• Megan Parfitt

The psychological processes behind climate denial

Denial; a powerful psychological component at the centre of blindness to science. The climate crisis challenges the western world’s economic and political structures by highlighting their long-term unsustainable nature [1]. This elicits complex emotional responses like anxiety, grief, and guilt. These feelings are understandably uncomfortable and can begin to explain why some people experience climate change denial, particularly as there is minimal individual and collective climate action [2]. Despite the fact that energy-intensive industries attempt to undermine efforts to switch from greenhouse gases to “green” alternatives [3], psychological explanations are at the forefront of climate denial.

Cognitive dissonance


We live in an age where there is increasing access to information and awareness of environmental issues [4]. However, consumption levels and environmental action do not reflect this awareness [5]. This imbalance can be explained by an increase in cognitive dissonance (inconsistent beliefs or attitudes when relating to behavioural decisions), in that although individuals are more aware of environmental concerns, the capitalist system encourages individuals to consume more. This inconsistency causes unpleasant negative emotions which we naturally want to avoid, therefore presenting itself as climate denial.


Ideological beliefs


Ideological beliefs are a set of attitudes that shape individuals’ perceptions and interpretations of certain topics such as climate change [6]. Studies have shown that people with certain ideological beliefs use denial to protect the very thing the climate crisis threatens, the ‘status quo’. One of the drivers of resistance to climate change information is system justification [7]; the motivation to defend ‘normality’. Social dominance orientation [8] and right-wing authoritarianism [9] are two key ideological beliefs which are deemed to be strong predictors of climate denial. People high on social dominance orientation and high on right-wing authoritarianism tend to be resistant to change and are often motivated to maintain the ‘status quo’ [6].


How can we change these thought processes?


Self-affirmations


As humans, we have a natural response to be defensive when presented with stressful or threatening events, something that the climate crisis undoubtedly is. Studies have shown that when individuals are encouraged to express their beliefs and values before engaging with climate information, their disengagement decreases [2]. This is because affirmations strengthen a person’s positive view of themselves, express what is important to them and create an openness to threatening information [2]. Being open to receiving this threatening information is essential to avoid heightened anxiety which often leads to total inaction.


Social Norms


Shared standards of acceptable behaviours by a group are known as social norms. As social beings, we are often motivated to align our own values and behaviours with that of the group one belongs to. Research has demonstrated that social norms can be used to alter individual behaviour. For example, children who engaged with their parents in a discussion of climate change were successful at shifting adult opinions including in conservative parents [10}. This highlights the importance of clear communication of social norms and shared perceptions around climate change [2].


Reframing responses


Linking discussions around climate change with central aspects of people’s lives like health and economic prosperity can help motivate support and engagement [2]. Although evidence points towards the fact that the current capitalist system is to blame for the state of our climate, not everybody is of this same mind frame, particularly climate change deniers. Instead, studies have shown that you should discuss solutions as a way of protecting the socioeconomic system, or the ‘status quo’. Sometimes reframing discussions ever so slightly can change the way people think about a larger picture.


Conclusion


Psychological theories can offer insights as to the underlying causes of climate denial. Ultimately, large-scale political activity is needed to change our sources of energy and food if we want a fighting chance to slow climate change. However, it would undoubtedly be beneficial if most of the population were of the mindset that we need to drastically change our global behaviour. The aspects discussed in this article are by no means exhaustive but provide you with some basic knowledge on how to interact with those who deny climate change.


References


[1] Santos J, Feygina I. Responding to Climate Change Skepticism and the Ideological Divide [Internet]. 2017 [cited 21 August 2022]. Available from: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.12333712.0005.102

[2] Wong-Parodi G, Feygina I. Understanding and Countering the Motivated Roots of Climate Change Denial. [Internet]. 2019 [cited 21 August 2022];. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877343519301009

[3] Supran G, Oreskes N. Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014). Environmental Research Letters. 2017;12(8):084019.

[4] Kaur A, Chahal H. Role of Social Media in increasing Environmental issue Awareness. Researchers World:Journal of Arts, Science and Commerce. 2018;9(1):19.

[5] Alam O, Billah M, Yajie D. Characteristics of plastic bags and their potential environmental hazards. Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 2018;132:121-129.

[6] Wullenkord M, Tröger J, Hamann K, Loy L, Reese G. Anxiety and climate change: a validation of the Climate Anxiety Scale in a German-speaking quota sample and an investigation of psychological correlates. Climatic Change. 2021;168(3-4).

[7] Feygina I, Jost J, Goldsmith R. System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of “System-Sanctioned Change”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2009;36(3):326-338.

[8] Pratto F, Sidanius J, Stallworth L, Malle B. Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1994;67(4):741-763.

[9] Altemeyer B (1981) Right-wing authoritarianism. University of Manitoba Press

[10] Lawson D, Stevenson K, Peterson M, Carrier S, L. Strnad R, Seekamp E. Children can foster climate change concern among their parents. Nature Climate Change. 2019;9(6):458-462.