The Psychology of Climate Change Denial

Are warnings about global disaster waking people up--or numbing them out?

Craig Chalquist, PhD

A few years ago, when I spoke about ecotherapy at Bioneers, I was asked during the question-and-answer period, "What is stopping people from waking up to the threat of climate change?"

Surely it's not the complexity of the problem. Earth has gone to a lot of trouble to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to allow life to proliferate. Reverse that cycle and the Greenhouse Effect overheats the planet, a trend evident despite the occasional cool winter. Scientists have warned us about it for a century; the handful who disagree are paid to, usually by petroleum front companies bearing lucrative grants.* According to the International Energy Agency, every year we delay action costs us $500 billion, so the business reasons alone make action urgent. If we go on as we are, we will make this planet uninhabitable, even for business.

When the Black Plague broke out in Europe, the Lord Mayor of London ignored those who observed that homes and neighborhoods stricken by the plague were overrun with rats. In fact, the holdouts kept insisting nothing was wrong until entire populations began to die. Why did it have to go that far?

We resort to psychological defenses like rationalization, repression, and denial when overwhelmed with the enormity of disastrous news. The human mind needs a schema or map by which to make sense of such news and other people to talk it over with. Lacking either of those resources, the mind will protect itself by whistling past the graveyard and sticking to business as usual.

Furthermore, the mind, like the environment, operates with reinforcing feedback loops: circular pathways that under certain circumstances become self-perpetuating. When an activist or scientist shouts the alarm, a mind not prepared for it will protect itself so well--"How does he know all this?" "It can't be this grim."--that the hearer will be MORE psychologically numb AFTER hearing the bad news than before hearing it. That's right: more numb, not less, because of the warning. That fact alone has huge implications for those tasked with waking up the public to imminent danger.

Other defenses besides denial come into play here: manic defenses (trying to cheer oneself up and "think positively"), scapegoating the bearer of bad news, self-distraction, paranoia ("It's all a hoax"), splitting (keeping the bad news off to one side), parent projections (mother Earth can't be sick, father God won't permit it). In all defense, the primary goal is to hold the mind together against an onslaught of overwhelming, destabilizing emotions until the defender has a safe place and opportunity to work through overwhelm and move from helplessness into action.

My recommendation, then, to activists, scientists, and everyone trying to warn the public about climate change, mass extinction, or any of the other crises we now face, is to form small discussion groups facilitated by ecotherapists and ecopsychologists--practitioners trained to do this kind of work--so people can move through these disturbing realizations with plenty of support.

We are asking people to face, think about, and respond to the reality of crises more immense than any seen in human history. Perhaps some of us can tough it through, but the majority need more than bad news, individual sessions in a consulting room, diagnoses for mental disorders, investment advice, or good books to read. They need support networks of wise mentors who can help them come to terms with what was previously unthinkable, move through shock, helplessness, and despair, and join together for the common efforts now required to keep Earth habitable.

* It's important to bear in mind that few, if any, financiers or politicians are in any real denial about climate change even though many pretend to be. As conservative politicians buy up water rights and equip their homes with solar power, and as petroleum companies position themselves to compete for natural gas and alternative energy sources, governments jockey for control of the Arctic Circle now that melting ice is freeing resources previously unobtainable. Even the Pentagon has drawn up plans for defending the United States in a climate-altered world.

See also

Holos Institute
Earthrise: Beacon of a New Worldview
Heartsteading: Forming and Strengthening Circles of Ecocommunity
TalkingClimate.org: online research on climate change communication