The Cognitive Dissonance of Climate Denial

For those of us who are well past the point of debating the existence of climate change, it might be easy for us to forget that at some point, we, too, were either deniers or at least avoiders.

It’s smacking us in the face, now, but the presence of climate change has been there throughout our lifetimes. It’s a hard pill to swallow, there’s no question about that. As Naomi Klein said in the first chapter of her book This Changes Everything, “Living with this kind of cognitive dissonance is simply part of being alive in this jarring moment in history, when a crisis we have been studiously ignoring is hitting us in the face — and yet we are doubling down on the stuff that is causing the crisis in the first place.”

What is cognitive dissonance? According to Simply Psychology, as humans we tend to have a desire for consistency among our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours (cognitions). When there is disharmony (dissonance) among these — for instance, smoking despite a knowledge of the health impacts — we experience a discomfort and try to remove it.

When it comes to climate change, we have been given clear proof that the planet is getting hotter and that humans are causing this. It’s not a coincidence that the most aggressive climate deniers are those whose wealth is directly tied to the systems driving global warming — whose pockets are filled by greenhouse gas producers. But as this NPR article explains it: “Of course, ignoring warnings of an impending hurricane — the result of meteorological science — would be stupid. No one in their right mind would do it. But that is the point, isn’t it? Those who espouse climate denial say one thing and then act in an entirely different way if someone tells them a hurricane is coming. Why? Because it would be crazy to do otherwise.”

Climate change deniers have celebrated and benefited from science, until science was overwhelmingly at odds with everything propping up their world. There is a widening gap between evidence and belief, belief and action. Eventually, reality will close that chasm of cognitive dissonance. We’ll find all sorts of ways to look away, until we can’t.

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