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Climate Denial: Why It Happens and What To Do About It

With Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up” still igniting conversations around science and climate denial, we decided to take a look at why people disbelieve empirical truths in the first place.

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Carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas is warming our planet and driving climate change. It’s throwing natural systems out of balance – to often devastating effect.

These are fairly basic facts. The reality of the human-caused climate crisis is settled science.

But you don’t even need to be a climatologist to know that something is up. From increasingly extreme weather events to record-breaking heat, the evidence of how our climate is changing is right in front of us – all you have to do is look out the window.

Yet, some people still won’t see these signs for what they are.

There are numerous reasons why this is the case. Because climate denial in many cases doesn’t start with what people do or do not believe about the science, per se – but what they believe about themselves and who they are.

We know it can be difficult to hear climate denial and not simply roll your eyes and disregard the individual entirely as too far gone, perhaps even “brainwashed,” so to speak, by years of living in an information or filter bubble, “an environment and especially an online environment in which people are exposed only to opinions and information that conform to their existing beliefs,” according to Miriam Webster.

But that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Because when it’s coming from someone close to you, your relationship means you can play a key role in opening their mind.

It can be tough to get someone to move past the talking points they’ve heard time and time again. And it doesn’t help that well-funded opposition is poisoning the well with misinformation and outright lies. But the climate crisis is too urgent a problem to let even one person off the hook.

If we are going to win this thing, we’re going to do it together.

Besides, no one is ever too far gone.

Why We Deny

Denial is based on one very specific desire – for something to not be true.

“If you're in denial, you're trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about something that's happening in your life,” the Mayo Clinic writes. “Denial is a coping mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing situations — but staying in denial can interfere with treatment or your ability to tackle challenges.”

Bingo.

In the short-term, denial can be a good thing, offering us a period of time to adjust to a difficult or stressful circumstance or learn new information. But when denial progresses, like a tumor, it can become malignant, inspiring people to seek out misleading information that refutes broadly held consensus and supports what they already believe they know.

Hearing What You Want

With denialism pervasive in any number of spaces, it’s valuable to know that, in general, a person’s political, religious, or ethnic identity has been found to impact their willingness to accept an expert’s take on a given issue.

So what happens when scientific consensus conflicts with someone’s established ideological worldview? They don’t want to believe it – and often seek out information to disprove it. And the Internet being the Internet, they often find exactly what they are looking for.

Social scientists have even given the process of deciding what evidence to accept based on the conclusion one prefers a name: “motivated reasoning.”

When people come to a conclusion based not just by examining facts but also driven by an unconscious bias, their view of what’s “true” may be skewed – but it doesn’t make it any less true to them.

>> Click here to learn more about two psychological concepts that help explain why people ignore the science behind the climate crisis. <<

The Myth of Disagreement

Remember, more than 99% of publishing, peer-reviewed climate scientists agree that our climate is changing, and they know those changes are the result of our burning of fossil fuels for energy.

With that in mind, it’s hard to not believe that those in denial really do know the truth at some level. But what if that fact about overwhelming scientific consensus never reached your ears?

“My fear is that we now live in this hyper-partisan media atmosphere, where people are increasingly sort of syphoned off in silos and they get their information from media outlets that simply reinforce their preconceptions and biases,” Dr. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and the inspiration for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Don’t Look Up,” the polarizing-if-enormously popular (Ed. note: We loved it.) film about, well, climate denial, told Climate Reality in 2017.

“We have to get past this fake debate about whether the problem exists because that is an unworthy debate, and anyone who adheres to the notion that climate change is a hoax or that it isn’t caused by us or even that it’s not creating problems already is on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history,” he continued.

But they didn’t get there on their own. A sprawling network of talking heads, “think tanks,” and front groups telling everyone who will listen that they have nothing to worry about helped them along.  

>> Be Part of the Solution: Four Lessons Psychology Teaches Us About Inspiring Climate Action <<

It’s not easy to shape public opinion when the facts are against you. So, the fossil fuel industry simply began attacking the facts, creating an alternate universe where decades of rising CO2 and rising temperatures had nothing to do with each other and scientists who claimed otherwise were alarmists or had ulterior motives – and were not to be trusted.

As the Washington Post explains, “in the 1990s, oil companies, fossil fuel industry trade groups and their respective PR firms began positioning contrarian scientists such as Willie Soon, William Happer and David Legates as experts whose opinions on climate change should be considered equal and opposite to that of climate scientists.”

Thus, in denial, people find a world where nothing can be taken for granted as true. If “they” – the grand “they” – can’t be trusted and you are being constantly lied to, or at the very least people really aren’t 100% sure about the problem, perhaps there is nothing to acknowledge at all.

“This picture is a bit grim, because it suggests that facts alone have limited power to resolve politicized issues like climate change or immigration policy,” the Conversation writes. “But properly understanding the phenomenon of denial is surely a crucial first step to addressing it.”

Indeed.

What You Can Do

Climate change is already happening. How much the climate warms in the future is up to us. All of us.

Together, we can build pressure on federal officials to take bold climate action, join forces with fellow environmental advocates to work in coalition and win, and make sure all of our voices are heard in demanding a cleaner, greener future.

It Starts with a Conversation

When you talk, your friends and family listen – even (sometimes especially) when they disagree with you. That’s why talking about the facts of the climate crisis is one of the best ways to take climate action.

Whether it’s at the grocery store, after church, or over lemonade at a family picnic, talking about the reality of the climate crisis is your chance to change minds and ensure the people you care about hear the truth.

Give Them The Facts

Climate change can be an incredibly complex, multi-faceted topic. But the basic truths of the crisis – that the science overwhelmingly demonstrates that modern global warming is a man-made phenomenon, for example — are readily accessible to everyone.

So while an advanced science degree isn’t required to share the fundamentals of how climate change works, a commitment to objective facts is.

We mean, the reason we are here is because discussions of climate, even among otherwise rational people, can sometimes become clouded with misinformation, making it more important than ever to first consult evidence-based science.

Climate Reality has created a number of free, easy-to-read informational pieces about the science of climate change and its impacts. Use them to reacquaint yourself with the facts and to brainstorm points of entry for your discussions. The more you know, the better:

Hope is Key

Denial usually comes from a place of sadness. People turn to it as a last resort. And it can seemingly change the very reality they inhabit.

Plus, it’s easy to despair when it comes to the climate crisis. Trust us – we know. It’s only natural that people would bend over backwards to look the other way.

But accepting the truth of the climate crisis doesn’t mean embracing a future that’s some sort of desert-like dystopia. Because what actually lies head is the opportunity to build a more just and equitable way of life for all of us.

But it won’t happen on its own.

The transition to a just, inclusive, and climate-sustainable economy will create millions of well-paying and safe jobs while improving public health outcomes for all – starting with those most immediately in need of them. It will slow a crisis that is already changing the planet as we know it.

It will give us every reason to celebrate a better tomorrow.

A tomorrow where there will be no reason to hide from the crisis behind denial – because success in the future will depend on how well we stand up to it today. 

Join us and tell the full truth about what’s happening to the planet — so we can stop the fake debates and start working on real solutions.