Climate change denial
7 March 2023
People have a recognized capacity to reject or ignore information that they find unacceptable or inconvenient. In this sense, denial, whether active (rejecting, denying) or passive (ignoring, avoiding paying attention, looking the other way) is a common human response. In fact, the phenomenon of denial has been extensively studied in psychology, which has given it various interpretations, from those that consider it a motivated defense mechanism to those that interpret it as a cognitive error.
Anthropogenic climate change is undoubtedly a difficult phenomenon to accept, both because of the threat it represents and because of the responsibilities it poses, which makes “climate denial” responses expected. This denial can manifest itself explicitly through different positions:
denial of the fact (“it is not happening”), denial of the causes (“it is a natural phenomenon”), denial of the consequences (“it is not dangerous”), or denial of the practical implications (“there is nothing we can do”).
Denialism has achieved social impact not because of the scientific solvency or the coherence of the messages it disseminates, but because of its effective social communication strategies.
Sociological studies reveal that levels of climate denial and its modalities differ, sometimes substantially, among different societies. These differences have been related to various factors, one of the most recognized being the existence of initiatives, intense, to promote denial, developed from what we could call organized denialism. In this sense, it is interesting to differentiate denial as a human response from denialism, understood as an organized movement aimed at “problematizing” climate change1 and promoting climate denial.
In terms of its practices, climate denialism has been defined as “the use of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of a legitimate debate where there is none”.2 Denialism spreads various messages to challenge the reality of climate change, its interpretation, or its implications:
“It is not happening”, “it is not proven”, “it is due to natural causes”, “it is not dangerous”, “we must deal with more important problems”, etc. However, denialism has achieved social impact not because of the scientific solvency or coherence of the messages it disseminates, but because of its effective social communication strategies, including “sowing doubts” or creating unrealistic expectations regarding the solution to the problem.
Factors related to climate denial
To better understand how a set of messages that lack a minimum of scientific solvency, when they do not clearly and evidently contradict firmly established facts, have achieved credibility in certain social spheres, we will briefly review some contributions made by social research on what are the key factors associated with denial responses. It is important to note, however, that the relevance of the different factors related to denial varies in different social and cultural contexts and the bulk of the research on this topic has been carried out in Anglo-Saxon countries, especially the USA, UK, and Australia.
Climate change denial has been intuitively associated with:
An information deficit
alignment with denialist positions is often blamed on a lack of rigorous information about the phenomenon, its nature, or its danger. According to this interpretation “if people knew…” everything would be different.
A lack of scientific culture
the problem would not only be the lack of information, but the lack of criteria to understand and value it properly. The lack of a scientific culture may explain why the arguments of cynics, which do not sound scientifically sound, are accepted by people.
This attitude has led to the creation of measures to combat denial, such as the climate change statement on climate.