ANALYSIS | Fighting climate denial and the 'dragons of inaction'

Evading responsibility and prioritizing other aspects of our lives over climate action is also a form of climate denial — at least according to the experts.

What’s going on in your brain as you process information about climate change?

At the Word Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, U.S. President Donald Trump downplayed the future risks associated with climate change. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Sometimes it seems like we've come a long way on the climate denial front. For the most part, we aren't discussing whether or not climate change exists, but rather its severity, or how to tackle the problem. 

But is that really progress if climate action still isn't prioritized?

Take, for instance, this exchange that occurred in the Alberta Legislature in December. 

NDP MLA Marie Renaud accused the United Conservative government of not taking climate change seriously and not acting fast enough. 

Prasad Panda, the UCP minister of Infrastructure, stood and said he was not a climate denier. But he also said this:

"When the member was talking about the climate emergency, she also talked about the United Nations. The people of Calgary-Edgemont elected me to represent Albertans and to look after those 200,000 unemployed Albertans in Calgary, Fort McMurray, Cold Lake, Bonnyville, Peace River, everywhere. That is our priority."

The obfuscation of responsibility and prioritizing other aspects of our lives over climate action is also a form of climate denial — at least according to the experts. 

We need not look far for other examples. Last month in Davos, Switzerland, U.S. President Donald Trump said, "To embrace the possibilities of tomorrow, we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse."

This downplays the future risks associated with climate change, as laid out by the majority of the world's climate science community.

Earlier in January, National Post columnist Rex Murphy lit up social media with his column titled, "We're Freezing! Isn't it Great? The Carbon Tax must be Working!"

It's an example of a classic trope, confusing weather and climate to downplay the risks.

In the article, Murphy said, "A cooler Canada. That's what almost every citizen wants. Who wants sand and sun, beach balls and sun-bathing? That's for sissies."

So these types of denial — albeit, different from what we generally think of — also prevent meaningful climate action, and it's something psychologists are very interested in. 

Writing the book on climate denial

Per Espen Stoknes wrote an entire book on this subject, called What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming. He's a Norwegian economist and psychologist, and the director of the Centre for Green Growth at the Norwegian Business School.

He explains that none of this is unexpected. 

"Denial is not something that is rare and it's not only something that stupid or ignorant people do. It's deeply human to be in a state of denial," he said in an interview.

"Any time there is a kind of stigma or hard to accept information, people deal with that painful issue or knowledge easily through denial." 

He also explains that even if you're well educated about climate change and you take it seriously, a failure to act on that knowledge is yet another form of denial. He says it's almost as if we live a "double life" of sorts.

In his book, he writes: "The lifting of denial would result in an emotional shift, and would require both speaking and acting differently. And sometimes it would result in a substantial change of lifestyle, ethics and identity."

The Norwegian economist and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes is the author of the book. What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

When it comes to climate change, our human brains are absolutely inclined toward denial, with nearly no part of our psyche helping us reach an understanding that encourages positive action.

Take how our brains evolved over time. Evolution has geared us to primarily think about problems that are immediately in front of us. It's also the genesis of our deep-rooted self interest.

Our ancestors would have needed to prioritize the safety and well-being of themselves and their group or unit before others. We still see evidence of that today whenever we assess risks and benefits in terms of "me and us" versus "them." 

"Natural selection originally shaped our psychobiology to maximize benefits here and now," Stoknes writes. 

Research in cognitive psychology has shown that human beings are inclined to act on risk or fear — but not all risks are equal motivators. The human brain amplifies risk when it is outside of our control (think an airplane crashing), or if the risk is new versus having been present for some time. 

We're also terrible at properly assigning value to the consequences and risks of the future. We're inclined to, once again, place too much weight on the benefits of having something here and now, even when forgoing an instant payoff would allow us to avoid pain or loss in the future.

Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his work in behavioural economics, where he studied exactly how humans judge cost-risk-benefit scenarios over time.

Kahneman has said on multiple occasions in the past that he's skeptical that climate change is a problem humans can overcome in any kind of timely fashion. 

"Climate change is really the kind of threat … that we as humans have not evolved to cope with," Kahneman told the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's too distant. It's too remote."

"If there were a meteor, you know, coming to Earth, even in 50 years, it would be completely different.… It would be concrete. It would be specific. You could mobilize humanity against the meteor. Climate change is different. And it's much, much harder, I think."

Novel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has studied how humans judge cost-risk-benefit scenarios over time. (Daniel Hulshizer/The Associated Press)

How to fight off the dragons

Robert Gifford, a University of Victoria psychology and environmental studies professor, studies the psychology of climate denial as well.

He came up with a list of several dozen psychological impediments he saw getting in humanity's collective way. Then he broke them down into seven whimsical groups and called them the "dragons of inaction." 

