Engaging with climate change denial — lessons from detox

In this article I explain why we need to stop getting frustrated at how people deny climate change and focus on why they are denying it.

All views expressed are entirely my own and do not represent either those of the NSW Government or the NABERS Program.

Do you feel frustrated by people who deny that human-induced climate change is happening?

A 2016 Essential Poll showed 28 per cent of Australians believe “we are just witnessing a normal fluctuation in the Earth’s climate,” while a further 13 per cent “don’t know” if humans are to blame.

In this post I’m going to suggest a less common perspective for thinking about the denial of human-induced climate change. I think it will reduce your frustration, and help you engage more effectively with that 41% of the population when it comes to climate change.

From detox to here

Before I got into the environmental sector I was working as a drug and alcohol counsellor in the detox unit of a large hospital, studying to become a Psychologist.

When I made the career change, I decided that I wanted to find a way to apply what I had learned from Psychology to help the environmental movement. To help people detox from fossil fuels.

That’s my background. That’s where my approach is coming from.

Defending a position

Most of the time when people express their frustration to me about climate change deniers, they talk about the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the theory of human caused (or ‘anthropogenic’) climate change.

It is true, the evidence is strong. But people are not computers. We are not cold, information-processors programmed to make utilitarian decisions.

Instead we are warm blooded and emotional. When we have an incentive to defend a position, we’ll do it. What’s more, we’ll warp our perception of the world so that we feel justified in doing so.

The ‘confirmation bias’ is one well established example of how we do this. It’s a bit like selective hearing. It’s our tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

Many experiments on ‘cognitive dissonance theory’ give us other examples of our perception-warping abilities.

What I’m saying is that there’s plenty of research which shows that if people want to believe something, they will find a way to convince themselves. By extension, we won’t win people over with information, evidence and rational arguments — Like Anna Rose tried to in the documentary ‘I can change your mind about climate’.

It’s a shame because the scientific method really is a wonderful thing. But it seems that once people are in ‘camps’ and the battle lines are drawn, information that is seen as coming from the other side is not evaluated rationally. People who want action on climate change are labelled ‘alarmists’ and ‘evangelists’ (and often they respond by calling deniers ‘luddites’ and ‘morons’).

My suggestion is that, if we stop getting frustrated at how people are defending their position and start exploring why they are defending it, we might decide that instead of debating the science we should focus our efforts in other areas. Because it might achieve better results.

Let’s look at two reasons why people might be deny climate change: economics and despair.


Clearly, some people have a vested interest in our high emissions status quo. For example, shareholders in many major industries, coal miners and their communities, and cattle farmers. Let’s focus on coal miners and their communities.

I was watching the ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ and I heard Michael Brissenden explain that:

“West Virginia is coal country and it’s been in decline now for decades, but Obama era regulations and a shifting energy market have devastated towns like this (Logan, West Virginia). All Donald Trump had to do was promise to bring back coal. This used to be democrat territory, but this time nearly 70% of voters voted for Donald Trump.”

I heard Roger Horton of United Citizens for Coal explain that:

“(In Logan, West Virginia) It’s close to the Depression era — it really is. Our local bakery, a lot of their new, and old, patrons are now relying upon food stamps to come in and buy their bakery goods. A lot of the local mom and pop hydraulic and machine shops have closed down.”

Asked about Climate Change, Roger said:

“You read the bible, the bible will tell you point blank there are always going to be spring, there’s always going to be summer, there’s always going to be fall and there’s always going to be winter.
We, as people, can impact the environment, there’s no doubt about it. We can impact it in a good way or we can impact it in a negative way. Coal is not the main culprit.”

It’s unlikely climate science will win this man over. I don’t believe he’s stupid, or selfish either. He wants the best for his community and he’s brave enough to stand up and fight for them. Unfortunately, he thinks the best thing for his community is a reinvigoration of the coal mining industry.

Given his experience, can you blame him?

As environmentalists in Australia, we need to learn from America’s mistakes.

If we celebrated the announcement that Hazlewood (Australia’s most polluting coal fired power plant) will be shut down, we should also be taking an interest in the economic transition plan for the surrounding communities. We should:

  • contact our local MPs to tell them that we care about what happens to these communities
  • explore opportunities for profitable business operations there
  • look for ways to keep these places culturally vibrant (eg. bands and other artists should make an effort to tour there).

