Inertia, Incredulity, and The Psychology of Climate Denial

I’m continuing to make good progress on completing my forthcoming book, Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis, and from time to time, I will include brief excerpts here that I feel may have broad relevance to the ongoing public climate debate, such as this brief psychological exploration of climate science denial.  Please feel free to offer any comments, corrections or other feedback.

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“It’s worth pondering why, with information on the harsh impacts of climate change so readily available (as in the Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States(GCCIUS) report), we seem so unwilling to heed the trenchant warnings.  Maybe it’s because the impacts of climate change are so dire they produce a surreal sense of gloom.  How much easier to focus on mundane daily events over which we have more control.

So we detach psychologically from unremitting bad news, or we deny it.  We deal with pressing immediate concerns, and we welcome distraction.  Our favorite TV shows beckon.  So do movies, sports, music, and the web.  How much more pleasant to escape from seemingly intractable global problems.  So we refrain from getting involved or we embrace the illusion that life can go on as normal if we ignore the gathering climate crisis.

But there must be more to it than that.  Why else might we as a nation be so unwilling to fully face the realities of climate change?  Why do we seem so lethargic at best in responding to the ever more urgent warnings that scientists are delivering about it?  The reasons are intricate and include the inherent complexity of understanding the climate system, and the difficulty of grasping some aspects without scientific training.

The phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance also explains the tendency to deny climate change or its implications.  In cognitive dissonance, one is so heavily invested cognitively or psychologically in an existing belief system that the beliefs are fortified by our (often subconscious) awareness of how damaging acceptance of a new belief or system would be to the older, deep-seated and familiar belief structures.

Cognitive dissonance operates even more powerfully when a new reality not only threatens old beliefs but also threatens to impose unwanted new economic costs, sometimes in the form of inconvenience, investments, or lifestyle changes.  Such changes are likely given the pervasiveness of the carbon energy systems on which our society currently depends.  Cognitive dissonance thus “kicks in” as we each consciously or subconsciously weigh the personal costs of more fully realigning our lives with the low-to-zero-carbon lifestyle that a complete commitment to climate protection requires.

Probably at least as important as cognitive dissonance and the scientific complexity issues combined is the impact of the prolonged campaign waged against climate science by representatives of the fossil fuel industry, a story I recounted in my earlier book, Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science.[1]   In essence, our current climate crisis reminds me of the words of the famous seventeenth century French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) who wrote:

“We run carelessly over the precipice after having put something in front of us to prevent us seeing it.”

We also tend to respond to ominous warnings of global heating with fatalism: there’s no point in getting overly concerned; the issue is so enormous it’s beyond any one’s control.  Some people resolve the dissonance between the looming catastrophe and their sense of powerlessness by denying the disturbing evidence.[2]  Instead of heeding warnings, they find it easier and more reassuring to believe: “Nothing this extraordinary and nightmarish can ever happen here—not to me, nor to my loved ones, nor the places I and my family hold dear.”

Paradoxically, the more we seek refuge in illusions, science denial, reality avoidance, and magical thinking, the more self-fulfilling the ominous climate forecasts become.  Yet drastic climate change will happen if we do not change the policies that are producing it.  In fact, it would be a logical and consistent culmination to the broader pattern of environmental destruction that civilization has engaged in since we industrialized.[3]  I will now share some of my own personal experience with you as an example of how rapidly and profoundly ecosystems are changing around us in the U.S., and yet how we have all “normalized” the radical acts against nature that our society is committing.”