How can denial be explained?



Video: How climate change denial sounds to normal people.

How can climate change denialism be explained?      

ROBERT MANNE professor of politics at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia's leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977-2005


For several decades I have engaged in ideological disputes. The first dispute involved a disagreement with the Left over the nature of communism. I found it difficult to understand how people of good heart were unable to see what was in front of everyone’s nose: the disaster that communism had brought to the peoples of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. The most recent involves a disagreement with the Right over global warming. I now find it difficult to understand how a person of reasonable intelligence is unable to accept the reality and the urgency of the looming climate crisis. With the Left and communism, the problem was indifference to a mountain of readily available evidence. With the Right and climate change, the problem is the unwillingness or incapacity to accept the truth of an argument of almost embarrassing simplicity.

Let me outline the bare bones of that argument.

For more than a century some scientists have believed that an increase in certain gases in the atmosphere – most importantly carbon dioxide – would raise the temperature of the Earth. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution vast amounts of greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere. The temperature of the Earth has risen by 0.7°C. Even without any further greenhouse gas emissions, a further increase of 0.5°C in global temperature is guaranteed. Despite one international attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – the Kyoto Protocol – these have continued to climb; last year, as we recently learnt, by an alarming amount. Almost all climate scientists and many governments accept that an increase in global temperature of 2°C above pre-industrial levels is dangerous. According to the many models of the climate scientists, if human beings do not manage speedily to radically reduce and then eliminate the emission of greenhouse gases the temperature of the Earth will continue to rise by well beyond 2°C and even up to 7°C by 2100.

There are tens of thousands of climate scientists researching and publishing throughout the world in scores of high-level scientific journals. The overwhelming majority believe that global warming is primarily caused by human activity. They believe that unless human beings change their behaviour, the Earth is headed for disaster: major sea-level rises rendering life intolerable for hundreds of millions in low lying coastal regions; devastating droughts especially in sub-Saharan Africa; eventual massive water shortages in Asia through the disappearance of the Himalayan glacier system; the death of the great Brazilian forest; an increase in the number and/or intensity of floods, hurricanes, heat-waves and forest fires; the mass extinction of species, and so on.

If only fifty per cent of climate scientists accepted the greenhouse gas theory of global warming, it would still be prudent to curb greenhouse gas emissions radically. There is, quite simply, so much at stake – nothing less than the future wellbeing of the Earth. Yet in fact virtually all the people with true understanding – the climate scientists – accept that, primarily through the continued burning of fossil fuels, human beings are placing the Earth at risk. Among these scientists moreover there exists no plausible alternative theory to explain global warming. Two studies have been conducted to assess the size of the scientific majority who accept and understand the reality of disastrous, humanly-caused global warming via the greenhouse gas hypothesis. Both studies arrived at the same figure. Ninety-seven per cent (2009, 2010).

This leads me to the subject of this blog: the mysterious rise of climate change denialism.

Every time an article concerning the climate crisis appears somewhere in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia, an army of climate change denialists emerges. For those who believe there is indeed a crisis – that is to say for those who accept the conclusions of the scientists and the implications of what they are telling us for the future of the Earth – they express nothing but suspicion, anger and contempt.

The overwhelming majority of these people have not published in the field of climate science. Most but not all have no scientific education. And yet, somehow, they have come to believe that they understand better than the overwhelming majority of climate scientists – in the immortal words of one of the most consequential climate change denialists – that the greenhouse gas theory of global warming is “crap”. Climate change denialists do not merely doubt the conclusions of the people who have studied and published in the field. They know that the climate scientists are wrong.

It would be comforting to believe that the denialist army is composed of fools. This is simply not the case. Many of the denialists are accomplished and educated people. It would also be comforting to think that they represent a small island of unreason in an ocean of rationality, like people opposed to immunization. This also however is not true. In the United States, for example, a clear majority do not believe in human-induced global warming. Indeed only one per cent of Americans now consider it their country’s most urgent problem.

How, then, is the existence of climate change denialism and indeed its increase in recent years to be explained? There seem to me five plausible hypotheses.


1. The first concerns the influence of vested economic interest. Throughout the Western world there are many massive corporations whose fortunes are based on the sale of fossil fuels – coal, oil etc. If effective action is taken across the globe to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, on the grounds that they are imperilling the planet, these corporations have a lot to lose. Contrarily if they can find means to create doubt in the public mind about climate change science and therefore of its implications for the economic future of their companies, they have a great deal to gain. Putting a relatively small amount of money into one or another group capable of producing and disseminating climate change denialist propaganda makes complete economic sense.

