The many faces of climate change denial

September 1, 2011 § 3 Comments

In popular parlance ‘denial’ can refer to anything from the barefaced lies of a politician to the psychobabble of checklists that tell you whether you are ‘in denial’ about any number of personal ills. Understanding climate change denial means unravelling both psychological and sociological meanings of the term.

The view from psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis is specific. Freud’s concept of denial – usually translated as ‘disavowal’ – refers to a state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing that something is true. ‘My father is dead.’ ‘My father is not dead – he will be at the station as usual to meet me.’ If it is maintained more than briefly, this is a serious psychological condition that detaches the sufferer from any shared reality with others. Nonetheless, this sense that something is both known and not known describes public responses to climate change rather well. Rather than talk simply about denial however it may be useful to explore the many different defences people can use to protect themselves from psychological discomfort and pain.

Many forms of defence

There are many ways of not thinking and not feeling or of failing to take in an uncomfortable truth. For example:

Disturbing knowledge may be :

  • pushed beneath the surface -“Let’s talk about something nicer.” (suppression)
  • banished more deeply – “I don’t know what you’re talking about” – where it may re-emerge in the form of a symptom (repression).
  • stripped of its significance “I don’t think it will affect me/it’s not as important as x/it isn’t urgent “(negation)
  • locked in a separate compartment of the mind “I try not to think about it/I keep that for work.” (isolation/compartmentalisation)

The troubled person may:

  • Shift blame elsewhere “Government should act/It’s the fault of the Chinese/What are you doing anyway?” (projection)
  • Retreat to a stance of helplessness “It’s too difficult for me/I don’t understand it/I’m powerless to help.” (regression)
  • Idealise their own or their group’s motives and actions “I do my recycling/The UK’s at the forefront/We’re a nation of gardeners.” (idealisation)

The pain that lies beneath

All of these defences can contribute to what is popularly thought of as denial. Behind each defensive move lies an experience that is unbearable or feelings that threaten to overwhelm: trauma, guilt, anxiety or an insult to one’s sense of self. As a result of these defensive moves, other affective states – indifference, defiance, apathy, depression, resentment, hopelessness, inertia – appear as the surface phenomena. As the work of Renee Lertzman on the Myth of Apathy makes clear, although the conflict is less painful on the surface it remains disturbing underneath.

The defensive moves listed above can be personally disabling, but in the case of climate change they are not. They do not, for the most part, bring people to therapists’ consulting rooms. Why?

The social organisation of denial

The answer lies in the way these individual processes connect with the wider social picture. We cannot explain collective failure to deal with climate change as the sum of millions of individual neuroses.

Stanley Cohen in “States of denial”, a study of political denial of atrocity and human rights abuses,  identifies three levels of denial and relates the strategies of deniers to those of delinquents accused of a crime.

  • Literal denial – “It didn’t happen.”
  • Interpretive denial – “It happened but it doesn’t mean what you think.”
  • Implicatory denial – “It happened but it’s not significant/important

This is certainly helpful in understanding the public face of common pronouncements on climate change and it fits well with an understanding of psychological defence mechanisms. Sociologist Kari Norgaard goes further in unravelling the connections between the personal and social dimensions with regard to climate change. As she explains in her 2006 papers and more recent book ‘Living in denial’ we are witnessing the social organisation of denial:

“…a process by which individuals collectively distance themselves from information… [through]… norms of emotion, conversation and attention and… an existing cultural repertoire of strategies…”

There are a number of ways this can happen.

1. Social consensus

Social consensus can stop the individual psychic defence from being experienced as a disabling symptom. If we (or our subgroup) all agree that the emperor is fully dressed, that the war in Iraq was a humanitarian intervention or that climate change is not urgent, then we create a psychic space where life can carry on normally, untroubled by regal nakedness, the civilian bodycount or melting icecaps.

2. Emotional management

Norgaard emphasises the way in which the management of difficult feelings takes place socially, through collective ignoring of awkward facts or collective reassurance that all is well. Some topics have social space made available to them, some are deemed trivial, others are taboo. Silence and inaction are normalised by the conventions of appropriate conversation.

