Shades of Climate Change Denial
Denial is defined as a refusal to accept reality, especially when it is unpleasant to contemplate or not convenient to our desires and goals. We live in a highly efficient and technologically advanced culture in which our daily life reassures us about the inevitability of continuous progress. This shiny and promising world hides a mostly invisible, but huge environmental catastrophe that is unfolding in our atmosphere, oceans, rivers and soils. As humans, we have a great capacity for denial and it is evident that the cognitive dissonance between what we see and the unseen disaster, is greatly helping our denialist tendencies.
There are different shades in denial, depending on what is convenient for each of us, and this means we all partake of denial in some form or another.
Denial about climate change is not a clear-cut issue, with the dreaded deniers on one side, and the enlightened acceptors on the other side, neatly delineated. There are different shades in denial, depending on what is convenient for each of us, and this means we all partake of denial in some form or another. Truly accepting the harsh reality of the environmental break-down we have caused is not easy since it threatens our most basic needs for safety and survival.
Since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the predominant culture has believed in the supremacy of reason, which allowed us to advance science greatly. However, this belief in reason betrays in itself a denial of the human tendency for denial. If we deliberately decide to use the scientific method to advance science, we can get rid of most denial in that particular subject, but our daily lives continue to be peppered with rationalizations that justify what doesn’t suit our goals and desires. When it comes to climate change, we don’t tend to use the scientific method approach, even though the evidence found by science is irrefutable. We prefer to concentrate on what we easily perceive as a short-term benefit, while blocking out the more difficult to perceive ugly threat from the invisible chaotic and entropic world that lies beneath.
Denial ends when we have the courage to face the problem truthfully and follow the advice of writer James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Only when we strip our global culture of the last traces of denial, will we be able to deal correctly with the problem.
Our beliefs can bypass our rational brain and deny reality when it seems inconvenient to our short-term goals.
Our evolutionary biology shows that denial was an essential component for our success. Homo Sapiens is the hominid with the most developed Theory of Mind (TOM), which is defined as the capability to attribute mental states like beliefs, knowledge, emotions and desires to oneself and to others. Having the most developed TOM has advantages and drawbacks. As advantages, TOM allows us to have empathy and be highly social. It also allows for the development of beliefs that can bypass our rational brain and deny reality, helping us to be overly optimistic and daring.
These qualities allowed us to extend our dominion to the whole Earth and to outmaneuver the rest of the competing hominids, and later the whole of nature. The drawback is that this capacity for beliefs can make us high-risk takers, who in their quest for satisfaction can bypass the empirical evidence of reality. This means that though we have the most powerful neocortex on Earth with full rational capabilities, we end up quite often unable to use this power to full capacity. Our beliefs can insist on denying reality when it is not convenient to our desires and expectations.
We are a very conflicted animal; the fact that we have high intelligence and the most developed TOM, makes us the animal who is the most painfully aware of its own death. This extreme awareness creates trouble for our emotional balance, and the ability to use denial as a coping mechanism has allowed us to bypass what could be a crippling fear. Our religious beliefs appeared as coping mechanisms to deal with this intense awareness and these beliefs could only take deep root in us thanks to our strong capability for denial.
Humans could not have arrived to the most recondite corners of the planet and face the terrifying unknown without a high element of denial in their cerebral makeup. A clan of early humans could encounter an obstacle like a roaring river that had to be crossed, and denial of the real risk of the crossing, especially by the leaders, was enough to create a belief of optimism about the venture in the whole clan. Most of the time, denial of real risk was an adaptive advantage, but there must have been countless times when the bravado only brought catastrophe. Even with all the mishaps, we can conclude that the results of this evolutionary strategy were positive, since we became the most successful animal on the planet.
In evolutionary terms, Homo Sapiens is an R-strategist, a type of animal who lives in stable environments, has long gestation periods and offspring care, which ensures longevity and high populations. We also have a high propensity for instant gratification and a preference for short-term results. An individual who satisfies his needs faster than others ends up better fed than the shier one. R-strategists get a competitive edge from stable high population densities and tend to press up against their ecosystem’s resource capacities.
Human capacity for denial has allowed us to press up against the whole Earth’s resource capacities, causing havoc in all of the Earth’s systems.
This strategy worked well when we were nomadic and could move from green pasture to green pasture while allowing the used area to rest from our use and waste. But as we became sedentary and agriculture allowed for our numbers to expand, we started to encroach more and more into our environments. The discovery of fossil fuels and the technological advances that accompanied it allowed us to press up against the whole Earth’s resource capacities, causing enough havoc in the Earth’s systems to threaten the survival of our species. Our capacity for denial is conveniently allowing us to disregard this fact at our own risk, so that we can continue with our cherished belief in eternal economic growth based on infinite resources and technological progress.