It does not even need to follow that the executives in the corporations who in the past funded this propaganda or who at present are still funding it – like Exxon-Mobil or the fossil fuel industry-based Koch brothers in the United States – are self-conscious cynics. Outright cynicism is probably less common than self-deceptive and self-serving rationalisation in matters of this kind. Nor is it the case that the loudest voices in the media preaching global warming denialism, like Rush Limbaugh in the United States and Andrew Bolt in Australia – who are influenced by the propaganda of the fossil fuel corporations and who then disseminate it – need to be paid for the services they provide. In general, these kind of ideological “true believers” simply play the role of the “useful idiots” of the fossil fuel corporations. The classic study of this phenomenon is Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway’s Merchants of Doubt.


2. The second hypothesis helping to explain the contemporary profile of climate change denialism relates to the role played by the mass media. In recent weeks, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford has published a fascinating study – James Painter’s Poles Apart: The international reporting of climate scepticism. In it, the climate change coverage of high quality newspapers in six countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Brazil – is analysed. There are three main conclusions. First, climate change “scepticism” (what I prefer to call “denialism”) is far more common in the newspapers of English-speaking countries than in the papers of the others countries studied. Second, climate change scepticism was particularly prominent in editorials and opinion pieces in the press of these two countries. And third, in the countries studied, right-leaning newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal, are far more likely to publish denialist material than left-leaning newspapers, like the New York Times. At the recent launch of Poles Apart at Durban, the dreadful performance of the Australian press in regard to climate change reportage was mentioned, something that recently both Wendy Bacon and I have recently written about.

Three conclusions can be drawn from all this. In the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, in recent times, the media has played a major role in legitimising climate change denialism. In these three countries the media has amplified or facilitated the work of the many climate denialist “think tanks”, fossil fuel industry lobbyists and denialist bloggers. And in all these three countries, the influence of the Murdoch media is profound – in Australia with 70% of the major newspaper circulation; in the United Kingdom, with The Times and The Sun; and in the United States with the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and, above all else, the immensely influential Fox News. Not only do the Murdoch media preach climate change denialism directly throughout the English-speaking world. News Corp also provides this kind of anti-science irrationalism with a kind of faux-respectability that allows its influence to permeate gradually other non-Murdoch-owned organs of the right-leaning and even the centrist media. One of the reasons climate change denialism is strong and growing in the Anglosphere and rather weak in both Europe and the developing world is the different role played by their respective media.


3. To be effective, the roles played in the rise of climate change denialism by fossil fuel corporation propaganda and the right wing mass media probably required some overarching ideological rationalisations. One rationalisation was discovered in the idea central to Anglosphere neoconservatism – the corrosive influence supposedly played by the anti-Western, anti-American mindset of the cosmopolitan elites, known since the early 1990s as “political correctness”. Another was discovered in neoliberal suspicions about the collectivist, social engineering and anti-capitalist instincts of the left-leaning intelligentsia.

Until the emergence of the climate change crisis, neoconservatives and neoliberals were mainly concerned with resisting collectivist economics or changes of attitude since “the sixties” to racial and gender relations. Indeed, until that time they were generally the defenders of the values of the Enlightenment – traditional education and science.

Following the coming of the climate crisis everything changed. The neoconservatives and the neoliberals in the media, politics, the think tanks and the academy applied their ideas about the corrosive influence of political correctness and collectivism to a group they had hitherto staunchly defended against the attacks of relativistic “deconstructionists” and “postmodernists” – the scientists. Or at least, to put it more precisely, they extended their analysis to one branch of scientists – those who specialised in analysis of the climate. When the climate scientists began pointing out the urgent need to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, the neoconservatives and neoliberals decided that these scientists were little better than the “tenured radicals” in the humanities faculties of the universities who deployed their so-called scholarship to undermine the free market or traditional Western values. Their science was dubious. They perverted the peer review process. They suppressed dissenting voices. They engaged in research they knew to be fraudulent – “climategate” – for the sole purpose of winning lucrative research grants from the “nanny state”.

