At What Levels Is Denial Really Holding Us Back?

Denial is not just an individual issue when it comes to climate change.

| March 2018

  • We need to work collectively to understand climate change and start making changes in our communities.
    Photo by Getty Images
  • What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming by Per Espen Stoknes'
    Photo by Chelsea Green Publishing

In What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015), Stoknes not only masterfully identifies the five main psychological barriers to climate action, but addresses them with five strategies for how to talk about global warming in a way that creates action and solutions, not further inaction and despair. The more facts that pile up about global warming, the greater the resistance to them grows, making it harder to enact measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare communities for the inevitable change ahead. It is a catch-22 that starts, says psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes, from an inadequate understanding of the way most humans think, act, and live in the world around them. With dozens of examples—from the private sector to government agencies—Stoknes shows how to retell the story of climate change and, at the same time, create positive, meaningful actions that can be supported even by deniers.

Is denial as a psychological concept applicable beyond the individual? Does it influence what is going on even at the national level? Or international? Perhaps so, but many social scientists prefer to avoid the denial issue and skip the individual level of analysis. To understand why so little progress is being made, they say, answers should rather be sought on the international, national, organizational, and cultural levels.

Internationally little happens, political scientists argue, because countries choose to compete and disagree rather than cooperate. If the world’s countries were acting for the common good, they would quickly agree on a global price of carbon—and stark regulations and enforcement procedures to go with it. However, most countries seem more eager to grind their own mills. The poorer nations want to grow faster, and the old industrialized countries want energy security and continued growth. The oil-rich countries want to continue to sell their black gold.

Each nation is acting rationally if seen from a narrow self-interested point of view. But take a look at international climate summits. Even if there’s no end to all the good words and phrases and intentions, by the end of each event the only thing everyone can agree on is to have another meeting next year. Participants’ self-interest works destructively on the common level. What’s rational for each country by itself creates collective madness.

According to this view, countries march collectively toward the “tragedy of the commons.” That means moving inevitably toward overall climate disruption of unknown extent. Even if no single country wants that to happen. The mad logic is: Better that my nation-state doesn’t lose in the short-term race than for all of us win in the long term. No delegation representative wants to come home and explain to his or her citizens that they have committed to more seemingly expensive obligations than other countries have.

But if international negotiations don’t work well, then surely at the level of countries, each nation-state can do something. The national governments are powerful, right?

Well, most governments see their primary task as maximizing the wealth and welfare of their own citizens, not other countries’ citizens. And with no global price or binding treaties, there is little to be gained by setting higher carbon taxes or more ambitious regulations than other countries. Any governments that do so harvest mostly criticism from interest groups and voters. Also, public economists have been clever at arguing that it is not cost-efficient for any single country to do more than others. If one country were to set carbon taxes higher than others, its economists would fear a loss of competitiveness and industry. There are cheaper emissions cuts to be done abroad first, they say, before cutting at home.

Public servants have no incentive in advocating for costly measures or risky climate-related investments. They don’t get rewarded for recommending risky new green technologies even if they are successful, but their personal reputation will certainly suffer if it goes badly. So for public servants, there is no upside to being proactive, only downside. Finally, most national politicians are by now aware that the climate issue is critical in the long term and know—at some level—what they ought to do immediately to mitigate it. There is no lack of well-documented solutions, such as taxes, cap and trade, regulations, and subsidies for better technologies. But climate policies that really cut emissions drastically, such as doubling national taxes on energy use or emissions unilaterally, have neither popular support nor industry support, nor are they deemed cost-efficient. Politicians, once in power, may know what they ought to do, but not how to get reelected by the citizens after they’ve done it.

Then there is the organizational or business level. Industry and corporations have the capacity to cut emissions. So why don’t they? Well, most executives believe their primary job is maximizing profits by focusing on their core competency and core business. But reducing emissions often means increasing upfront investments and operational costs in order to cut costs that will accrue years into the future. The climate issue is considered outside the core business. Since a high discount rate is used in calculations of the return on investment, management more often favors short-term marketing, upgraded products, or capacity utilization rather than future energy savings.

