The link below is to yet another article dealing with bushfires and the denial of climate change.
Last week, amid the cacophony of reactions to Greta Thunberg’s appearance before the United Nations Climate Action Summit, a group of self-proclaimed “prominent scientists” sent a registered letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The letter, headed “There is no climate emergency”, urged Guterres to follow:
…a climate policy based on sound science, realistic economics and genuine concern for those harmed by costly but unnecessary attempts at mitigation.
The group, supported by 75 Australian business and industry figures, along with others around the world, obviously rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. But this missive displays remarkably different tactics to those previously used to stymie climate action.
The language of climate change denial and inaction has transformed. Outright science denial has been replaced by efforts to reframe climate change as natural, and climate action as unwarranted.
However, this is just another way of rejecting the facts, and their implications for us. Denial can take many forms.
Shades of denial
The twin phenomena of denial and inaction are related to one another, at least in the context of climate change. They are also complex, both in the general sense of “complicated and intricate”, and in the technical psychological sense of “a group of repressed feelings and anxieties which together result in abnormal behaviour”.
In his book States of Denial, the late psychoanalytic sociologist Stanley Cohen described three forms of denial. Although his framework was developed from analysing genocide and other atrocities, it applies just as well to our individual and collective inaction in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence of human-induced climate change.
The first form of denial is literal denial. It is the simple, conscious, outright rejection that something happened or is happening – that is, lying. One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, among others, have at one time or another maintained this position – outright denial that climate change is happening (though Senator Hanson now might accept climate change but denies any human contribution to it).
Interestingly, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday blamed “climate change deniers” in his own government for blocking any attempt to deal with climate change, resulting paradoxically in higher energy prices today.
It is tempting to attribute outright denial to individual malice or stupidity, and that may occasionally be the case. More worrying and more insidious, though, is the social organisation of literal denial of climate change. There is plenty of evidence of clandestine, orchestrated lying by vested interests in industry. If anyone is looking for a conspiracy in climate change, this is it – not a collusion of thousands of scientists and major science organisations.
The second form of denial is interpretive denial. Here, people do not contest the facts, but interpret them in ways that distort their meaning or importance. For example, one might say climate change is just a natural fluctuation or greenhouse gas accumulation is a consequence, not a cause, of rising temperatures. This is what we saw in last week’s letter to the UN.
The most insidious form of denial
The third and most insidious form is implicatory denial. The facts of climate change are not denied, nor are they interpreted to be something else. What is denied or minimised are the psychological, political, and moral implications of the facts for us. We fail to accept responsibility for responding; we fail to act when the information says we should.
Of course, some are unable to respond, financially or otherwise, but for many, implicatory denial is a kind of dissociation. Ignoring the moral imperative to act is as damning a form of denial as any other, and arguably is much worse.
The treatment of Thunberg, and the vigour with which people push away reminders of that which they would rather not deal with, illustrate implicatory denial. We are almost all guilty, to some extent, of engaging in implicatory denial. In the case of climate change, implicatory denial allows us to use a reusable coffee cup, recycle our plastic or sometimes catch a bus, and thus to pretend to ourselves that we are doing our bit.
Almost none of us individually, or we as a nation, has acted as we ought on the science of climate change. But that does not mean we can’t change how we act in the future. Indeed, there are some recent indications that, as with literal denial, implicatory denial is becoming an increasingly untenable psychological position.
While it is tempting, and even cathartic, to mock the shrill responses to Thunberg from literal and interpretive deniers, we would do well to ponder our own inherent biases and irrational responses to climate change.
For instance, we tend to think we are doing more for the planet than those around us (and we can’t all be right). We also tend to think literal deniers are much more common in our society than they in fact are.
These are just two examples of common strategies we use to deny our own responsibility and culpability. They make us feel better about what little we actually do, or congratulate us for accepting the science. But they are ultimately self-defeating delusions. Instead of congratulating ourselves on agreeing with the basic scientific facts of climate change, we need to push ourselves to action.
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Why do people still think climate change isn’t real?