Denial has been in the media since the President of the US, Donald Trump, declared himself a climate change denier. At this crucial time, at the height of scientific advancement and environmental degradation, it is strange to find that the leader of the most powerful country in the planet uses his neocortex to plan short-term profits for a few, while choosing to bypass the mountain of scientific evidence proving the existence of a climate breakdown. This kind of denial is not just a matter of individual choice, it betrays a fault in a culture whose priorities have gone wrong, prioritizing profit and efficiency, to the detriment of a quality of life that is sustainable. Trump constitutes the most extreme shade of denial, the least polite, characterized by a refusal to accept there is an environmental breakdown and that it is caused by man.
Denial is part of the culture that prioritizes profit and efficiency to the detriment of quality of sustainability.
Denial is all about choosing to discount what is inconvenient, so it is evident that if you own a dirty industry that would require massif investment to clean, it is in your interest to deny that air and water pollution is a problem. If you have money, you will try to influence politicians and institutions to suit your needs.
The climate change denier public is manipulated by politicians who describe any ecological improvement as a threat to their livelihoods and freedom. There is also a religious belief component, especially in the Evangelical groups who follow “dominion theology”. They believe that God gave the Earth to man to subdue and exploit without caring about the consequences. This belief in the right to conquer nature, even when that conquest destroys your own probabilities of survival is still quite prevalent, not just with Evangelicals, but with corporations that sacrifice the environment in their quest for profit.
The next shade of denial is also quite extreme, it accepts climate change is occurring, but refuses to attribute it to man’s activity. Both types of extreme denial completely ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus. Even using just 19th-century physics it is easy to conclude that a planet with an atmosphere that is saturated with greenhouse gases will have a warming trend that will affect all climate patterns, deeply disturbing the Earth’s balance. In the past, volcanic eruptions or asteroids have caused climate change, but in our present case the greenhouse gas excess in the atmosphere is undeniably caused by fossil fuel use and human activity.
After the extreme climate change-deniers we find several shades of denial that are much less extreme since they include all the people who accept man-made climate change. One of the shades in this category is characterized by a limitation of the environmental commitment to acknowledging the existence of the problem, while remaining quite ignorant about the particulars of global warming and its feedback loops. The acceptance of climate change is taken as a badge of honor that distinguishes the bearer from the opposite group, the backward extreme deniers.
The drastic reduction of Arctic ice and the alarming warming of the ocean are the canaries in the mine.
Truly accepting climate change is not a passive affair, it has to be accompanied by knowledge, effort and understanding of its gravity. This means being aware that our fossil fuel and resource extraction binge has already set in motion the gears of climate breakdown. The drastic reduction of Arctic ice and the alarming warming of the ocean are the canaries in the mine. The disturbance of these ecosystems is allowing the release of huge reservoirs of methane clathrate hydrates into the atmosphere, creating a vicious cycle of emissions and warming. This is already happening, so even if we stopped all man-made emissions now, the emissions from the Arctic and the sea would continue until we undo the warming we have already produced.
Vague awareness of climate change as a convenient meme, without true knowledge of the seriousness of the situation constitutes this shade of denial, not as harsh as the complete deniers, but having a similar non-effect on our situation. Advocating for action on climate change with empty words, gets you points as an educated and trustworthy person, and if you are a politician, the media gives you a free pass about the dire effects of your environmental actions. Obama is a very good example of such a politician, just like Justin Trudeau in Canada, Emmanuel Macron in France and Hillary Clinton.
Obama was the perfect leader to spread a message of global unity to face environmental catastrophe, but instead he allowed a mad race for dirty fuels.
Obama came to power claiming his climate change acceptor status, but his actions told a different story. When he started his presidency in 2009 the world was traumatized by the economic meltdown caused by excessive bank speculation and many people were ready for true change. His charisma had worked its magic all over the world, he was the perfect leader to spread a message of global unity to face environmental catastrophe. Instead, his actions at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 showed his true colors, evading tough carbon emissions targets and frustrating climate activists worldwide. He did a few token actions like The Obama Rule, first enacted in 2015, which clarified the 1972 Clean Water Act by specifying which streams and wetlands could be regulated for pollution, and proposed a cap and trade type of carbon pricing mechanism that didn’t pass the Senate.
Using these tepid actions as a green cover, he oversaw the greatest increase in US fossil fuel production bringing the US to the top producer echelon. In late 2018 Obama boasted about this feat at a bank and fossil fuel company gathering, betraying his true allegiances. His approval of a mad race in fracking, deep sea drilling and oil and gas shale exploration caused a sharp increase in methane emissions. Obama conveniently greened his record by boasting about the stalling of CO2 emissions, while conveniently forgetting about the increase in methane, a much more detrimental greenhouse gas.
It is easy to see that in Obama’s case, his denial of the gravity of the climate situation was convenient because his prospects would be rosier as a President loyal to an Establishment dependent on fossil fuel companies and banks. His post-presidency would also benefit from this denial, since his acquiescence would pay off with numerous opportunities for lucrative speech engagements at banking and fossil fuel companies, like the one at which he boasted about his sorry record.
Obama’s denial is more complicated than that of a complete denier like Trump, who is happy to identify as a true denier, because he gains points from his donors and constituency. For Obama, his constituency demanded at least the veneer of his belief in climate change, but didn’t care to check his loyalties to the same dirty companies that Trump has. Both types of denial are examples of a characteristic of Homo Sapiens: focusing on short-term gains and acceptance in your community, while using denial to discard the threats to a good future for your own offspring.
