Climate Denial: Why?

Chris Hedges, Truthdig: The Myth of Human Progress, Jan 13, 2013

A provocative article, recently referenced by Elizabeth May, it points out a terrible truth, yet gives us a place to start:  the nature of our species. From an anthropological point of view, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our civilization, like others in history, is indeed doomed. Evidence shows Homo sapiens to be woefully inept at long term planning. Hedges cites Ronald Wright who says, “We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit.” It seems we have the stark choice of either following our contemporary, corporate, vision-challenged “hunters” into oblivion, or gathering a critical mass to amplify the voices of the few who have evolved beyond that stage and do have constructive ideas for the long term.

George Marshall, Climate Change Denial blog: Reasons Why Climate Disasters Might Not Increase Concern About Climate Change, Nov 6, 2012

This thoughtful piece reflects on reactions to natural disasters in various communities and shows how the narrative around them develops. Anthropogenic climate change is a topic too complex to comprehend when calamity strikes, and it becomes eclipsed by heroic stories of how communities rally and bring the situation back to normal; or by hunts to find someone to pin the blame on. From his interviews in disaster locations, Marshall concludes that a such events easily foster greater adherence to existing social norms instead of consideration of climate change and its causes.

Dan Kahan, Nature: Why we are poles apart on climate change, Aug 15, 2012

Karen Peart, Science Daily: Public Apathy Over Climate Change Unrelated to Science Literacy, May 27, 2012

These two articles relate to research by associates and members of Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project. It shows how our views are shaped by our cultural surroundings far more than by the consensus of scientists. Contrary to a widespread notion that denial and apathy are caused by ignorance of science, the opposite has been found to be true. Those with more scientific and numeric abilities are actually more likely to be stronger deniers because they are better able to develop arguments to help them conform with their cultural peers. Dan Kahan, the most prominent of the researchers, says the study suggests the need for science communication strategies that reflect a more sophisticated understanding of cultural values: “More information can help solve the climate change conflict, but that information has to do more than communicate the scientific evidence. It also has to create a climate of deliberations in which no group perceives that accepting any piece of evidence is akin to betrayal of their cultural group.”

Kahan reinforces the above conclusions in this video published Mar 2, 2012 (19 min)


Jo Confino, The Guardian: Climate change: the truth will out, Oct 31, 2012

Confino talks about his low mood after meeting with climate experts and getting up close to the seriousness of what’s happening to the planet. Still, he doesn’t want to be cheered up. He recognizes that false optimism and denial are all too common these days, and mask the truth that we need to face. He noticed that in the U.S. especially, “there is enormous optimism on the surface and a denial of the myriad of dysfunctions lurking beneath the surface.” Yet, the doom and gloom approach doesn’t work either. Backed by the words of Giles Fraser, a priest who helped Occupy protesters, Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation, and Hugh Montgomery a professor of intensive care medicine, Cofino concludes that we need to face the scary truth and follow up with forming an action plan. Montgomery compares the situation to confronting a patient with the truth of a life-threatening illness, and then, “I try to say let’s find a way through this, let’s find a way out of it.”

David Minkow, ClimateAccess: How the Public Perceives the Risks of Climate Change: Interview with Paul Slovic, Jan 24, 2012

Paul Slovic is a veteran of studies in human judgment, decision making, and risk analysis. One of his important works was the study of why good people ignore the horrors of genocide. He says that some of the same dynamics are at work when it comes to the climate crisis. His research has shown that humans react strongly to the plight of a single individual, but as the victims multiply, emotions are numbed into insensitivity. “If moral people don’t act in face of clear atrocities like that, I don’t think their morals are going to lead them to act against a diffuse threat such as climate change.” He cites other factors in the human psyche when it comes to evaluating risks, all of which usually override the real facts of an issue. He notes the work of Dan Kahan on the surprising strength of cultural worldviews when it comes to assessing information. He advises that it’s important to “communicate with people’s worldviews in mind…”

Chris Mooney, Mother Jones: The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science, May/June 2011

This is about the power of rationalization. Even in cases of extremely implausible beliefs which have been decidedly refuted, adherents will find explanations to entrench themselves even deeper in a belief rather than give up the emotional investment they have made in it. This tendency called “motivated reasoning” helps explain the refusal of so many to accept the unequivocal evidence of climate science. Neuroscience studies have shown our reasoning activity to be suffused with positive or negative feelings which arise much more rapidly than conscious thought, and produce profound interference in reasoning. The more that any new information threatens a tightly held belief system, the stronger will be the activation of emotional interference and rationalization to combat the threat. “We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”

Jane Mayer, The New Yorker: Covert Operations – The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama, Aug 30, 2010

When you look at the colossally funded promotional activities generated by David and Charles Koch to further the cause of denial, you can’t help but think that all it would take to turn things around would be to convince just these two individuals of the reality of human-generated climate change. Their money would bring their followers into line and there would be no need for psychological and sociological research or the hard work of developing communication techniques to convince the general public. How do we set these fellows on their road to Damascus? ūüėē

Lisa Bennett, AlterNet: Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change? Nov 13, 2008

This is an older article, but it’s a valuable contribution by this young mother who summarizes in plain language what social scientists have been finding out about what makes humans so slow to do something about the climate crisis. “The way we’re psychologically wired and socially conditioned to respond to crises makes us ill-suited to react to the abstract and seemingly remote threat posed by global warming. [The researchers’] insights are also leading to some intriguing recommendations about how to get people to take action – including the potentially dangerous prospect of playing on people’s fears.”