3. Everyday practices

Social structures themselves offer confirmation that there is little to worry about: this is the normal/only way to do the laundry, this is the normal/only way to get to work, this is the normal/only way to take a holiday. Each enactment of these everyday practices consolidates the collective structure of defence, reinforced by the fact that the impact of these practices remains fragmented and hidden.

4. Cultural narratives

Meanwhile cultural narratives are invoked that tell an opposite story to the one of environmental destruction. In her Norwegian study Norgaard noted how the reality of Norway’s oil-rich expansion was masked by cultural narratives of a small nation that lives close to nature. In the UK the narratives are more likely to be refracted through the lenses of class and social division but we might point to stories of the English as particularly entitled, the idea of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’ and the refrain that others (usually the Chinese and the Americans) are worse.

These social structures and systems exacerbate the surface phenomena of silence and indifference and reinforce existing power structures and systems of privilege. They dull the pain of the underlying troubling emotions and make it hard to speak of them.  I will be writing more next month about the relationship of denial to power and the need to open up appropriate conversational spaces both personal and political.


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§ 3 Responses to The many faces of climate change denial

  • Jade-Lauren says:

    Am I right in thinking that, like with many other issues ignored by society (such as mental health), the answer is to develop a dialogue on the subject within the public arena?

    Unfortunately the media have other ideas. I was very frustrated this morning when the BBC breakfast programme delivered a very biased, anti energy efficient light bulb report, placing huge emphasis on the flaws of energy efficient light bulbs with meek comments supporting national adoption for them. This kind of coverage bolsters the huge wall between the public majority and positive change.

  • rorandall2 says:

    Absolutely – dialogue, conversation, shifting the language we use and the way we frame the issue – I’m sure all of these are important. My sense is that all this has become harder post-Copenhagen – your report of the BBC breakfast programme is beginning to sound more rather than less familiar….

  • TinyCO2 says:

    On my first day at Uni I was told a joke about the difference between engineers and scientists. It goes like this:-

    Two male friends are killed together and arrive in a strange afterlife. They are greeted by (shall we say) a devil and shown to a row of doors. The devil tells the men that they can choose the room in which they wish to spend eternity. They open the first door to see a naked woman sat on a chair at the end of the room. The devil tells them that they can move half the distance between where they stand and the woman each day, slowly moving closer to her. The scientist laughs and rejects the room but the engineer eagerly accepts. “You’re mad” says the scientist “it’s a mathematical trick, each time you halve the distance you move closer but you never actually get there.” The engineer smiles. “Well mathematically you’re correct but I’ll soon be close enough for all practical purposes.”

    Crude, but you get the idea – scientists don’t have all the answers.

    So what has this got to do with your well thought out article on denial? Denial is a point of view and it’s not obvious from either direction who is in denial and what exactly is being denied. You think sceptics must be in denial because they doubt the climate scientists and conversely, sceptics think you’re in denial because you think the scientists should be taken on trust. We’d both say we have very good reasons view climate science the way we do, is that denial or experience?

    How can you determine which form of denial is in place (if any) unless you understand why people are disagreeing with you? I’ll pitch a novel idea to you, why don’t you ask them? Instead of talking to believers, why don’t you do a bit of outreach and ask sceptics why they are sceptical. They’re mostly a friendly lot (unless you call them deniers which has nasty holocaust connotations) and are happy to expound on why they think… I can’t finish that sentence simply because no two sceptics have exactly the same opinion on climate. For some that would be proof that sceptics are wrong because they have no cohesive message, for others it’s evidence of their honesty about a subject that isn’t remotely simple.

    For me, the biggest denial of all is the idea that climate science is convincing and the previous poster gave an excellent example. If the AGW argument is so persuasive, why don’t even committed people do something as simple as change their light bulbs? To answer that question it would be good to start with those people who can articulate why they don’t find climate science convincing.

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