In this campaign, the Right dispensed with even minimal commitment to logic. The government that awarded the most money for climate research – the United States – was also the government most resistant to taking action on climate change. The enemies of the scientists also engaged in ideological labelling. The scientists who expressed alarm at the inescapable conclusions of their research became “alarmists”. Those citizens who accepted the key conclusion of the climate scientists – that primarily because of the burning of fossil fuels the Earth is heating up – became “warmists”. Required to choose between the interests of the fossil fuel corporations or the conclusions of the climate scientists, with barely a moment’s thought, the ideologues of the Right backed the interests of the corporations.


4. Ideologues only feel comfortable when they hunt in packs. Within a remarkably short time, almost all anti-political correctness and anti-collectivist ideologues became climate change denialists. Nonetheless, it would be quite misleading to argue that all leading climate change denialists are neoconservatives and neoliberals. As Clive Hamilton has pointed out, there is a certain kind of individual who is offended by the conclusions of the climate scientists. For such people – frequently ageing white males of science, engineering and technology backgrounds – the conclusions of the climate scientists are experienced as a shock, as a challenge, but most deeply of all as an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of “mankind” to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a “mastery” over Nature. I use these words advisedly. The conclusions of the climate scientists suggested a problem with this generally free-thinking, secular, pro-capitalist faith.

The people I have in mind were the kind who had mercilessly mocked the once-fashionable idea that there might ultimately be “limits to growth”. They are the kind of people who had vigorously and sometimes successfully disputed claims about the eventual depletion of natural resources or theories like “peak oil”. Now they were faced with scientists who had arrived at the conclusion that there was something even more fundamentally amiss in the process of the industrial revolution itself – namely, that the decision to provide the energy for industrialisation by burning fossil fuels was possibly the most consequential, although perfectly innocent, misstep human beings had ever taken. Within the mindset of the engineers and geologists, such a thought is not merely mistaken. It is intolerable and deeply offensive. Those preaching this doctrine have to be resisted and indeed denounced.

For such people – in Australia, one thinks of Ian Plimer, Bob Carter, William Kininmonth – the struggle against climate science is both urgent and existential. They are fighting to preserve life-long beliefs which have provided them with comfort and with meaning. In the fight against the climate scientists, they have proved to be important allies of the anti-political correctness and anti-collectivist ideologues, the right-wing media and the fossil fuel corporations.


5. The leaders of the denialist campaign are however not whistling in the dark. The message they are selling is popular. The reason is reasonably straightforward. The majority of people in Western countries live now in a state of material comfort beyond the imaginings of all previous generations. Who amongst us would not prefer to believe that there are indeed no limits to the material comforts we may enjoy? Who would not prefer to believe that this level of material comfort will go on expanding forever? To take the conclusions of the climate scientists seriously is to embrace the need for massive economic change and even for possible economic sacrifice. If the influence of the climate change denialists is growing the most important reason is that they are telling people what they most wish to hear. In his book Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton makes an entirely unnerving suggestion. Perhaps it is the character type that flourishes under the conditions of consumer capitalism that presents the primary obstacle to taking action on climate change. Faced by an apparent choice between the continuation of our lifestyle and the wellbeing of our planet, perhaps it is the continuation of our lifestyle that in the end we will decide to choose.

In helping us to make this choice, the denialists have played an important role. For they have been able to convince many people that to choose this way is not irresponsible or immoral or insane – a choice for which future generations will curse us – but represents, rather, sweet reason and merest common sense. Recently I read an interesting World Bank survey of international public opinion on the question of climate change. What it revealed, broadly speaking, was that the poorer the country, the more likely are its people to believe in the reality of dangerous human-caused climate change. While 31% of Americans and 38% of Japanese thought climate change was a very serious problem, 75% of Kenyans and 85% of Bangladeshis did. Those who do have reason to fear climate change but have little to lose in the curbing of emissions are the people who believe in what the climate scientists are telling them. Those who do not at present fear climate change but recognise they have a lot to lose by tackling it have simply and conveniently ceased to believe what they hear.

The meaning of all this seems clear. Citizens of the consumer society are unwilling to risk the loss of any of their comforts. However they wish to feel good about themselves. The climate change denialists – the lobbyists and propagandists of the fossil fuel corporations; the right-wing commentariat in the blogosphere and the media; the anti-political correctness and anti-collectivist ideologues in the think tanks and the academy; the angry older generation of engineers and geologists – offer them the alibi for doing nothing they so desperately need.