At its heart, climate change denial is a conflict between facts and values. People deny the climate crisis because, to them, it just feels wrong.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, acknowledging climate change involves accepting certain facts. But being concerned about climate change involves connecting these facts to values. It involves building bridges between the science of climate change and peoples’ various causes, commitments and convictions.
Denial happens when climate science rubs us up the wrong way. Instead of making us want to arrest the climate crisis, it makes us resist the very thought of it, because the facts of anthropogenic global heating clash with our personal projects.
It could be that the idea of climate change is a threat to our worldview. Or it could be that we fear society’s response to climate change, the disruption created by the transition to a low-emissions economy. Either way, climate change becomes such an “inconvenient truth” that, instead of living with and acting upon our worries, we suppress the truth instead.
Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna were the great chroniclers of denial. Sigmund described this negation of reality as an active mental process, as “a way of taking cognisance of what is repressed”. This fleeting comprehension is what distinguishes denial from ignorance, misunderstanding or sheer disbelief. Climate change denial involves glimpsing the horrible reality, but defending oneself against it.
Contemporary social psychologists tend to talk about this in terms of “motivated reasoning”. Because the facts of climate science are in conflict with people’s existing beliefs and values, they reason around the facts.
When this happens – as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt memorably put it – they aren’t reasoning in the careful manner of a judge who impartially weighs up all the evidence. Instead, they’re reasoning in the manner of a defence lawyer who clutches for post hoc rationalisations to defend an initial gut instinct. This is why brow-beating deniers with further climate science is unlikely to succeed: their faculty of reason is motivated to defend itself from revising its beliefs.
A large and growing empirical literature is exploring what drives denial. Personality is a factor: people are more likely to deny climate change if they’re inclined toward hierarchy and against changes to the status quo. Demographic factors also show an effect. Internationally, people who are less educated, older and more religious tend to discount climate change, with sex and income having a smaller effect.
But the strongest predictor is one’s politics. An international synthesis of existing studies found that values, ideologies and political allegiances overshadowed other factors. In Western societies, political affiliation is the key factor, with conservative voters more likely to discount climate change. Globally, a person’s commitment to democratic values – or not in the case of deniers – is more significant.
This sheds light on another side of the story. Psychology can contribute to explaining a person’s politics, but politics cannot be entirely explained by psychology. So too for denial.
The politics of denial
As the sociologist Stanley Cohen noted in his classic study of denial, there is an important distinction between denial that is personal and psychological, and denial that is institutional and organised. The former involves people who deny the facts to themselves, but the latter involves the denial of facts to others, even when these “merchants of doubt” know the truth very well.
It is well established that fossil fuel companies have long known about climate change, yet sought to frustrate wider public understanding. A comprehensive analysis of documentations from ExxonMobil found that, since 1977, the company has internally acknowledged climate change through the publications of its scientists, even while it publicly promoted doubt through paid advertorials. The fossil fuel industry has also invested heavily in conservative foundations and think tanks that promote contrarian scientists and improbable spins on the science.
All this is rich manure for personal denial. When a person’s motivated reasoning is on the hunt for excuses, there is an industry ready to supply them. Social media offers further opportunities for spreading disinformation. For example, a recent analysis of anonymised YouTube searches found that videos supporting the scientific consensus on climate change were outnumbered by those that didn’t.
In sum, denial is repressed knowledge. For climate change, this repression occurs at both the psychological level and social level, with the latter providing fodder for the former. This is a dismal scenario, but it shines some light on the way forward.
On the one hand, it reminds us that deniers are capable of acknowledging the science – at some level, they already do – even though they struggle to embrace the practical and ethical implications. Consequently, climate communications may do well to appeal to more diverse values, particularly those values held by the deniers themselves.
Experiments have shown that, if the risks and realities of climate change are reframed as opportunities for community relationship building and societal development, then deniers can shift their views. Similarly, in the US context, appealing to conservative values like patriotism, obeying authority and defending the purity of nature can encourage conservatives to support pro-environmental actions.
On the other hand, not all deniers will be convinced. Some downplay and discount climate change precisely because they recognise that the low-emissions transition will adversely impact their interests. A bombardment of further facts and framings is unlikely to move them.
