Toxic belief: What goes on in the mind of climate crisis deniers?

Why, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, do some people cling to the belief that the climate crisis is not man-made? Sam Webb speaks to the experts

Samuel Webb
Saturday 19 March 2022 15:41 GMT
Shoes replace climate march

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


An overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that the climate crisis is caused by human behaviour.

But despite this consensus, and news reports showing the climate crisis destroying lives across the planet, a worrying number of people still cling to the belief the climate crisis is not man-made, or even deny it exists.

The situation is improving. A total of 72 per cent of Britons think the climate crisis is a result of human activity, according to YouGov research.

Less than 10 years ago only half of people thought humanity was to blame.

But 13 per cent believe climate crisis is not due to human activity and 3 per cent of people do not think the climate is changing at all.

In the US 72 per cent think global warming is happening, but only 57 per cent think it is mostly caused by human activities, according to the Yale Program on Climate Communication.

What drives climate denial?

Megan Kennedy-Woodard is a coaching psychologist and co-founder of Climate Psychologists. She is also the co-author of Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety, Sustainable Climate Action for Your Mental Health and the Planet.

She says there are two different factors at play when it comes to the issue – denial and denialism.

Denial is a defence mechanism for individuals and groups who find it difficult to engage with climate science and the reality we will face if action is not taken.

She said: “Denial is a psychological defence that can in some cases protect us from information that would otherwise be too traumatic to immediately process. For example, if a loved one is suddenly killed our first thoughts are often, ‘No. It’s not true.’

“We say that a little bit of denial is OK in climate action because if we only perceive the crisis we are in, it would be hard to carry on with necessary climate action, let alone get out of bed in the morning.

“So we can view a small amount of denial as helpful just as we can view a small amount of anxiety or anger, as long as we still engage and it doesn’t weigh too much on our mental health. We can nod to these emotions without bowing to them.”

Megan Kennedy-Woodard is an expert in climate psychology
Megan Kennedy-Woodard is an expert in climate psychology (Megan Kennedy-Woodard)

Then there is constructed denialism, which Kennedy-Woodard says has been cultivated and perpetuated by multi-million-pound disinformation campaigns primarily stemming from the fossil fuel industry and the politicians they target.

“These seeds of denial have been sewn to purposefully discredit science and the human influence of change on our planet,” she adds.

“It’s no wonder people don’t believe or grasp it. We can’t wholly blame the people targeted by these campaigns for their denial.

“For some, the climate crisis feels too big to engage with and yes, there is the element of burying our heads in the sand, but as we see increases in extreme weather, climate migration, loss of life, this will become more and more difficult.”

Discounting the problem

Dr Rachel McCloy, an Associate Professor in Applied Behavioural Science at the University of Reading, is an expert in the fields of understanding pro-environmental behaviours, food choice, and applying psychology to public policy issues.

She says most people accept to some degree that the climate crisis is real, but choose to ignore or do little about it.

“The psychological drivers here include what we call discounting (living for today at the expense of tomorrow) and our emotional responses to large scale negative events,” she said.

“As the behavioural economist Dan Ariely has pointed out, if we were trying to design a problem that people wouldn’t care about we would design something that looks a lot like climate change– its full extent is uncertain, it takes place in the future and may not be directly experienced by the person making choices, and will have its first effects remotely from many people.

“All of these things can increase short-term thinking at the expense of longer-term planning.

“It is also the case that the impact changes to a single person’s behaviour may have are minimal and are dependent upon the collective actions of others.

“This can lead to feelings of a lack of control, which, alongside fears of potential large-scale negative events, can lead us to stick our heads in the sand as a protective mechanism.”

Dr Rachel McCloy of the University of Reading
Dr Rachel McCloy of the University of Reading (Dr Rachel McCloy)

Fringe figures

Kennedy-Woodward says climate crisis deniers seek out fringe news websites and media figures like Jordan Peterson because they offer comfort.

“Human brains love to feel like they are right,” she said. “We deliberately seek out information that corresponds and maintains our belief systems.”

“Also, we want to feel like we are part of the community we identify with. This can serve as an echo chamber and make it difficult to form opinions and listen to ‘outsiders’, scientists in this case, who appeal to our rationale more frequently rather than our emotions.

“If these outspoken, yet unqualified fringe celebrities appeal to them or they feel they can identify with them, it is very easy for them to blindly follow and they absolutely can cultivate division and be exploitive.

“(Social media) algorithms lead people to these sources and make them appear more credible or popular than they actually are but when people are afraid or insecure, they may not necessarily be assessing the situation in a logical way.”

This emotion may lead climate crisis deniers to viciously attack prominent climate activists like Greta Thunberg.

Kennedy-Woodward added: “There is a lot of ‘othering’ that occurs in our world that is so deeply divided right now.

“Certain scientists, and now activists like Greta, are victims of what Michael Mann has called the ‘Serengeti Strategy’ meaning they are separated off and hunted like prey by the politically and economically motivated.

“People get on the bandwagon, go along with their in-group and vilify those who don’t share their point of view.”

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