All the big oil companies claim, now, to be green or at least getting greener. ExxonMobil, Statoil, Shell, and China National Offshore Oil Company all have glossy sustainability annual reports. They say they use high implicit carbon prices to guide investment decisions. Nearly all claim to support international climate policies. They rarely state openly that they expect future climate regulations to fail. And then they conveniently end up waiting for national and international action on higher carbon prices. Meanwhile, business as usual—exploration and drilling—is the most rational option for each of them. Even if they individually are well aware that added together, all their current reserves of fossil fuel are sufficient—if all extracted and burned—to utterly disrupt the earth’s climate.

At the cultural level, strong social norms support the status quo. It is not easy to be a climate alarmist alone at work, at school, or at home. When the rest of your friends and family are focused on their daily worries, who wants to speak about climate doom? People spend their daily lives thinking about more local, manageable topics, which are easier to talk about. A great silence surrounds climate change in everyday life. “What to pay attention to and what to ignore is socially constructed. We learn what to see and think about from the people around us,” writes Norgaard. If your sibling or in-laws work for the petroleum industry, then arguing over lunch or at Christmas parties that drilling must stop is not a winning topic. Most of us end up subtly adjusting our attitudes to those that our significant others express.

So there are strong barriers at international, national, corporate and cultural levels. Change on these levels is agonizingly slow, in light of what climate science tells us about the urgency to reduce emissions. More than twenty years of climate negotiations have resulted in almost no implemented reductions. Most of the larger reductions that have happened since 1990 have come about by other means, such as efficiency gains in energy or the collapse of the Soviet Union with its gigantic, inefficient industries. Global and national leadership is missing. Political scientists, economists, strategists, sociologists, and anthropologists each have their favorite levels to explain why we disagree, and why so little is happening. None of them really address the role of denial.

That’s why I’ll look primarily into the more basic individual level, including the psychology of denial. But I’ll also look at how ideological denialism plays itself out in the social and cultural networks. Since international, national, corporate, and cultural levels all seem pretty stuck, no major decisions will be made—at least in democratic countries—until vocal and numerous citizens demand it. Rather than just waiting for the top-down approaches, maybe we could start by understanding apathy and denial at the individual and small-group level. Then, through lifting denial and shifting social networks, we could see a growing bottom-up support for stronger measures and actions at cultural and national levels. Maybe millions of nongovernmental networks and organizations as well as thousands of green businesses and cities will drive the great swerve. This is my hope and purpose: that by understanding the barriers in our thinking, we may find new ways beyond them and learn how to support the more collective levels from the bottom up toward a new way of being in the world.

Denialists: Villains or Victims?

Is it even appropriate to put psychological labels such as denial on some global warming contrarians? In the Soviet Union under Stalin, people with deviating opinions—those who opposed Stalin’s totalitarian and paranoid system—were often given psychiatric diagnoses. Many were exiled to Siberia for a tortuous “cure.” Some climate contrarians and deniers have been turning the Stalin argument against the scientific climate consensus, saying that people voicing disagreement against the consensus are censored and labeled as deviants. They claim there are active attempts to silence them from voicing their honest opinion against the mainstream. They see a dogmatic climate fundamentalism that strangles free thought. And that peer review of scientific journals works just like Stalinist censorship in stifling legitimate dissent.

In their own eyes, they are victims persecuted by the dogmatic majority. But they have the courage to stand up for what is now politically incorrect. Even if these self-proclaimed skeptics are many and everywhere (typically 30 to 60 percent of wealthy Western countries), they still fancy a story about themselves as victims of suppression. The most active of them like to view themselves as the lone dissident voices, articulate clearheaded heroes, mavericks, and fearless guardians of the obscured and abused Truth. They liken themselves to Galileo fighting the stifling church. They have to struggle through a vast flock of sheepish yea-sayers being led astray by the wicked, self-interest-driven, and powerful climate lobby. But they will never, ever succumb to the AGW cult of the climate alarmists!

Is there something wacky about using psychoanalysis on the types of climate naysayers described above? Yes, to psychoanalyze people who disagree with your political opinions signals intellectual arrogance, or at best closed-mindedness. The use of psychiatric diagnoses as a power play has a long and very dark history, not just from Stalin’s times. However, when using psychological analysis on climate denial, my purpose is not to blame, pathologize, or suppress. Rather the aim is to facilitate a change process through more empathic understanding. I am genuinely curious, sometimes both amused and saddened.