Climate agreements have a lot of denial since they concentrate on solving problems defined by the proponents, without dealing with the problem in reality.
The world consensus about the importance of climate agreements for reducing emissions sounds like a way to fight denial and do something real about the climate breakdown. Unfortunately, the particulars of these agreements generally include a lot of denial; they are usually non-binding and tend to set quite arbitrary goals in emission reductions, that the signees have no real intention to meet. There is usually a willful inclusion of emissions that are the easiest to cut, while leaving the more difficult bulk untouched.
The atmosphere doesn’t care about good intentions and photo ops useful to politicians. The Earth is ruled by the laws of physics and chemistry and is impervious to human wishes and convenience. In the climate agreement shade of denial, the status quo of our can-do culture demands that a solution is found for every problem. In the case of climate breakdown, facing the real problem isn’t advantageous for our current desires, so instead, we choose the solutions convenient to our short-term goals that do not change much the status quo. Denial helps us to concentrate on solving problems we define ourselves, without dealing with the problem in reality.
The current economic system that we have and our unquestioning belief in its inevitability constitutes another shade in the denial scale, quite prevalent in our culture. The mainstream media repeats the wonders of a system based on extreme neoliberalism, free trade, brutal extraction of resources and eternal growth. that has been strongly advocated by economists since the 1980s. One such economist is Julian Simon, who published a book in 1981 called The Ultimate Resource in which he explains how economic growth would increase in tandem with population and technology. According to his theory, even if natural resources dwindled, technology would always be able to catch up to the demands.
Our current economic system is incompatible with finding an effective environmental breakdown solution. Continuing with this system is a shade of denial.
The cognitive dissonance of this economic view, with its belief in consumerism and growth, while ignoring the environmental degradation and climate breakdown, is monumental. This system insists that the problem can be solved with market pricing mechanisms, even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Experiences in Europe have shown that cap and trade agreements do not reduce emissions. On the contrary, countries tend to be more careless about their emissions because they are convinced that their purchases of tropical forests act as carbon sinks and counter them. The total net effect does not reduce global emissions, it just greens the reputation of the countries.
Our culture is in denial of the severe consequences of continuing on this economic path, because it is the path of least resistance, a continuation of a status quo that we have become accustomed to. A change in economic and cultural beliefs is absolutely required to truly deal with the catastrophe we are facing. Instead, the automatisms that allow us to fit in society by acquiescing to mainstream ideas, end up preventing us from breaking the inertia.
Another shade of denial involves our ideas about energy. The culture at large takes our huge energetic consumption as a given, without mentioning the extremes of the rising curve that started during the Industrial Revolution. Eighty percent of this increasing energetic expense is still provided by fossil fuels, with modern renewables like solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy currently providing only about 1.5% of the total energy consumption. Electricity constitutes only 18 percent of our total energy use, with renewables providing a high percentage of it. The 80 percent of energy still produced with fossil fuels is the elephant in the room, since it is the one that would be difficult to substitute with renewables in the near future. Fossil fuels have a high energy density and this is why our status quo likes them, even if most climate change acceptors fight them rhetorically.
Not being in denial is being aware that solving our energy and environmental degradation conundrum isn’t easy.
It is evident that our current economic system could not function without fossil fuels, but this realization leads us to a tough conundrum: if we don’t stop fossil fuels, the chances for the survival of our species are drastically reduced, but if we stop them right now, our economy would have to function with only 20% of the energy it currently uses. Not being in denial is being aware that solving our energy and environmental degradation conundrum isn’t easy at all, and admitting that the solutions we have proposed until now do not deal with the problem as it truly is.
The current belief that everything is fixable with more technology is another prevalent shade of denial. Industrialization and fossil fuels have led to the current situation of environmental breakdown, which involves the perils of climate change and the disturbance of ecosystems all over the Earth. Solving a problem by using the same greenhouse gas emission and pollution creators that caused it, is not logical.
Electronic and industrial waste is choking our rivers, lakes, soils and oceans. Just think of the ubiquitous car, considered essential for our current way of life, yet we neglect to think about the unmanageable mountains of polluting scraps of metal, plastics, electronics and tires that increase daily as part of the normal cycle of objects. Adding more industrial and technological waste eternally is not feasible in a finite planet, just as extracting resources ad infinitum is not possible either.
Our global culture will continue in denial until we don’t face the problem completely, and only then, will we be able to start tackling it. The adaptive trait of denial that allowed us to be the most successful animal on Earth is the same trait that is spelling our doom.
According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, though humans have a strong tendency towards denial, it is possible to choose to bypass it, if we deliberately decide to do it. The internal momentum required to do this can only arise with enough understanding of the reality of the situation. This difficult personal effort would have to be repeated globally so that change would become inevitable, and we would have an emergent wave of strong awareness of the need to strip ourselves of all denial regarding the true state of the planet that sustains us. Until we do it, we will only be putting small bandages on a profusely bleeding wound.