The impact of climate change and air pollution has been well-documented, and yet many of us are unaware of or downplay the effects — or we just ignore them. Why is that? We deny ourselves the knowledge and tools to lead healthier lives and lungs. But don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s your brain.
No, this is not an article describing the effects, severity or status of climate change. But to understand our dismissive attitudes towards climate change and our environment, we should first see what this looks like through the lens of a developed country.
In short, climate change harms every level of life and living; your city, your community, your home — every aspect of our world is vulnerable and subject to noxious, anthropogenic change. And yet, these effects and changes are often misunderstood or not understood at all. Despite scientific consensus and public campaigns, it appears that the vast majority of people, albeit in varying degrees, are not getting the full message. According to 2021 Pew Research, ~75% of Americans do believe climate change is occurring, however only 22% believe climate change is affecting their local community. Of those respondents that say climate change affects their community, they more intimately experience its impacts (i.e. unusually hot weather, severe storms, water shortages, and so on). So the majority of Americans believe climate change is occurring, but only a minority are concerned — and it’s only because they more directly and direly experience it.
Disparities don’t make for change.
A primal denial
Climate change dismissal can be subtle and not-so subtle, it can be outright denial or a look in the other direction. Either way, it is a profound and prolific issue that stagnates and prevents climate action. Scientific consensus tells us not only is climate change happening, but it’s happening to everyone— including you. Yet, knowing that doesn’t seem to matter. Even with climate change awareness increasing, many people still minimize or dismiss the issue. This has become a cognitive paradigm; as we glimpse into a dismal reality, we shut our eyes. With that in mind, we can use psychological context to understand why we would deny ourselves a clear throat and conscience.
The human response to disturbing information is complex; we negotiate and rationalize it in ways that make us comfortable. Climate change is disturbing, it challenges comfortability and co-opts convenience; it becomes an inconvenient truth. As such, the human psyche creates a world in which climate change is distant or simply does not exist. The polls and general attitudes reflect this disconnect, for what is a cognitive paradox; awareness for climate change has increased, however, this in turn actuates psychological defense mechanisms to minimize its risk and effect. Unlike ignorance or misunderstanding, dismissal or denial of climate change is an active negation of reality; it is seeing a scary reality, but defending oneself against it.
A motivated reasoning
Social psychologists refer to this negation of reality as “motivated reasoning.” Because the facts of climate science disagree with people’s worldview and interests, they reason around them. By no means is this an impartial rationalization — this is a visceral reaction. We operate to defend ourselves from unsettling information that challenges our beliefs and comforts. We screen for information that maintains a positive sense of self-identity. Our negation is a negotiation — it’s mind over matter. To err is human, and so to climate dismissal.
In effect, denial is repressed knowledge. The repression is psychological and social, with the latter fueling the former. Climate change dismissal has become a polluted confluence of defense mechanisms. This cognitive system serves to protect one’s worldview as it relates to social and political identity. Granted, this is grim as it relates to climate change, but it can inform progress. By understanding the human psyche and how it subverts rational thinking, we can respond with strategies that specifically upend repression. It may be that a business opportunity or an Instagram campaign is the greatest motivation for climate action. At any rate, we need to be aware just how our brains may be doing you and Mother Earth dirty.
Read more about how we can motivate reasoning to combat climate change here.