What will make a difference is the power of the people – through regulation, divestment, consumer choice and public protest. Public surveys emphasise that, throughout the world, deniers are in the minority. The worried majority doesn’t need to win over everyone in order to win on climate change.
In this age of rapidly melting glaciers, terrifying megafires and ever more puissant hurricanes, of acidifying and rising oceans, it is hard to believe that any further prod to climate action is needed.
But the reality is that we continue to live in a business-as-usual world. Our media is filled with enthusiastic announcements about new fossil fuel projects, or the unveiling of the latest fossil-fuelled supercar, as if there’s no relationship between such things and climate change.
In Australia, the disconnect among our political leaders on the deadly nature of fossil fuels is particularly breathtaking.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to sing the praises of coal, while members of the government call for subsidies for coal-fired power plants. A few days ago, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor urged that the nation’s old and polluting coal-fired power plants be allowed to run “at full tilt”.
In the past, many of us have tolerated such pronouncements as the utterings of idiots – in the true, original Greek meaning of the word as one interested only in their own business. But the climate crisis has now grown so severe that the actions of the denialists have turned predatory: they are now an immediate threat to our children.
A ‘colossal failure’ of climate activism
Each year the situation becomes more critical. In 2018, global emissions of greenhouse gases rose by 1.7% while the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped by 3.5 parts per million – the largest ever observed increase.
No climate report or warning, no political agreement nor technological innovation has altered the ever-upward trajectory of the pollution. This simple fact forces me to look back on my 20 years of climate activism as a colossal failure.
Many climate scientists think we are already so far down the path of destruction that it is impossible to stabilise the global temperature at 1.5℃ above the pre-industrial average without yet to be developed drawdown technologies such as those that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. On current trends, within a decade or so, stabilising at 2℃ will likewise be beyond our grasp.
And on the other side of that threshold, nature’s positive feedback loops promise to fling us into a hostile world. By 2100 – just 80 years away – if our trajectory does not change, it is estimated that Earth will be 4℃ warmer than it was before we began burning fossil fuels.
Far fewer humans will survive on our warming planet
That future Earth may have enough resources to support far fewer people than the 7.6 billion it supports today. British scientist James Lovelock has predicted a future human population of just a billion people. Mass deaths are predicted to result from, among other causes, disease outbreaks, air pollution, malnutrition and starvation, heatwaves, and suicide.
My children, and those of many prominent polluters and climate denialists, will probably live to be part of that grim winnowing – a world that the Alan Joneses and Andrew Bolts of the world have laboured so hard to create.
How should Australia’s parents deal with those who labour so joyously to create a world in which a large portion of humanity will perish? As I have become ever more furious at the polluters and denialists, I have come to understand they are threatening my children’s well-being as much as anyone who might seek to harm a child.
Young people themselves are now mobilising against the danger. Increasingly they’re giving up on words, and resorting to actions. Extinction Rebellion is the Anthropocene’s answer to the UK working class Chartists, the US Declaration of Independence, and the defenders of the Eureka Stockade.
Its declaration states:
This is our darkest hour. Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history, one which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear […] The wilful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profit […] We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void.
Words have not cut through. Is rebellion the only option?
Not yet a year old, Extinction Rebellion has had an enormous impact. In April it shut down six critical locations in London, overwhelmed the police and justice system with 1,000 arrests, and forced the British government to become the first nation ever to declare a climate emergency.
So unstable is our current societal response that a single young woman, Greta Thunberg, has been able to spark a profoundly powerful global movement. Less than a year ago she went on a one-person school strike. Today school strikes for climate action are a global phenomenon.
On September 20 in Australia and elsewhere, school principals must decide whether they will allow their students to march in the global climate strike in an effort to save themselves from the climate predators in our midst, or force them to stay and study for a future that will not, on current trends, eventuate.
I will be marching with the strikers in Melbourne, and I believe teachers should join their pupils on that day. After all, us older generation should be painfully aware that our efforts have not been enough to protect our children.