"We have a lot of good intentions, and they're not just about climate change, but about anything," Gifford says. 

The gap between our intentions and our actions is forged by two things: structural and psychological barriers. 

Structural barriers are things like a lack of bike lanes, or a lack of public transportation — people might want to bike or take the bus, but if the infrastructure doesn't exist, it may prevent action.

"The psychological barriers are these dragons, the 40 of them," Gifford says.

The dragons include everything from a person's ignorance about how to act meaningfully on climate change, to political or religious ideologies that change how someone feels about the topic.

However, Gifford says, generally, he sees two issues serving as the most critical roadblocks. The first is what he calls "conflicting goals and aspirations."

"That is, 'I've got other things to do. Yes [climate change is] important but I have to … 'fill in the blank,'" Gifford says.

Essentially, we prioritize our current comfort and personal goals above our collective good.

"Unfortunately, most of us still want more, more, more. More clothes, more food, more house, more car, more whatever," Gifford says. "And that adds up to more carbon going into the atmosphere indirectly."

Robert Gifford, a University of Victoria psychology and environmental studies professor, came up with a list of psychological impediments he calls the 'dragons of inaction.' (UVic Photo Services)

The other significant obstacle we face is the perception that we lack control, he says. This typically results in removing the responsibility to act from the shoulders of the individual and placing the onus on governments or industry to make all the changes. 

We prioritize where we spend money, how we vote, how we conduct ourselves, Gifford explains, ridding ourselves of all responsibility is a problem. 

Oil and gas economies

In Alberta, especially, you often hear people deflecting calls to climate action because, well, we all use fossil fuels. Stoknes understands very well how these conversations play out in oil and gas country.

After all, Stoknes studies this subject from Norway, which — much like Alberta — has an economy heavily reliant on oil and gas. Upon hearing about the conversations going on in Alberta right now surrounding climate change, he sighs, chuckles and says, "Ah, how predictable."

"If your professional self-esteem is connected to producing this energy," Stoknes says, "you feel that your company and yourself are doing important work."

"If I built that kind of professional job identity into my self-concept — my image of myself — then when I hear people striking [and] damning oil and damning the petroleum industry, then I would feel it as a personal attack. It's no longer about climate science. It's no longer about how we can transition in a constructive way. No, it's an attack on me. On who I am." 

That starts to bring up a need to defend oneself, Stoknes explains.

In psychology this phenomenon is known as "identity protective cognition." It involves the individual putting up defences to protect their values and sense of self and dismissing any complaints of those who are criticizing, Stoknes explains.

"This is where the climate discussion usually goes very badly. When you start to trigger people's sense of self, when their identity comes under attack."

Think about the caravan of trucks that showed up at the Alberta Legislature to protest Greta Thunberg's speech on the steps of the building last fall. Stoknes says it might seem bizarre, but it is all very predictable.

Moving from this identity protection mode, people who are like-minded then begin to insulate themselves, implicitly agreeing among themselves not to discuss climate change, or, if it comes up, discuss it only through means of ridicule. It's a return to the "us" versus "them" dynamic. 

Trucks assembling in Red Deer. The convoy drove into Edmonton as a counter protest to a climate strike rally at the Alberta Legislature at which Greta Thunberg spoke on Oct. 18, 2019. (David Bajer/CBC)

There's no one tool to solve denial, or to solve identity issues, Stoknes says. But the messages about climate change are generally better received from someone who is perceived to be from the "us" group. If a trusted individual speaks up, it will likely help more than anything else, he suggests.

A reason to be hopeful?

Gifford says that, like Kahneman, he, too, has days where he doubts climate change is a problem that can be overcome before the impacts become catastrophic. But on other days, he sees hope. 

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has been tracking American attitudes toward the subject for years, and the number of people who trust the science and are worried about the problem continues to grow. 

Gifford says he hopes individuals push now to shift societal social norms. The same way Canadians moved the needle on the social acceptability of smoking, we must now apply to climate action. The difference is that climate change is a time-constrained issue. 

"We're going to have to do this a lot faster," Gifford says.

Stoknes says denial about climate change is so difficult to overcome because of how genuinely uncomfortable it is to live with the realities of the science. 

"If you have children, for instance, when they grow old, they will be living in a world that sees consistent weather that hasn't been seen over the last three to four million years," Stoknes says.

"Knowing that my child will grow up in that environment is very uncomfortable knowledge. So we might even need some denial to be able to function well."

Stoknes says that hope exists if we learn to revisit that uncomfortable knowledge — and weave it into our lives, our decisions and our behaviours. Breaking down the wall between that knowledge and the rational part of our brains is integral to success in lessening the impacts of climate change. 


Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist who reports on climate change and conflict and is currently based in London, UK. She's covered news stories across Canada and from a dozen countries around the world, including Ukraine, Hungary, France and Iraq. She has also worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.


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