outs of Ronald Regan to wind up the lefties.  But there was nothing, not even a word, that so much as hinted that mainstream conservatives had a place alongside everyone in the climate struggle. A small pack of  Nebraskan ranchers, converted to the cause by their fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline, told me freely, proudly, that they were lifelong Republicans. They were hidden within the mass of the march when they should  have been at its very front: a symbol of an extraordinary unity of purpose and our shared destiny.

Ironically we know how to change this. The process to increase representation of conservatives in the climate change movement can be taken directly from previous experience with building diversity- whether it be economic, gender, or race. First of all actively hire new people from the underrepresented group who can work through their networks. Then enable them to develop communications that speak to others like themselves using their own values.

The  process by which we respond to climate change creates the tramlines for our future adaptation. If we use it to build a narrative around our interconnectedness and shared humanity then we stand a good chance of pulling through, just as divided communities can settle their differences to pull together after a hurricane. If we build our  movement through distrust and division we create the preconditions for future in-fighting, blame and scapegoating. The only reason why the minority vanguards ever won was that they got their hands on guns and then ruled by them.

So  my challenge to all people concerned about climate change is this: when are we going to accept the challenge of reaching across partisan boundaries and building a broad social consensus for action? We do not even have to agree about the details of the solutions- indeed I hope we maintain a strong debate. But surely we can come together in the recognition that dealing with climate change is the greatest calling of our age? 


Please share this piece and comment below. Over the next few weeks I will be posting a number of articles to my blog exploring these themes.

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  1. Frances Mathews says:

    I don’t have much confidence about convincing those in denial about climate change itself. I think talking about solutions might work–I most like the idea of a carbon fee and rebate because it can grow the economy as well as not adding to government bureaucracy. There are other reasons to limit CO2 release and this addresses all of them without forcing people to change their fundamental ideas.

  2. Martin Parkinson says:

    Yes. I’m a little worried that the UK green party now seems to be regarded as part of “the left” (though it probably doesn’t really matter).

    There’s a sort of parallax effect – the uk greens do indeed appear to be “on the left” – at the moment – because of the current politcal circumstances. In a different set of curcumstances it could equally appear to be “on the right”.

    The reason is that “left” and right” are both vague, baggy and changeable terms and although people use them as tribal indentifiers in fact they are only flags flying above a pair of very big tents – tents which harbour adherents of often contradictory currents of thought.

  3. Laurence Schechtman says:

    “Activists often talk with disgust of the selfishness, greed and stupidity of conservatives.”
    Yes, that’s true, and even the fact that conservative bloggers talk much worse about us (“Libtard” is their latest byword) doesn’t justify our insults.

    Social science demonstrates again and again that when we insult someone, you reinforce their old opinions – which they return to because they need safety from US.

    But to cast blame on progressives is to fall into the same mistake. We need TRAINING to overcome our old habits. The desire to seek praise from fellow warriors, and the need to feel superior, are very ingrained and hard to overcome.

    To begin our training in civility and effectiveness, I suggest we start a Face Book page tentatively called, “PROGRESSIVES TALK TO AMERICA, WITH TRUTH AND KINDNESS. Climate change is not the only topic about which we need to learn to be civil and effective. And until we do, the left will always be a minority.

  4. Steven Glynn says:

    This is really important and reaches across other groups as well. When we think about business it is very easy to fall into portraying corporate ‘villains’, with the focus on how all that is cared about is maximising profit. This does two things – firstly it makes it seem normal that maximising profit is what business is about; and secondly it tends to lump all business into the same box. The majority of businesses are small business and, in my experience, for most people that run those businesses, money is not their primary motivation – it is important of course but not the main motivation. I wonder whether by talking more about creating ‘real’ value and wealth (in the broader sense than money) can help unite businesses around the need for action?

    If you haven’t read it, I would recommend Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. It is really powerful story based around climate change and for me that power came from having main characters who were right wing, conservative Christians. Seeing things from this different perspective really helped me in making sense of some of this.

  5. Paul Matthews says:

    George, if you are serious about this, the first thing you need to do is take your own advice and drop the D word from the title of your blog.

    • It’s a fair challenge Paul, and one that I have thought about.
      Personally, I’ve never had a big problem with the term climate denial (in fact, as I may post at a later date, your colleagues at Nottingham tell me that I am one of the people who first used the term!). Denial is an appropriate word for repudiation, but the reason I used it on the blog is in the wider psychotherapy definition, taken from Freud’s German word “Verneinung” as a defence mechanism for the rejection of thoughts that are too troubling. This followed my primary inspiration, at the time I started this blog, of Stanley Cohen’s excellent book on collective denial of human rights abuses “States of Denial”.
      However, I also recognise that this has become a divisive term and may be considered unsuitable for people who are, for whatever reasons, unconvinced about the issue.
      And then again, it takes a very long time to set up a blog and I’m rather loathe to do it again.
      But you prompt me to think again about the issue and I will ask other people’s advice. What do you think?

      • Barry Woods says:

        Perhaps the – Hall of Shame (for deniers) link on the blogroll makes it ‘look like’ you are not purely talking about denial in psychological terms?

        Most people put links on a blogroll forget about them, so perhaps this is the case and just needs revisiting

        but linking to a Hall Of Shame – for Deniers, is possibly polarising? how will that be perceived?

        There is also a link to a deniers disinformation databse, with people labelled, photographed and tagged (‘disinformation’ is a very loaded word)

  6. Vanessa says:

    Absolutely, we need everyone. Just today I met a Trinidadian Oil Exploration Engineer. Professionally he can’t see how his company will shift to cleaner energy- personally he can see his island changing. People have a ‘role’ they feel social pressure to fulfill. They have a job to keep and mouths to feed. They are not ignorant, or an aware. They feel powerless. WE NEED TO HAND IN HAND EXPOSE THE TRUTH (the real truth, the truthy truth, not the “truth” so many declare). No one, NO ONE could actually, seriously, welcome the reality of climate change if they had to face it directly.

  7. Jukka Aakula says:

    In most countries majority of people are maybe conservative. But beeingconservative in e.g. Britain or Scandinavia hardly predicts you are anti-science quite the contrary.

    I am voting för the conservative party of Finland and like most of people like me I am pro sciece, pro evolutionary theory and pro climate science.

    True there exist people who copy ideas from US. The most stupd even support US isolationism which is 100% against the safety of Eastern Europe.

  8. John says:

    Those who don’t accept the idea man-caused-global-warming minds aren’t changed by name calling for certain. Let the science set everyone free.

    We should be just as willing to look at the science to show the truth of what is happening to our home.

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