The Psychology of Climate Change Denial

In response to the argument (which I recently recommended) that Hurricane Sandy should reinforce our will to address climate change, one George Marshall writes a very thoughtful note of caution.  He runs the blog Climate Change Denial, which explores the psychology of denial, and says:

Campaigners and communicators should be very wary of charging into areas affected by extreme weather events and assuming that they have fertile ground for increased activism around change. The very opposite may be true, especially if they are perceived as outsiders who are breaking into the community (which may never have been stronger or more united) and exploiting its suffering[…]

The critical condition for affecting longer term attitudes is the extent to which events are translated into a socially held narrative that speaks to people’s sense of their own identity. And this requires a steady long term approach – waiting until the dust has settled and working with trusted local communicators who can make a case that the single event fits into a narrative pattern of longer term change.

Why?  He offers several interesting psychological explanations:

  • Disasters can reinforce social networks: Stronger cultural cohesion could make it even harder for ideas that challenge existing worldviews to be voiced or accepted.
  • Disasters can increase social confidence and certainty:Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt[…] Disasters may very well [encourage] the opposite.
  • Disasters encourage powerful and compelling survival narratives (that can overwhelm weaker and more complex climate change narratives).
  • Disasters are cyclical and create escalating baselines. 

He developed his argument based on the reaction of Bastrop, Texas, which was ravaged by wildfires in 2011.  Perhaps in New York and New Jersey, however, the reinforcement of social cohesion and certainty will have the effect of strengthening the already prominent climate change narrative.

I recommend reading the whole essay, which was brought to my attention via Andrew Revkin.

Photo Credit: Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa


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