It’s great that green jobs are being created. We also need to make an effort to create them in the right places so that they replace the outgoing ‘non-green’ jobs. It was good to see this article for example, but much more needs to be done.

When it comes to climate change, we’ve all got skin in the game long term. But some of us have a lot more to lose in the short term than others. Sustainability: it’s about protecting the wellbeing of humans and other species for long into the future. It requires sacrifices in the short term. We need to help and thank those for whom the transition will be most difficult.

We need to help reduce people’s economic motivation for denying climate change. And not just for the benefit of the communities like those around Hazelwood, but for all the others around Australia who face similar uncertainty with the transition to a less carbon-intensive economy: Success in one place can serve as a model for success in others.

If we don’t support them, then don’t be surprised if, like America, they become a powerful political adversary in the decades to come.


Of the two, I think this one has the wider, and bigger influence.

There’s a theory that says there are two ways of coping with problems. One where we work towards a solution (solution-focused coping), and one where we work to feel less bad about the problem (emotion-focused coping). Emotion-focused coping can be achieved in a number of ways: denial, distraction, and drinking/drugs are a few examples.

Emotion-focused coping is often (though not exclusively) deployed in situations where a solution is unavailable, or perceived as being unavailable (the death of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship). The role of a counselor can be to help people find ways to cope with their emotions in constructive rather than destructive ways.

The science is telling us that, without significant and collective action to reduce our greenhouse emissions, life on earth is going to face massive disruption. Extreme weather events, sea level rise — I won’t list it all out. Suffice to say it’s not ideal.

We’re also being told that we’re not doing enough to avoid dangerous climate change. And we aren’t. This is supposed to be spurring people into action, but I think it may actually be having a perverse outcome, because people are reacting with emotion-focused coping — denial, distraction, drugs.

It is, after all, a pretty depressing thought that we’re hurtling towards a catastrophe that we’re (individually) powerless to stop. As depression is not good for us on the whole, our brains try to protect us from it.

They are such clever machines.

So one theory of what’s happening is that a significant portion of the population is in denial in order to protect themselves from despair. I can’t prove it with placebo controlled double blind studies I’m afraid, but here’s a couple of things that I think point to it.

One is the comments that come up at the bottom of pretty much any climate change article (here’s one for your reference).

You’ll see comments like, ‘There’s no point in Australia reducing its emissions, they are insignificant compared to China’s’ and ‘Addressing fossil fuel use is pointless if we’re not tackling overpopulation’.

I once saw someone in a documentary use them in combination, he said, “climate change isn’t happening, and even if it was, there’s nothing we could do about it because our emissions are a fraction of China’s.”

The despair was hiding just behind the denial in that case.

Now I’m not going to get into arguing these points one way or the other, just note the sense of powerlessness over the problem.

Another thing that caught my attention was a series of opinion polls about who believes in climate change before and after the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

Beforehand, when it looked like a global agreement would be reached, the number of people who believed in climate change increased quite quickly. It was as though the promise of significant and collective action had allowed people to hope and momentarily drop their defence mechanisms.

I say momentarily because when the summit was deemed as a failure the number of people who believe in climate change dropped just as quickly.

Tackling despair

If this theory is true, then messages about the science of climate change combined with dire predictions of the future won’t work (I call these ‘first generation’ climate change communications).

Neither will the Al Gore style ‘Science + change your lightbulbs and drive a Prius’ approach (I call these ‘second generation’ climate change communications). If we all know that addressing the problem will take significant and concerted action, these messages about individual action do nothing to alleviate our despair.

Finally, we can’t lie and say that there is significant and collective action where there isn’t.

What we can do, is spread the news about significant action as often as possible, when it occurs.

I think we’re entering the era of third generation climate change communications, and I think it will be a tipping point. As we hear about more and more significant actions being taken (Here’s some examples) we start to see a picture of significant and concerted action. I think we’ll start to see despair fading and more and more people dropping their defence mechanisms and engaging with the problem.

And when tipping points come, change can happen at breath-taking speed. Remember when people used to smoke in their offices? It wasn’t that long ago.

In a few decades we might be looking back at petrol cars, or coal fired power stations, or eating meat 7 days a week in much the same way.