The psychology of Climate Change denialism

On a recent Diane Rehm Show focused on the impacts of approaching Climate Change, the host was driven to ask "Why?" Why does a certain subset of individuals (and scientists) refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence that atmospheric carbon levels have surpassed the danger point and are affecting climate on a global scale?

The answer to that question doesn't lie in the scientific data, it's in our heads. Both psychological and sociological triggers come into play, and we'll take a look at each.

Denial isn't necessarily an abnormal reaction; it's an inherent defense mechanism we all share, to a certain degree. Sometimes the reaction is brief and panic-filled, such as the death of a loved one may elicit. Sometimes the denial phase is more protracted, as in cases of abuse (substance, spousal, etc.). Generally speaking, the more the traumatic event can be tied to our own self-esteem condition, the more resilient the denial will be. It can be a damned tough nut to crack, as counselors will tell you.

The anxiety associated with a pending but relatively slow collapse of our global ecosystem can produce a denial reaction that is extremely resilient. As with all forms of denial, the individual grasps for whatever evidence can support said denial; defensive weapons, if you will, wielded in varying levels of desperation.

In therapy, those weapons are withheld, in an effort to help the individual past that unreasonable phase. But for Climate Change denialists, just the opposite happens. The fossil fuel industry is very aware of this psychological phenomenon, and they know that keeping a certain percentage of the population stuck in the denial phase is critical to their industry's continued dominance. So, they've dedicated a sizeable chunk of their profits (assisted by you and I in the form of subsidies, by the way) to produce "evidence" that can be desperately grasped by those whose anxiety of the future has forced them into denial.

One can say that the industry provides the resources we demand, and that the coal and oil and gas production is not inherently evil. I'll buy that. But to intentionally drill into the mental health of our population, to fuel an unhealthy urge to deny, well. That, my friends, is evil personified.

Now let's examine the sociological part of denialism. At the root of this schism is the idea that we could/should deal with this global problem collectively. That's a fairly benign word, and it actually comes closer to describing our mostest favorite word (Democracy) better than any other. But for well over a century, our form of government has been at odds with another powerful form: Communism.

Without getting into the differences between the two, and how practical applications have deviated from the theoretical in each case, generation after generation of Americans have been conditioned to fear Communism/Marxism/Socialism, and anything that can be even remotely associated with them. As such, the idea of "collective responsibility" is teetering dangerously close to ideological blasphemy.

If you add a healthy dose of American Exceptionalism on top of that generational fear of Communism, you've built a wall that many simply cannot or will not climb. Climate Change is not a local, regional or national problem. It's Global. The only way to fix it is to act collectively, on a Global scale. By now, you should see the problem.

The more an individual is steeped in American Exceptionalism and fear of Communism, the less they are prepared to trust. Not just foreigners; the mistrust applies to their own countrymen, as well. In their minds, a collective effort to do anything is not only repulsive, it's downright dangerous.

And when your only solution to a problem is something you deem more dangerous than the problem itself, you fall back on that same old psychological defense mechanism: Denial that the problem even exists.

The reason I explored these issues was not to help people past their denial. It was to demonstrate that we may never achieve a level of consensus on this issue with which policymakers can feel comfortable. Not because the science is lacking, but because we are human. And it's not an excuse to not act.

Comments

The only way past this phenomenon

is straight through it. I mean; don't try to change the deniers but change the topic instead. All the things we need to do about global warming are the things we need to do to save our nation. Coincidence? That's something to ponder for a while, but it is undeniably true. We have to find sustainable local energy. It is a national security issue. We can't afford to stay on this fossil fuel conveyor belt with expensive wars to keep it running. The real cost of fuel is not apparent. Also no apparent is the cost to our health.

It is our job to make people understand that the way forward is the real freedom they crave.

Agreed, but common sense

too often takes a back seat to industry propaganda. Unfortunately.

Our wildest dreams in 5 steps

already happening according to this fascinating diary on Kos

A comment in my most recent diary - which is the first part in a history, sociology, and futurism series - prompted me to realize something profound: Between humanity as it currently operates and an infinite, economically and physically unbounded future, are only five steps...and all five involve merely scaling technologies that already exist and are already proving their economic viability. In the current climate of anxiety, pessimism, and downright cynicism about the future, this is a shocking revelation: Utopia on Earth and a millennia-long Age of Exploration in space may be right on our doorstep, even as we increasingly believe these dreams lost as past approaches to them lose relevance.

Industry propaganda be damned. Change is coming.