Close this search box.

Psychology Today mag: ‘Millions’ suffer from ‘phenomenon of climate denial’ – ‘Psychologists never faced denial on this scale before’ – Warns ‘human race faces extinction’

Climate Change Denial

Facing a reality too big to believe.

By Sara Gorman, Ph.D., MPH, and Jack M. Gorman, MD

Denying to the Grave

We can affirm without doubt that anthropogenic climate change is a real phenomenon that is already apparent and will, if not mitigated, cause terrible suffering and destruction before this century is over. A recent report from the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us we can still hope to avert some of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, but only if we “abandon coal and other fossil fuels in the next decade or two.” Scientists may disagree about how fast the atmosphere is warming or what the best solutions are, but except for a small number of outliers, none doubt that we are rapidly approaching climate catastrophe…

That a few misguided politicians believe climate change predictions are exaggerated or even fabricated is lamentable. But perhaps more puzzling is the lack of alarm among the general public. As monumental hurricanes lash out in Houston and Puerto Rico and California forests burn out of control, it would seem that the evidence that climate scientists are right would be clear enough.


Why Don’t We Acknowledge Climate Change?

One reason for the refusal to accept the reality of climate change is what is called “motivated interference,” which occurs when we hold a specific bias to ignore evidence. As science writer Nicole Mortillaro noted, this can include a general unease with large government projects that are expensive and interfere with individuals’ lives. Other reasons, she writes, include “people whose livelihood is dependent on…the oil industry” and resentment of “government taking money out of [individuals’] pockets in the form of public spending on carbon mitigation efforts.”

In addition to motivated interference, there is also a powerful psychological component to this blindness to scientific reality: denial. A lot has been written about climate change denial and there are clearly many explanations for it. For one thing, an enormous amount of money is being spent encouraging us to ignore climate change. Corporations, especially the fossil fuel industry, have spent huge sums attempting to obfuscate the reality of climate change. We are constantly told by them that “more data are needed” because “climate scientists don’t agree.”

To some extent, then, we are the victims of a well-funded and sophisticated misinformation campaign that attempts to keep us in the dark about climate change.

Even when the evidence about climate change is relayed in very clear terms with lots of compelling graphics, many people either don’t believe it or shrug it off. Hence, the problem of climate change denial is not simply a matter of an information gap.

Too Large to Believe

Among the myriad reasons that we shun this problem is its enormity. We aren’t “merely” being told that unless we take action our identities will be stolen, we will lose thousands of dollars, or even that it will take a few years off our lives. What the climate scientists are telling us is that if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels the human race faces extinction. The fact is that many people born this year will not survive global warming if it continues at the current pace and exceeds 3.50C by 2050.

What the climate scientists are telling us is that if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels the human race faces extinction. The fact is that many people born this year will not survive global warming if it continues at the current pace and exceeds 3.50C by 2050.

We can grasp a potential calamity if we know it is made up and will be okay in an hour and a half. But we resist when that calamity is real, will be spread out over decades, and is of catastrophic proportions that can only be averted if we change almost everything about the way we live. Stop driving your car, eating meat, and flying in planes, we are told. Shut down ExxonMobil, Shell, and British Petroleum. Move quickly to build solar fields and energy-producing windmills. Simply writing that list makes us totally exhausted. What we are being asked to do will take gargantuan efforts and face vicious opposition.

But despite the fact that psychologists know a lot about denial, they have never had to face denial on this scale before. Millions of people share the phenomenon of climate denial. This is clearly not something that is amenable to individual or even group psychotherapy.

Ultimately, only large-scale political activity has any chance of saving civilization from the oncoming ravages of continued greenhouse gas emissions. Entire nations must come together as they did in forging the Paris Climate Agreement and agree to enforce what will have to be very extensive and often highly inconvenient changes in our sources of energy and food. It is true that replacing oil and gas with sustainable energy and switching to plant-based diets will be difficult and even painful for some, but the alternative—continuing to ignore that climate change is already affecting us and will ultimately be catastrophic—is of course much worse.

Data suggest that rising temperatures are linked to increases in multiple psychiatric disorders and suicide rates. In an excellent review of the mental health aspects of climate change, a group from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto comment that “The overarching threats of a changing climate, can also incite despair and hopelessness as actions to address the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change seem intangible or insignificant in comparison to the scale and magnitude of the threats.”

Full article here: 

Scientific American: Obama Seeks ‘Psychological Help’ with Climate Change