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Climate Change Denial: How To Combat This

climate change denial

Climate change denial. Such a dangerous three-word term. Especially in a time when we suffer a lot from the effects of climate change, having people who don’t believe in climate change is a liability. What’s even more upsetting is the fact that many political figures and policymakers all over the world are climate change deniers themselves.

Climate change denial
Cartoon by Star Tribune

Making informed decisions is key to fighting climate change. That’s even more vital when it comes to fighting those that deny the truth. To fight back against conspiracy theorists that run on misinformation, we need to appeal to people’s sense of reality.

To help me create a guide on combating climate change denial, I asked environmental experts, lawmakers, environmental reporters, activists, eco bloggers, and industry experts. Learn from their insights and get inspired to fight climate change deniers in your life.

What is climate change denial?

Scott Laskey, President of Sandbar Solar & Electric Company, says that climate change denial is the denial of or dismissing the science and information that pertains to human impacts of climate change. Climate change denial tends to suggest that we, as humans, play no role in climate change and that there is little we can do to affect climate change.

According to Kelly Wang, founder/owner of Rue Saint Paul, climate change denial is believing that the actions of humans are not directly altering and not harming the natural cycle of the earth’s climate patterns and subsequently its ecosystem and existence. While climate deniers may agree that the earth’s climate patterns are changing, they believe that this is the natural cycle of the earth, and not due to any human actions.

Dr. Rick Patterson, with a master’s and doctoral degrees in ministry from Western Theological Seminary, believes that denial is an emotional response to factual information. That means the resolution to a denial must be dealt with emotionally and not with more data. There is an emotional need to cling to an alternate reality (“climate change isn’t real” in this case) because it threatens something about the person’s identity.

This isn’t just the fear of lost income either. That’s a material issue. However, if the loss of income threatens a person’s identity – they’ve spent their entire life in the oil industry – has it all been a waste? A lie? Am I an idiot? Those are emotionally threatening questions that require a psyche to cling to this alt-reality.

Karen Tibbals, author of “Persuade, Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility across the Political
Divide
“, writes about how we can learn to use Willer and Feinberg’s reframing technique so that we can start convincing others and stop alienating them. To her, climate change denial is a political issue. Republicans are much more likely to disagree that the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment than Democrats. But the divide didn’t use to be as large as it is now. It widened just as climate change became the environmental issue that was being focused on.

Why did this happen? According to Robb Willer whose principles were the focus of Tibbals’ book, that it is a direct result of a change in the focus on climate change which resulted in changes in how we are talked about environmental issues. In the early 2000s, the language shifted from a focus on the purity and beauty of the earth to the harm that climate change can cause people.

Using the lens of moral foundation theory to analyze the content identifies a shift from the moral foundation of sanctity/purity to the care/harm moral foundation. Liberals place much more importance on the care/harm moral foundation, so it is no surprise that that language worked well for liberals, but backfired among conservatives.

Examples of climate change denial

  • Refusing to believe that climate change is accelerated by human activity
  • Refusing to believe that climate change poses the most serious risk to human survival on the planet
  • Refusing to embrace renewable energy as a way to reduce greenhouse gases and reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere
  • Refusing to believe that there are serious (and eminent) dangers to ceasing the activities that exacerbate climate change
  • Failing to understand (and believe) that sea-level rise from climate change significantly endangers coastal cities, homes, communities, and the entire US economy
  • Refusing to acknowledge the connection between climate change and melting of ice caps, sea-level rise, mass extinctions, loss of biodiversity, economic injustice, and social injustice
How fossil fuel industry misled Americans deliberately about climate change
Image by ThePrint

Why do many people acknowledge climate change?

Climate change is a global issue that concerns everyone. According to Laskey, many people acknowledge climate change because there is a vast amount of scientific research and knowledge surrounding climate change impacts. Thousands of published research papers and studies have been conducted to identify the causes and effects of climate change.

Why is climate change denial dangerous?

Climate change denial is dangerous because the problems caused by climate change are accelerating at an alarming rate and there are many experts who believe that we have very little time left to adjust human behavior before we reach a “point of no return” where events will occur that will make the Earth unlivable for most humans in the near future (as in the next 50-100 years). Entire communities are at risk of sinking below sea level, being ravaged by fires and drought, and running out of food and fresh water due to the impacts of climate change.

In terms of why climate change denial is dangerous, Youmna Rab, an eco-blogger of Sustainably Yours says, it’s important to know that every single person’s action matters especially when we are in such a critical moment in time like now.

Is climate denial contagious? - The Boston Globe
Cartoon by The Boston Globe

These climate deniers can have the following repercussions on the sustainability movement:

1. They may have children whom they will teach that climate change is fake. These children will grow up not realizing or caring that their actions are harming the planet due to their upbringing.

