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Why Climate Science Denial?

Paul Kando

July was the hottest month ever recorded. Devastating fires are burning in both the Amazon rain forest and the boreal taiga of the Arctic. Hurricane Dorian was the second strongest Atlantic storm ever to threaten the US mainland. Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius documented the human-caused atmospheric “greenhouse effect” back in 1896. Science has been steadily confirming that finding ever since. The carbon content of the atmosphere has ballooned from 280 parts per million to above 410 ppm since the industrial revolution. What rational ground is there for people to doubt the science and the observable facts? None. But there are multiple explanations.

Climate Activist Greta Thunberg, entering New York Harbor
photo credit: Greta Thunberg

Of 535 US Congress members 150 are climate science deniers. Together they collected over $68.3 million so far from fossil fuel interests. The top three raked in over $3 million each. Is this ignorance or corruption? You decide.

Recent university studies cited official claims that there were weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion, along with a correction noting that non-existent Iraqi WMD were, in fact, used as a pretext for war. The correction made self-described liberal students more likely to doubt that Iraq had WMD. However, conservatives were more likely to believe that Iraq did have WMD when told that Iraq did not have them. Factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded beliefs.

According to a recent Pew Research study, the share of Americans who say colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country has increased by 12% since 2012. This increase has come almost entirely from right-leaning voters. In 2016, Trump trounced Clinton in the 50 largest counties with the lowest percentage of college graduates.

People will gravitate to the least demanding course of action, observes Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Laziness is built deep into our nature. Humans think in two different ways: Fast: unconscious, effortless, automatic, and error-prone; and Slow: conscious, effortful, and reliable — capable of complex decision making.

A slow, deliberate thinker will study and research, seeking facts and scientific truths based on which to work out solutions. But the fast thinker will avoid exertion by taking mental shortcuts and following beliefs — even denying science and electing charlatans with promises that require no personal commitment to act. (Scapegoats can always be found if things don’t work out.)

Norwegian psychologist Per Esper Stoknes names denial as one of several defense-layers people employ when facing climate change framed as a looming disaster. (1) Distance. Climate change is out in the future, beyond our circle of influence. We can’t do anything about it. (2) Doom makes us fear. The brain wants to avoid the topic. And the media’s disaster framing desensitizes us. (3) Dissonance. Climate change conflicts with our fossil-fueled driving and flying, even our eating beef. To get rid of the resulting cognitive dissonance we conjure up justifications. “My neighbor drives a much bigger car!” (4) Denial is a state of mind often reinforced by our cohort: aware of some troubling knowledge, we act as if we didn't know. (5) Identity. Conservatives, for instance, may prefer big cars and small government. They won’t trust science if it asks government to do more. Identity trumps truth any day.

We can overcome these layered defenses by focusing on positive solutions instead of an impending doom; by reframing the climate issue as being really about meeting human needs without damaging the environment. By nudging — food waste goes down if the plate size is reduced, because the smaller plate looks full with less. Denial makes no sense once we have news of progress to share—cost-saving solar panels speak for themselves. And the chains of identity can be broken by better stories about real change.

As part of life on a watery planet, we humans should understand the relevant basics of the physical sciences— observable phenomena that explain the interactions between heat, air, and water, including the greenhouse effect—or rely on someone’s knowledge who does understand. Nature's non-negotiable laws can only be ignored at our peril. Such ignorance (accidental or cultivated) only helps the unscrupulous in exploiting populations by spreading self-serving falsehoods — including scapegoating and denial.

Climate health is impacted by the health of societies and the economic order. Healthy societies have three economic sectors: private, public and volunteer. If one is missing, needs go unmet. Communism attacked the private sector; neoliberal capitalism aims to starve the public sector. A healthy economy is based on reality, not theories about "rational" decisionmakers in an idealized marketplace. A healthy economy (1) serves everyone's human needs (2) without damaging the environment and thus the climate. Capitalism fails us on both counts. We can do better.