posted on Jan, 7 2020 @ 07:45 AM
One reason for the refusal to accept the reality of climate change is what is motivated interference, which occurs when we hold a specific bias to
ignore evidence. As science writer Nicole Mortillaro noted, this can include a general unease with large government projects that are expensive and
interfere with individuals’ lives. Other reasons, she writes, include “people whose livelihood is dependent on…the oil industry” and
resentment of “government taking money out of individuals’ pockets in the form of public spending on carbon mitigation efforts.”
In addition to motivated interference, there is also a powerful psychological component to this blindness to scientific reality: denial. A lot has
been written about climate change denial and there are clearly many explanations for it. For one thing, an enormous amount of money is being spent
encouraging us to ignore climate change. Corporations, especially the fossil fuel industry, have spent huge sums attempting to obfuscate the reality
of climate change. We are constantly told by them that “more data are needed” because “climate scientists don’t agree.” While no scientist
would ever disagree with a call for more research—that line is, after all, found near the end of almost every scientific paper ever written—it
just is not true that scientists don’t agree that climate change is real. To some extent, then, we are the victims of a well-funded and
sophisticated misinformation campaign that attempts to keep us in the dark about climate change.
But studies persistently show us that simply providing people with the facts about climate does not reliably change minds. The science that proves the
earth is warming is very technical and difficult for most of us to grasp. Humans aren’t well wired to act on complex statistical risks. Even when
the evidence about climate change is relayed in very clear terms with lots of compelling graphics, many people either don’t believe it or shrug it
off. Hence, the problem of climate change denial is not simply a matter of an information gap.
Among the many reasons that we shun this problem is its enormity. We aren’t just being told that unless we take action our identities will be
stolen, we will lose thousands of dollars, or even that it will take a few years off our lives. What the climate scientists are telling us is that if
we don’t stop burning fossil fuels the human race faces extinction.
We can grasp a potential disaster if we know it is made up and will be okay in an hour and a half or if it's a hurricane that will come and go. But
we resist when that event is real, will be spread out over decades, and is of catastrophic proportions that can only be averted if we change almost
everything about the way we live. Stop driving your car, eating meat, and flying in planes, we are told. Shut down ExxonMobil, Shell, and British
Petroleum. Move quickly to build solar fields and energy-producing windmills. Simply writing that list makes us totally exhausted. What we are being
asked to do will take gargantuan efforts and face vicious opposition.
In one of the most poignant recitations of this sense of being engulfed by the enormity of the implications of climate change, scientist Alison Spodek
Keimowitz wrote about her change in perspective after her brush with death from cancer. “I found that I no longer could see a track that turned away
from the edge. We are already locked into catastrophic changes, terrible human and animal suffering, the loss of so much of what makes this Earth
itself." The problem is just so huge that it is nearly unthinkable. Our minds try to save us from utter hopelessness by pushing aside thoughts of
climate change. Denial kicks in as our minds’ default for temporary self-preservation.
Climate change denial is in some ways a new mental process for psychologists to understand. Of course, the concept of denial itself is well
understood. Psychologists consider denial—the refusal to accept facts in order to protect us from uncomfortable truths—to be a primitive defense
mechanism. But despite the fact that psychologists know a lot about denial, they have never had to face denial on this scale before. Millions of
people share the phenomenon of climate denial. This is clearly not something that is amenable to individual or even group psychotherapy.
One approach to motivating us to take action about climate change is to emphasize relatively simple things that individuals can do in their everyday
lives. According to this approach, instead of telling people to stop driving gas-powered cars altogether, we recommend trying to take the train to
work one day a week. Instead of forgoing all flights, we are asked to skip one international flight a year. The list of these everyday recommendations
includes such things as bringing reusable bags to the supermarket to cut down on the amount of plastic that winds up in the earth’s oceans and
switching all the lightbulbs in your home from incandescent to LCD.
It is quite clear that such individual steps, however needed, are insufficient to stop climate change, and therefore some environmental advocates
believe that emphasizing is contributing to climate denial. Instead of telling people to be more careful recycling soda cans we should work harder to
make them understand that only the complete cessation of greenhouse gas emissions will save us.
Nevertheless, there are at least two psychological reasons that encouraging people to adopt climate protecting activities in their daily lives may
help promote action on the larger scale needed. First, denial is a response to something we fear, and we know from animal and human studies that fear
induces freezing and passivity. But studies also demonstrate that giving a fearful animal or human a task that even symbolically addresses what is
feared can minimize freezing and promote action. Thus, recommending tasks that we can perform in our daily lives may help us overcome our feeling that
mitigating climate change is a hopeless enterprise and motivate us join the voices insisting on ending burning fossil fuels.
Second, these quotidian activities can be the basis for the formation of committees and communities that bring people together with the common goal of
addressing climate change. Being part of a group with a common goal may help people overcome denial and have the courage to face the realities of
climate change, however grim they may be. It may be easier and more effective for groups of people to demand that countries impose carbon taxes and
Ultimately, only large-scale political activity has any chance of saving civilization from the oncoming ravages of continued greenhouse gas emissions.
Entire nations must come together as they did in forging the Paris Climate Agreement and agree to enforce what will have to be very extensive and
often highly inconvenient changes in our sources of energy and food. It is true that replacing oil and gas with sustainable energy and switching to
plant-based diets will be difficult and even painful for some, but the alternative—continuing to ignore that climate change is already affecting us
will be catastrophic.