2. They may be in positions of power and make major decisions that go against helping the environment. A leader who supports major gas companies and does nothing to offset those carbon emissions is harming the planet in major ways. Alternatively, a leader who encourages sustainable thinking and changes will help the environment.

3. They may preach that climate change isn’t real and convince others of their belief. Society is made up of individual people. If the majority of people in a society don’t believe that climate change is a problem then we can’t take action towards fixing it.

Climate change deniers

Who are the Deniers? - Office of Planning and Research
Image by OPR.ca

As mentioned above, climate change denial is most dangerous when it is practiced by policymakers and world leaders. Here are the infamous climate change deniers that made climate change denial the focal point of their leadership styles.

Donald Trump

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States, claims that climate change was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive“. He used the economic issue to persuade other people that climate change is nothing but a man-made use to combat the U.S. by its competitors. This idea has reinforced the hyperreal narrative of climate change with Trump quoting “faulty science and manipulated data.”

George HW Bush

Former U.S. President George Bush, 43rd president of the United States, and his administration would support that there is “uncertainty” of climate change and call for “sound science”. President Bush retaliated by enacting a 10-year, $100 million research endeavor in an effort to prove that global warming is a natural (not man-made) process.

Senator James M. Inhofe

Another climate change denier, Senator James M. Inhofe once said in 2003, “I have offered compelling evidence that catastrophic global warming is a hoax. That conclusion is supported by the painstaking work of the nation’s top climate scientists” .

How to change the minds of climate change deniers

Dr. Rick Patterson says that the only way to talk people back from an emotional ledge and help people prevent making decisions they will later regret is through long-term empathy, compassion, and partnership. This will be hard for people to do because we’ve come to see climate deniers as idiots and as the enemy which is how they’ve come to see us. It’s hard to love your enemy but it’s the only way out of this mess. 

President Laskey also says, “To change the mind of climate change deniers, I suggest more education, sharing of real-world stories of people and communities being impacted by the effects of climate change, and demonstrating the economic impacts – both current and future – of climate change.”

Also, the media plays a major role in the distribution of information to society, so creating more oversight and rules pertaining to factual news reporting by all news agencies would help reduce misinformation being shared by news outlets that perpetuate false narratives around the role that humans play in climate change.

How to motivate climate activism

Since the Ecological & Environmental Movements began in the 1970s, more and more people have become aware of the impacts of climate change. What began as only a few concerned citizens 50 years ago has grown into a worldwide movement. More people seem to be taking notice and working towards solutions to battle climate change.

According to Scott Laskey, there are many ways to get involved, from a personal level (driving less, eating less meat, reducing one’s carbon footprint) to a global level (starting and/or working for and with companies that work to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, like the Electric Vehicle industry, and other emerging technologies that are cleaner and less destructive to our planet). With new opportunities to fight climate change, more and more people will “jump on the bandwagon” and find a way to contribute in a positive way.

How do we fight climate change denial as a society?

The solution, for Karen Tibbals, is to learn to talk to the other side by using the language that is important to them instead of what makes sense to the people who are talking. Specifically, switch to also using the moral foundation of sanctity/purity to support environmental issues.

Professors Robb Willer and Matt Feinberg’s research demonstrated that making that shift increases support for issues in general among conservatives. Indeed, the effect was so large that it increased support for climate change legislation even though the argument didn’t even mention climate change.

For Scott Laskey, the solution is changing behaviors to motivate others. To reduce the impact of climate change, people will need to adjust personal behaviors that cause climate change, as well as work to motivate change in others. For example, consuming less, driving less, flying less, reducing meat consumption. We need strong political leaders to make issues more well known, and to pass legislation that ends harmful environmental practices and boosts new methods that reduce impacts to the climate.

Also, as stated above, it will be helpful for climate change deniers to see real-world impacts of climate change – how real cities, towns, and people are affected by the impacts of climate change. Entire communities are now being devastated by increased fires, floods, hurricanes, droughts, and other weather events that are all driven by climate change.

Kelly Wang believes that today, most world leaders, industry leaders, and much of the global population accept climate change as a reality and support policy, legislation, and initiatives to fight against it. Rather than focus on turning over the minority of climate change deniers, we need to amplify the voices of people fighting against climate change.

Fund green technology, provide economic incentives for environmentally friendly companies, and continue to educate. Once leaders in government and industries integrate environmental responsibility into their core agendas/operations, green solutions will naturally follow for consumers and the greater population. Climate change deniers will be adopting greener behaviors if all their options are environmentally friendly, even if they still refute climate change.

Conclusion

Climate change denial is very strong, despite the wealth of evidence of climate change in real-time. But we shouldn’t give up. There are many ways for us to combat climate change denial, both as individuals and as a society. We need to appeal to people’s sense of reality and their place in the world.

Above all, we should exhaust all efforts – let nothing be wasted – in the pursuit of taking care of the environment.

What do you think?

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