Climate change is often termed a so-called wicked problem: “an issue that presents great scientific and economic complexity, some very deep uncertainties, profound ethical issues, and even lack of agreement on what the problem is” (Mike Toman, World Bank). Climate change communicator Anthony Leiserowitz states “You can call it the policy problem from hell. You almost couldn’t design a problem that’s a worse fit with our underlying psychology or our institutions of decision-making.”
Why do we find it so difficult to understand climate change? As human beings, we tend to discount future events, which means that we assign less importance and gravity to them as they seem far away. This phenomenon is called temporal discounting, which is accompanied by other cognitive biases which cause us to neglect what is not immediately present to us. Greenhouse gases are invisible and climate change impacts are only starting to hit Western countries – so for many people it is easy to stay unaware of the insidious threat climate change poses.
These insights on why climate change is so difficult to grasp psychologically can give us insight into why climate change denial is still shockingly high. Only 45% of people in the US see climate change as a serious problem, while only 48% of the UK population believe that climate change is caused by human activity – a well-established scientific consensus which currently stands at 98%.
For my MSc course in Climate Change Impact and Adaptation, I conducted interviews with climate-concerned members of the public in order to gain further understanding into what motivates climate change denial and how it psychologically affects those confronted with it. I spoke to community organiser and ecologist Altaea who runs a food cooperative in West Wales, and environmentalist and history student Risi who grew up with an awareness for environmental issues. From the interview material and my own insights I produced a short film which is displayed above. What struck me the most were the points on elitism in research and distrust of authority, as these are points which can and should be tackled by the science community. I hope that you find this full interview insightful and enlightening.
What is your experience with climate denial? How does it make you feel?
Risi: It makes me feel frustrated, and quite exasperated when I’m trying to have a rational conversation with someone who is outrightly denying something that’s been so widely observed by the scientific community. It’s especially frustrating with the older generation who have lived life in the way that they wanted to and used the resources around them for their sole personal benefit, but have no interest in passing on the prosperity they’ve had to the younger generation.
There’s a degree of hopelessness when I’m speaking to a younger person who is denying climate change. The younger generation, I think, are our main hope when we’re trying to address this. And seeing people you think would be exposed to alternative ways of thinking, analysing this information that’s been presented to us – trying to confront that, it’s very demoralising.
Altaea: I studied Ecology at university. Climate change was at the centre of a lot of our modules. So at university, where most people form their core adult beliefs, I was surrounded by people who believed in climate change and had done proper research on it. So then going onto the internet, interacting with any person who wasn’t studying science and discussing climate with them, and them not really believing it, that was kind of a shock. Because my family are scientists, I’m surrounded by scientists and people who trust in science. And then coming into contact with people who don’t believe in climate change and think it’s a hoax created by th Chinese government – that was a big shock. And it insulted me as someone who enjoys science and research.
Most of the experiences I’ve had with climate denial have been on social media. And they tend to be the older generation. Most people my age and younger Generation Z believe in climate change. Because we’re more globally connected, we have friends and interact with people all across the world. We see the events that are happening in other countries – extreme weather events, storms, hurricanes and all these things. We see these things and we’re more open to the idea that it’s actually happening even if we don’t study a science-based degree. That’s my experience with younger people: they don’t tend to have climate denial.
And then speaking to older people, they don’t tend to believe it unless they’re from a country that is experiencing the direct effects. The way it is going to affect us in the UK is completely different from smaller island countries, which experience extreme storms. It’s frustrating because they don’t tend to have any trust in scientists and only seem to trust media and Facebook news, and the Telegraph, the Sun – who are not quoting primary sources.
From my background, I understand that science can be inaccessible. There can be elitism and classism within science. So I understand why some people are distrustful of it. But I found it very hard to bridge that gap. When I experience climate denial, I’m not very good at responding to it. I find it very hard to understand where it comes from other than the general distrust for authority and people who specialise in this. There is a general consensus that everybody has to be good at everything. Everyone is trying to be a specialist in everything. And then people start distrusting people who know what they’re talking about.
What do you think are the underlying reasons for climate denial?
Risi: I think the reasons for climate denial vary quite a lot from person to person. The person that I’ve had the most experience discussing climate denial with is completely against any kind of authority. So when some collective authority comes together to say “here is a problem, we need to address this” they’re immediately sceptical. For other people, I think that it can be unwillingness to compromise on their living standard. Especially with the older generation, they’ve spent so much of their lives living a certain way and they’ve become used to constant growth and constant improvement in housing and material goods, and having created purchasing power to consume more and more. When suddenly the situation is that that needs to be changed and started to be scaled back, the entire experience they’ve built their life around and the way they’ve justified their success throughout their lives is suddenly at risk of falling out from underneath their feet. And to accept that, and to accept that the way that they’ve built their lives has caused damage to the earth and may not have to change – that’s a very intimidating thing.
Altaea: In my experience, climate denial also comes with a lot of bigotry and racism. When I speak to anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change, it tends to come along with a lot of hatred for people from other countries. That’s not universal – there are people who don’t believe in climate change because they seem to think that although they don’t have any experience in the area, they have more knowledge than people who studied climate change. And their reason for not believing climate change is their superiority and that they are better because they don’t believe in this conspiracy that’s been created to subdue the masses.