What bewilders me is why the intelligent minds of so many turn against climate—and not just among the most outspoken and die-hard deniers. How is that so many citizens have heard the facts, yet still resist or ignore them by choosing to lend an ear to outspoken and angry denialists? If it works at all, psychology works by approaching those who seem (at least at first) weird and self-destructive empathetically, to find that their experience is human, too. We stop blaming and shaming and listen intently to both conscious and unconscious motives. I agree that this approach can go too far: Taken to the extreme, the empathic psychologist would understand everything, embrace all, and forgive all. The purpose of psychoanalysis, though, is neither of these extremes—not condemnation and not pampering.

There is rather a deeply ethical issue at stake here.

Some issues don’t lend themselves to indifference and free choice. It is not ethical to say: “Some like slavery, some don’t. Everyone can have their own opinion.” There are no circumstances that make brutal fourteen-hours-a-day labor for ten-year-old boys acceptable, for instance; no ethical ways to avert your eyes if you see someone beating and kicking the life out of another lying on the street. There is no tolerable tax haven, sex trafficking, rape, corruption, or torture for caged animals. The ethics philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says the ethics of such issues stem from the face-to-face immediate encounter with another. The suffering in the face of the Other limits your freedom to just pick any opinion at your whim and then use all your intelligence to back up and rationalize that position, polishing it until it seems unassailable and impenetrable.

These same ethical parameters arise on the climate frontier. There are serious risks that climate disruption poses to us all and particularly to the poor and to the more-than-human beings that do not even participate in the climate debate. They have no voice in opposing rich countries’ climate emissions that slowly destroy their home, their ecology. Many others have no voice because they haven’t been born yet. It can therefore no longer be a case of “anything goes.”

I don’t care much if you’re pro tulips, hate pop star Justin Bieber, or are anti-gluten. Nor if you hate taxes, feel like outlawing financial speculation, or never want to see another fat-cat investment banker. But when it comes to the facts of increasing climate disruption due to our human impact on the earth, there is an ethical obligation to respond. Those who actively give voice to or just passively live out their denial actually support the ongoing human violence to the land and clean air. This includes the humans who breathe and live in these landscapes. If we support denialism, then we lend our cognitive capacity, creativity even, to support a destructive cause.

The stunning human potential for creativity and cooperation is matched only by our vast potential for self-destruction. This potential was amply demonstrated in the previous century with its two massive hot wars and then a cold one. Still, we came through them. I think that in our response to climate disruption, we see an outstanding example of just the same: a massive exhibit of the human capacity for self-destruction. Let’s see if a psychological approach has anything to say about the deniers who insist that climate change is not happening or is not important or is not human made—or that it’s now too late to do anything about it.

Finding Answers in Psychology

So the paradox, again: If the facts are so compelling, why do they not really register? Some would argue that the broad public denial and indifference are caused by the denialists and their vitriolic, oil-funded anti-climate campaigns. That is certainly the case to some extent. There has been a strong and abundant supply of anti-climate messages over more than two decades. But it begs the question: Why are so many easily attracted to contrarian messages? Doubt seems to be an easy sell, and deniers have jumped in to supply contrarian ideas: “It’s the sun”; “Climate change is natural—it’s happened before”; “It’s actually been cooling since 1998” . . . If people responded with scientific rationality based on the massive evidence available at their fingertips, messages like this would die on the vine, no matter how cleverly expressed and communicated.

We need to look closely at the demand side for doubt—the inner reasons why disbelief is attractive. How does denialism—with very few facts, lots of grand rhetoric, and very little scientific brainpower—continue its dark victory?

To find psychological-level answers, we can adopt a whole suite of approaches from various psychological schools. The fortress of psychology has surprisingly many rooms, towers, cellars, and appendices. It is not just one unified science, but a pluralistic guesthouse, a chateau even, with kaleidoscopic styles. Some styles of psychology are closely related to literature, story, and interpretation. Others are strictly experimental, empirical, and quantitative. There are rooms dedicated to practical uses. Therapy in particular occupies the main living room, but there are also rooms for self-help groups, and even parapsychology. Some rooms are shared with neurobiologists or artificial intelligence enthusiasts. Other psychologists inhabit large appendices near the philosophical and existential citadels. Still others pair off with economists and social behavior science. In its garden you can also find environmental psychologists and eco-psychologists. Surprisingly, many of these varieties of psychology are relevant to climate change, when you take a closer look.

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