The new and carefully planned rebellion by the young generation forces us earlier generations of climate activists to re-examine our strategy. Should we continue to use words to try to win the debate? Or should we become climate rebels? Changing the language around climate denialism will, I hope, sharpen our focus as we ponder what comes next.
The Coalition has been re-elected to government, and after six years in office it has not created any effective policies for reducing greenhouse emissions. Does that mean the Australian climate change debate is stuck in 2013? Not exactly.
While Australia still lacks effective climate change policies, the debate has definitely shifted. It’s particularly noticeable to scientists, like myself, who were very active participants in the Australian climate debate just a few years ago.
The debate has moved away from the basic science, and on to the economic and political ramifications. And if advocates for reducing greenhouse emissions don’t fully recognise this, they risk shooting themselves in the foot.
The old denials
Old-school climate change denial, be it denial that warming is taking place or that humans are responsible for that warming, featured prominently in Australian politics a decade ago. In 2009 Tony Abbott, then a Liberal frontbencher jockeying for the party leadership, told ABC’s 7.30 Report:
I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.
The theory and evidence base for human-induced climate change is vast and growing. In contrast, the counterarguments were so sloppy that there were many targets for scientists to shoot at.
Climate “sceptics” have always been very keen on cherrypicking data. They would make a big fuss about some unusually cold days, or alleged discrepancies at a handful of weather stations, while ignoring broader trends. They made claims of data manipulation that, if true, would entail a global conspiracy, despite the availability of code and data.
Incorrect predictions of imminent global cooling were made on the basis of rudimentary analyses rather than sophisticated models. Cycles were invoked, in a manner reminiscent of epicycles and stock market “chartism” – but doodling with spreadsheets cannot defeat carbon dioxide.
That was the state of climate “scepticism” a decade ago, and frankly that’s where it remains in 2019. It’s old, tired, and increasingly irrelevant as the impact of climate change becomes clearer.
Climate “scepticism” was always underpinned by politics rather than science, and that’s clearer now than it was a decade ago.
Several Australian climate contrarians describe themselves as libertarians – falling to the right of mainstream Australian politics. David Archibald is a climate sceptic, but is now better known as candidate for the Australian Liberty Alliance, One Nation and (finally) Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party. The climate change denying Galileo Movement’s claim to be to be non-partisan was always suspect – and now doubly so with its former project leader, Malcolm Roberts, representing One Nation in the Senate.
Given this, it isn’t surprising that relatively few Australians reject the science of climate change. Just 11% of Australians believe recent global warming is natural, and only 4% believe “there’s no such thing as climate change”.
Old-school climate change denial isn’t just unfounded, it’s also unpopular. Before last month’s federal election, Abbott bet a cafe patron in his electorate A$100 that “the climate will not change in ten years”. It reminded me of similar bets made and lost over the past decade. We don’t know whether Abbott will end up paying out on the bet – but we do know he lost his seat.
So what has changed in the years since Abbott was able to gain traction, rather than opprobrium, by disdaining climate science? The Australian still runs Ian Plimer and Maurice Newman on its opinion pages, and Sky News “after dark” often features climate cranks. But prominent politicians rarely repeat their nonsense any more. When the government spins Australia’s rising emissions, it does it by claiming that investing in natural gas helps cut emissions elsewhere, rather than by pretending CO₂ is merely “plant food”.
As a scientist, I rarely feel the need to debunk the claims of old-school climate cranks. OK, I did recently discuss the weather predictions of a “corporate astrologer” with Media Watch, but that was just bizarre rather than urgent.
Back in the real world, the debate has shifted to costs and jobs.
Modelling by the economist Brian Fisher, who concluded that climate policies would be very expensive, featured prominently in the election campaign. Federal energy minister Angus Taylor, now also responsible for reducing emissions, used the figures to attack the Labor Party, despite expert warnings that the modelling used “absurd cost assumptions”.
Many people still assume the costs of climate change are in the future, despite us increasingly seeing the impacts now. While scientists work to quantify the environmental damage, arguments about the costs and benefits of climate policy are the domain of economists.