It’s really strange to me, climate denial. It doesn’t seem like a logical pathway given the evidence, the data we’ve been given. Yes, there are some countries that are experiencing cooling , but that is because the earth is a sphere and it’s filled with many different types of weather patterns, and it’s not going to affect every country the same. And so just because one place is experiencing snow storms like we do in Wales, doesn’t mean that global warming isn’t happening. In fact, it’s evident that it has disproportionate effects.
Climate deniers seem to feel like they have superiority over us – people who do believe in climate change. And that they’re smarter, they’ve broken through that wall and they’ve got this information that nobody else has. I think it all boils down to an individuality complex, wanting to be unique and not wanting to believe the same as everybody else. Climate change has gone from being something that wasn’t really talked about in the media to being something that everybody thinks about. Everybody in my generation that I talk to has eco-anxiety and is constantly terrified of the world ending. And I guess a lot of people might be using climate denial as a way to protect themselves from that.
It can be really terrifying to think about climate change, how it’s going to affect us and how it’s going to kill thousands of people. Most of our major cities are on the coast or by rivers, and we’re gonna lose so much land – especially in the UK. We’re just a couple of islands. And it can be very scary thinking about that. So I think another reason that climate denial has become so big is because people are terrified. And in my opinion, that’s the only valid reason why you might deny that climate change is happening.
There are so many people studying climate change that it just seems quite silly to forgo looking at the evidence and just think that you know all the answers yourself. The reason why humans are incredible is because we have all this collective knowledge, we have the internet, all of our brains put together. You don’t always have to rely on yourself. And that is why I believe in climate change, even though I only studied other people’s research to understand what’s happening.
I think this is another reason why climate denial is a thing – people don’t have that access to knowledge. People might be denying that climate change is real because it’s so difficult to get into science. There’s a massive paywall for papers. You need to pay for this degree. And then nothing that we have in papers is really a “truth”. It’s only been supported with evidence. So it can be really disheartening to go into science and realise that actually, nothing that you know is true and everything is just “maybe”. That is also another reason climate denial is so rampant, because people are aware that we can’t prove anything. We can only think and hypothesise and predict what’s going to happen. So there are many factors around why people deny that climate change is happening. They’re all very much interlinked. It’s very difficult to separate them and say that one of them is the most prevalent reason.
What can we do about climate denial?
Altaea: To counteract climate denial, science needs to become more accessible. Removing the paywall from research, I think, is the first thing. Then there need to be more people involved in transcribing or translating primary research into something that’s consumable for the general public. And this isn’t to belittle the general public or to say that they’re not as intelligent. If you’re not a specialist in a subject or you haven’t been studying it, then you don’t understand the terminology. When you go to the doctors, sometimes you don’t really understand what they’re saying. They have to put it into simpler terms for you. That’s something that’s also important in other types of research. We just have to find a way of bridging the gap of knowledge in this subject and making that topic more accessible, so that it can be taught in schools and from a much younger age.
We need to get young people to understand that they need to be pushing and lobbying for manufacturers and corporations to change their ways. We also need to be affecting their parents and older generations. Teaching those people to not trust everything that they see and take everything with a grain of salt. They cannot just trust anything they see on Facebook. Just because it’s called “newspaper” and has a fancy font doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy. I think to get to the younger generation, the people that are going to live through the effects of climate change, we need to reach out to the older generation in an emotive and empathetic manner.
We also need to understand where they are coming from. And I’ve found it very hard to understand where the older generation are coming from. But to actually have an effect on legislation, we need to reduce their consumption of extremist clickbait media masked as “alternative news”. We need to show them that we can’t trust mass media and that we need to do our own research. That’s our duty as people who live in this society. We can’t just say “that’s too much effort”. We have to constantly look into things and understand both sides of each point. How we solve climate denial can’t be boiled down into one answer. We have to tackle it from many different angles. It is a daunting task. A very daunting task.
Risi: The way to address climate denial varies depending on people’s reason for it. And since there’s more than one reason for people to deny climate change, we need to address that in different ways, based on each of those individuals. There’s people who are sceptical because they’ve had poor experiences with governments and corporations who consistently make promises that they’re going to address certain issues and then fail to do so. Every time one of these lies is exposed people lose faith in experts and organisations who are trying to bring about positive change. And as long as we keep allowing politicians and industry leaders to perpetuate those myths, people are going to have less and less faith in the system. They’re not going to listen to us when we say that there’s a real problem.
For other people that are sceptical purely because they’re not willing to compromise on their quality of life, we have to address it from a different perspective. We need to try and think of ways that these people can see that their quality of life isn’t going to be disrupted in the future because it’s already happening. We’re already experiencing severe weather conditions that are damaging homes and possessions and causing economic trouble. Unemployment is already rising. We also need to appeal to the fact that a lot of them have children. And they need to be considerate of the fact that while they may not see the full benefit of us addressing these issues, their children are going to have to live through it and their grandchildren are going to be in the absolute midst of it when they’re growing up. And if we don’t work together to address climate change they’re going to have very limited options when they progress through their lives.
Jessica: The way to move forward is to reconsider how we frame the climate crisis and how we communicate this message with those whose lives will be affected. I believe that every scientist, educator and everyone working in the environmental sector needs to look into climate communication and ways of improving it in order to reduce climate denial. We can do this through storytelling. Focusing on the positive aspects such as changing our society in a way that is more in harmony with nature and ourselves. One that is based on cooperation and community. I believe that utilising these perspectives can bring us forward in the fight against climate change.