The Political Psychology of Climate Change Denial

Politics Features Climate Change
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The Political Psychology of Climate Change Denial

As the world continues to warm and the impending consequences of humanity’s treatment of the planet come slowly into focus, there are still many people in the United States who won’t acknowledge climate change is a human induced problem, that the effects of heating could be disastrous for humankind, or even simply that the phenomenon of global warming exists at all. Why are there so many people unsatisfied with this truth even though the unanimous and overwhelming evidence indicates we could be heading toward catastrophe?

As the imminent accretion of climate change looms, we’re beginning to understand the human effects on the climate as well as its relatively near consequences. Imperative solutions and resolve are not meeting the demand due to psychological, political, and economic entanglements.

According to an extensive study from the American Psychology Association (APA), people understand climate change as a long-term problem and have trouble connecting current events like a change in weather as related to the phenomenon. It is very difficult for people to be able to understand or care about the consequences our actions will have on future generations we’ll never meet. In addition, climate change can been viewed as a natural occurrence because the earth goes through natural cycles of warming and cooling.

The study from the APA reports that 47% of the people surveyed in the United States consider climate change to be a “very serious” problem, and 28% consider it a “somewhat serious” problem. This statistic has the United States falling behind many industrialized countries such as Canada, France, Japan, China, Brazil, India, and Mexico. A similar Pew Research study reaches the same conclusion. The APA study suggests this is because the concern is directly related to political ideology in America and is ingrained in our bipartisan political system.

If the non-political, non-partisan issue of climate change is infecting politics in the United States, then why do the people who hold onto a particular political ideology insist on speaking and behaving as if climate change isn’t a tangible and impending catastrophe when the overwhelming evidence indicates otherwise?

Clinical, cognitive, and social psychology have determined that risk perceptions are related to cause and effect, and they’re driven by associative processes at least as much, but probably more than, analytical processes. This is because associative processing was first developed evolutionarily and represents risks as feelings and emotions while analytic processing must be taught explicitly and works through rules and algorithms. The acknowledgement of risks and consequences of climate change are mostly based on analytical brain procedures, but these processes are still dependent on one another. When the associative and analytical systems are at odds, associative emotional processing takes precedent over the more complex analytical reasoning very often.

The interaction between the two cognitive systems results in a disparity between the associated risks concerning the long-term development of climate change, with analytic reasoning leading people to believe climate change is a serious concern, while the associative system fails to send the proper warning signals in the brain to those who do not, or cannot, experience the dangers of the changing planet. Effective risk detection relies on “dread risks,” which include catastrophic disasters like nuclear fallout and nerve gas accidents, and “unknown risks,” which are perceived dangers not yet tested by time.

There are two process that protect people from information that they don’t want to believe or have to act on. “One process is denial,” says Lee Ross, psychologist and professor at Stanford University. “Essentially saying that something they’ve heard isn’t true and [they] don’t want to think about it or hear about it. That notion goes back at least to Freud. And the other notion is rationalization, in which we try and come up with reasons for justifying inaction or supporting the idea that the threatening information won’t be so bad. These are classic defense mechanisms.”

“In order to engage in denial,” Ross continues, “we might engage in biased information processing or biased assimilation of information, which is when we take information we’d like to hear at face value. And [with] information we don’t want to believe, we find as many reasons as possible not to believe it. People who believe in climate change may also do the same thing. It’s just that in this case the overwhelming evidence is that climate change is cause by human emitted Co2.”

The American Psychology Association indicates that across the world—and for the United States specifically—the perceptions of climate change detection, which are dependent upon personal experience, result in very little cause for alarm or change in behavior. Even the fishermen and farmers who are directly affected by the change in weather patterns can have a difficult time detecting climate change risks because their daily and yearly experience with the climate may not be noticeably different enough to raise concerns for the world’s overall warming temperatures.

Despite the fact that ignoring climate change is clearly risking cataclysm, many associative processes in the brain cannot understand the connection between “routine” weather occurrences like tornadoes and hurricanes and their association with the overall shift of the climate.

Therefore, emotional mongering such as depicting climate change as a rapid occurrence will have a greater effect in triggering the warning responses in the brain. Long-term risks are viewed in the abstract while short-term risks heed appropriate responses.

“The thing about climate change is that it’s a very different threat,” Ross says. “The threat is not so immediate; it is primarily about the future, and human beings are not particularly engineered to deal with threats 50 or 100 years off. They’re not motivated enough to take actions that have long-term benefits. Most people give weight to the short term rather than the long term, which is called discounting.”

In addition, the way information about climate change is communicated to the public from both the scientists themselves as well as the news media contribute to augmenting risk and, depending upon the example, can decrease hazard perception and response.

“The evidence of climate change is very technical and hard to process,” Ross goes on to say. “It’s not like evidence that your roof is leaking. It involves having to accept evidence that is highly statistical and scientific. It’s about having to trust scientists, and lots of people have many reasons not to trust science; they might be religious. To address climate change properly it takes a lot of people.”

