Exploiting vulnerability – a key tactic of climate change denial

February 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recent leaks about the extent to which America’s Heartland Institute has been funded to disseminate climate change disinformation have shocked many. The sums involved are huge and the opinion shift in the US has been dramatic. In a recent article for The Nation, Naomi Klein reported that the number of Americans who believe that burning fossil fuels causes the climate to change has fallen from 71% in 2007 to 44% in June 2011.

But why are the arguments of organisations like the Heartland Institute so successful? Why do people shift their views so rapidly? Why do people believe information that is so contrary to their interests?

States of confusion

Some clues can be found in the work of Bryant Welch and his book ‘State of Confusion’, published in 2008. Welch is a clinical psychologist who also worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for the American Psychological Association during the Clinton government of the 1990s. His concerns in the book are primarily US healthcare and foreign policy but his arguments resonate deeply in the current debate about why support for action on climate change has collapsed in the US and shrunk in the UK.

In his book he identifies the tactics of neo-liberal right as ‘gaslighting’. The reference is to the 1950s film ‘Gaslight’ in which a husband tries to drive his new wife insane by manipulating the reality around her, rendering her confused, perplexed and disorientated. According to Welch it is not the false information, but the assault on the individual’s sense of reality that is critical in producing compliance.

As sociologists like Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman make clear we live in anxious times. The world is increasingly complex, social structures are increasingly fluid and a materialistic individualism can leave many people feeling unsupported, inadequate and confused. Into this confusion ride the horsemen of organisations like the Heartland institute, sowing yet more confusion and then offering the balm of certainty and simplicity. The tactic of climate change deniers is to introduce doubt about scientific truth. This doesn’t just produce intellectual uncertainty: – it unsettles people’s minds, increases anxiety and makes people wonder who can be trusted and relied on.

Exploiting vulnerability

Welch argues that the fundamental vulnerability of the human mind is its need to feel certain of reality. In states of confusion and perplexity people tend to substitute certainty for truth. They give up on logic, morality and reason and regress to less demanding mental states where superstition, concrete thinking and irrationality hold sway. They become dependent on others to make judgments for them and favour the story that feels comforting over the one that is true. As Welch puts it, “…it is better to feel certain than to be right.” (p.8)

These arguments are similar to those of the UK psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion who described the way groups will regress under pressure to primitive ways of thinking, blindly following charismatic, paranoid or authoritarian leaders and turning away from reality. Welch’s argument suggests that it is this propensity of the human mind that organisations like the Heartland Institute exploit in their communications. The primary tactic doesn’t just create doubt about the facts but exploits and increases people’s feelings of anxiety and vulnerability and then offers apparently ‘common-sense’ solutions.

Welch identifies three psychological states that Americans are culturally particularly vulnerable to – paranoia, sexual perplexity and envy – and a large part of his book is devoted to an examination of how these were manipulated by the US right in the post 9/11 world, creating stories that both fomented and spoke to Americans’ insecurities. UK culture is different and has no equivalent to the poison that is Fox News. However we should not be complacent. The same tactics are increasingly part of the political process over here as well.

Honest emotional landscapes

What should we do? Should we admire the psychological sophistication of the right and imitate their tactics? Clearly not. However refuting faulty arguments with facts will not cut it when the attack is largely psychological. As I have argued previously we need to create the safe spaces where people’s anxieties can be contained and rational discussion can take place. This means using a deeper psychological approach to communications than has often been the case. It means creating a public emotional landscape that supports and strengthens people’s ability to cope with difficult issues.

At the personal level a safe space can be created whenever two or more people meet together, informally or formally. Safe spaces are facilitated by openness, honest leadership, genuine respect and truthfulness. Language matters. The use of personal stories and compelling narratives can help – as the work of Marshall Ganz makes clear. The small group Carbon Conversations project set up by Andy Brown and myself is one obvious example of a formally created ‘safe space’, but any meeting which sets up structures for listening and participation and offers recognition of the complexity of people’s feelings has a good chance of creating conditions where people can be both emotionally engaged and respond rationally.

There is also a need however to develop ways of speaking and writing publicly that support what we might call ‘the inner safe space’ in people’s minds. As well as the vulnerabilities targeted by sceptics and deniers everyone has capacities for concern, an interest in problems that are ‘bigger than self’ and the emotional strength to deal with them. We need approaches from both media and politicians that speak to people’s capacities to overcome anxiety, cope with difficult problems, relate to others with care and creativity and engage as citizens.

Dealing with disinformation, propaganda and lies has never felt more urgent but we need to recognise that facts are only part of the answer. We also need to catalyse an emotional landscape based on what is best rather than what is worst in human character.

I will be writing more about the ‘inner safe space’ next month.


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