Jobs associated with coal mining were a prominent theme of the election campaign, and may have been decisive in Queensland’s huge anti-Labor swing. It is obvious that burning more coal makes more CO₂, but that fact doesn’t stop people wanting jobs. The new green economy is uncharted territory for many workers with skills and experience in mining.
That said, there are economic arguments against new coalmines and new mines may not deliver the number of jobs promised. Australian power companies, unlike government backbenchers and Clive Palmer, have little enthusiasm for new coal-fired power stations. But the fact remains that these economic issues are largely outside the domain of scientists.
Debates about climate policy remain heated, despite the scientific basics being widely accepted. Concerns about economic costs and jobs must be addressed, even if those concerns are built on flawed assumptions and promises that may be not kept. We also cannot forget that climate change is already here, impacting agriculture in particular.
Science should inform and underpin arguments, but economics and politics are now the principal battlegrounds in the Australian climate debate.
Last week Peter Costello accused Malcolm Turnbull of failing to develop an economic narrative to unite the Coalition. Turnbull promised this when he challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but, said Costello, it never came, and the result is a government struggling to manage deep differences over social issues. There was “jobs and growth”, but this is really just a goal without much of a story about how to get there, except for the company tax cuts.
The big question, though, is why the government does not have a coherent economic narrative.
One possible answer is that it has been too preoccupied with social issues such as religious freedom and before that, same-sex marriage, to give the economy sufficient attention. There is something in that.
But this does not get to the heart of the problem, which is the inability of the Coalition to face the reality of climate change and its stubborn determination to live in a parallel universe of business as usual. It is climate change denial that is preventing the government from developing a coherent economic narrative.
To be sure, those who doubt the seriousness of climate change are now more likely to describe themselves as sceptics rather than outright deniers, but the effects are the same. Doubting the risks of climate change, opposing serious counter measures and believing in coal’s long-term future is an identity issue for many Coalition politicians.
As an identity issue, it is largely impervious to evidence, as we saw in government ministers’ hasty dismissal of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report – before they had even read it, one suspects. Identity issues are also resistant to the normal processes of bargaining and compromise with which many political conflicts are resolved. The National Energy Guarantee was the last of the government’s energy policies to founder on the suspicion that a market mechanism might damage coal. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target met the same fate.
So now, some members of the party of private enterprise and the free market, which argued for and oversaw the privatisation of most of Australia’s power utilities, are seriously advocating that the government develop a coal-fired power station. Barnaby Joyce has been at it again in recent weeks.
When AGL announced the planned closure of its ageing Liddell coal-fired power station last year, the government strenuously tried to dissuade it, keep it running for longer or to sell it to rival power company Alinta. The pressure was very public on AGL to “do the right thing”, but also private, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ringing AGL Chairman Graeme Hunt. It was to no avail, and AGL persisted with its commercially based decision to close the plant and invest instead in the generation of renewable energy, as it had every right to do.
To state the obvious, the stubborn commitment to coal is pulling the government’s economic policy towards the sort of state socialism it is supposed to abhor. No wonder it is having difficulty developing a coherent economic narrative.
Further, it is alienating the government, and the Liberal Party in particular, from its natural supporters in the business community. With the collapse of the NEG, the government has no energy policy to provide certainty to business and investors. The focus of the new minister for energy, Angus Taylor, has contracted to reducing power prices for consumers. Climate policy has been shifted back into the portfolio of the Minister for the Environment, separating energy from emissions and further demonstrating the identity denialism that distorts the government’s economic narrative. Faced with doubts about Australia’s capacity to meet its agreed to Paris targets, the government blithely says we are “on track”.
But most big business outside the fossil fuel industries is not in denial about the real risks of climate change, nor the imperatives of international action. Since Turnbull walked away from the NEG in a vain attempt to appease his critics and save his leadership, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia have both been discussing ways to “go it alone” on emissions reduction.
Australian Financial Review journalist Phil Coorey last week quoted a member of the Business Council of Australia’s Energy and Climate Change Committee:
Someone has got to do something. This has to be industry-led unless government wants to take over the markets.