In their book The Wisest One in the Room, Ross and Thomas Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell University, describe a study in which people who live in a particular neighborhood were more likely to conserve household energy when their usage was reported alongside that of their neighbors. Furthermore, the people who saved the most energy were actually more likely to use more power unless they were given the positive reinforcement of a smiling face next to their name as motivation to continue conserving energy.

This sample is indicative of other psychological research and suggests that the average American is willing to put in the work to conserve energy, and cut down on both the immediate and long term costs, if they are able to see their personal rate of usage, the effects of conserving, and the benefits it has for their overall communities. If people fail to see the positive effects of conserving in their own backyard, then they will be more vulnerable to manipulation, denial, and rationalization.

This is how the mindset of climate change dismissal is intimately involved with political organizations, corporations, and other powerful entities that shape public opinion by incessantly spreading denial and rationalization. Group affiliations, the APA study states, are likely to influence opinions and perceptions of risk concerning climate change.

Using human psychology, the political factor is still prevalent but a few questions remain. Do the people who are intimately involved with shaping the political ideology and skepticism regarding climate change truly believe their inability to foresee its risks? Or is it a political calculation? Furthermore, if it is a political calculation, how much does the control of constituents come from a grim philosophy of certain impending doom married to the idea that the ends of a lawyer, politician, or business person protecting themselves and their families against such a disaster justifies the means of corporations and others perpetuating their raging war on our clean air, water, and environment? Psychology suggests that the vast majority of people either are not aware of what they are doing, or justify it with rationalization and other defense mechanisms, but this does not describe everyone.

“Intellectualization,” Ross says, “is a defense mechanism where you treat the information as if it is abstract—not personally relevant. You don’t allow yourself to feel emotions that would accompany that information. We tend to deal with death that way.”

Terror management theory suggests that people deny the significance of climate change because it is a reminder of their mortality and contributes to the confirmation of a belief system and validated self-esteem. Surely, the people who are supposed to lead, represent, and organize citizens are aware of this kind of agent to control, manufacture consent, and fabricate the false narratives that climate change doesn’t exist, that it isn’t a problem for humanity, or that this particular instance is a natural occurrence that no one can do anything about.

“People readily accept information that they want to believe and reject information that they don’t want to believe,” Ross says. “And it becomes very easy for that to be exploited.”

The refusal to acknowledge climate change as a serious problem can be influenced by powerful people, by their greed, their desire for more power, as well as in an attempt to sustain both consumption and lifestyle rather than by pure ignorance. Even the ill-informed politician who truly believes climate change is a hoax refuses to engage in discourse because it is convenient for them to do so. Specifically, both the Trump administration and the broader Republican Party have interests in the same fossil fuel industry that pumps Co2 into the atmosphere, degrades the environment, and warms global temperatures.

“All people that do something wrong are rationalizing,” Ross says. “They may say whatever we do will be futile anyway. People work hard to see themselves as coherent, rational, moral beings.” He cites the economy, employment, and donating to charities with the money earned as ways a climate-denying profiteer such as the Koch brothers or EPA head Scott Pruitt would justify their actions. “There are many stories to tell yourself that you’re not a villain in engaging in climate denial even if you have come to recognize that it is happening.”

Either the psychology of denial and rationalization are playing out in the people who actively pursue environmental harm for profit, or they are engaging in a behavior that can also be described by human psychology: the personality disorder known as sociopathy.

A sociopath is someone who cannot acknowledge the effects their actions have on other people, often fail to feel empathy for others, and instead commonly meet them with disregard. Not to be confused with psychopathy, sociopathy is often a tenuous description that can simply describe the inability to recognize the hardships of others.

“That’s the explanation I go to when the other explanations have failed,” Ross says. “The people that engage in denial do lots of other things that aren’t sociopathic.”

There are undoubtedly some climate change denying profiteers who interact with a grim philosophy that trying to saving the world is futile, and that they must do the best for themselves and their families as they stare into imminent destruction, and therefore continue denying climate change’s existence for their own benefit, profit, and security. This, however, is difficult to study or confirm.

It is indeed a small portion of the climate change deniers, but if the people who are actively shaping the narrative of climate change by polluting the earth, allowing it to occur, and shaping public opinion with denial and rationalization do not share the same inability to analytically determine the risks of climate change and respond to them—or if they are not entrenched in a pessimistic philosophy of defeatism—then they are actively engaged in the far more egregious position of pursuing the destruction of the natural world without regard for the planet we live on or the plants and animals who live here too.

Ryan Beitler is a journalist, fiction writer, traveler, musician, and blogger. He has written for Paste Magazine, Addiction Now, OC Weekly, and his travel blog Our Little Blue Rock. He can be reached at