Industry needs certainty to invest, and to maintain and create the jobs that are central to the government’s focus on “jobs and growth”. That certainty needs to last beyond the tenure of one government or even two, and have bipartisan support.
Yet the government is unwilling to provide that certainty. As Angus Taylor told an AFR National Energy Summit last week:
There is no room for bipartisanship when we have a 26% [reduction target] and the other side has 45%.
But because climate policy has become an identity issue for some members of the Coalition, and they fight on it tooth and nail, is has been removed from the normal processes of policy formation.
No wonder the government can’t develop a coherent economic narrative.
Australia has been described as the “front line of the battle for climate change adaptation”, and our farmers are the ones who have to lead the charge. Farmers will have to cope, among other pressures, with longer droughts, more erratic rainfall, higher temperatures, and changes to the timing of seasons.
Yet, puzzlingly enough to many commentators, climate denial has been widespread among farmers and in the ranks of the National Party, which purports to represent their interests.
Back in 2008, only one-third of farmers accepted the science of climate change. Our 2010-11 survey of 946 irrigators in the southern Murray-Darling Basin (published in 2013) found similar results: 32% accepted that climate change posed a risk to their region; half disagreed; and 18% did not know.
These numbers have consistently trailed behind the wider public, a clear majority of whom have consistently accepted the science. More Australians in 2018 accepted the reality of climate change than at almost any time, with 76% accepting climate change is occurring, 11% not believing in it and 13% being unsure.
Yet there are signs we may be on the brink of a wholesale shift in farmers’ attitudes towards climate change. For example, we have seen the creation of Young Carbon Farmers, Farmers for Climate Action, the first ever rally on climate change by farmers in Canberra, and national adverts by farmers on the need for climate action. Since 2016 the National Farmers Federation has strengthened its calls for action to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Our latest preliminary research results have also revealed evidence of this change. We surveyed 1,000 irrigators in 2015-16 in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, and found attitudes have shifted significantly since the 2010 survey.
Now, 43% of farmers accept climate change poses a risk to their region, compared with just 32% five years earlier. Those not accepting correspondingly fell to 36%, while the percentage who did not know slightly increased to 21%.
Why would farmers deny the science?
There are many factors that influence a person’s denial of climate change, with gender, race, education and age all playing a part. While this partly explains the attitudes that persist among farmers (who tend to be predominantly male, older, Caucasian, and have less formal education), it is not the full story.
The very fact that farmers are on the front line of climate change also drives their climate change denial. For a farmer, accepting the science means facing up to the prospect of a harsher, more uncertain future.
Yet as these changes move from future prospect to current reality, they can also have a galvanising effect. Our survey results suggest farmers who have seen their farm’s productivity decrease over time are more likely to accept the science of climate change.
Many farmers who have turned to regenerative, organic or biodynamic agriculture talk about the change of mindset they went through as they realised they could no longer manage a drying landscape without major changes to their farming practices.
In addition, we have found another characteristic that is associated with climate change denial is whether farmers have identified a successor for their farm. Many farmers desire to turn their farm over to the next generation, hopefully in a better state than how they received the farm. This is where the psychological aspect of increased future uncertainty plays an important role – farmers don’t want to believe their children will face a worse future on the farm.
We all want our children to have better lives than our own, and for farmers in particular, accepting climate change makes that very challenging. But it can also prompt stronger advocacy for doing something about it before it’s too late.
What can we do?
Whether farmers do or do not accept climate change, they all have to deal with the uncertainty of weather – and indeed they have been doing so for a very long time. The question is, can we help them to do it better? Given the term “climate change” can be polarising, explicit climate information campaigns will not necessarily deliver the desired results.
What farmers need are policies to help them manage risk and improve their decision-making. This can be done by focusing on how adaptation to weather variability can increase profitability and strengthen the farm’s long-term viability.
Farming policy should be more strategic and forward-thinking; subsidies should be removed for unsustainable practices; and farmers should be rewarded for good land management – both before and during droughts. The quest remains to minimise the pain suffered by all in times of drought.