Lentis/Climate Change Denial
Climate change denial is a social movement that seeks to discredit global warming, and undermine the scientific opinion that humans are negatively impacting the atmosphere. Typically, climate change deniers attempt to give the appearance of legitimate debate over global warming where there is none, or marginalize published research by exaggerating uncertainty within the field. The dangers of climate change hold alarming implications for the future of Earth, and as such, it is important to address why different groups reject the established consensus.
The issue of climate change first appeared in American politics thanks to the help of a 1983 Environmental Protection Agency report that labeled global warming as "not a theoretical problem but a threat whose effects will be felt within a few years". Though the issue was dismissed as alarmist by the Reagan administration, the controversy spread to newspapers and national television and has continued ever since. Public doubt in climate change was also fueled by petroleum and automotive corporations. In 1989, these industries created the Global Climate Coalition, whose objective was to denigrate every call for action against global warming. Over the following decade the organization would spend tens of millions of dollars to support lectures and publications by a few scientists skeptical of climate change. The propaganda produced by the Global Climate Coalition had a lasting impact on society into the 21st century.
With the agreement of over 97% of climate scientists, it would seem that the facts are settled and that there shouldn’t be any contention about the issue. Though, only about one in seven Americans (15%) understand that nearly all climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening. A person’s reasons for climate change denial may not be clear at first when one tries to understand their thinking. However, the field of psychology provides three main principles to explain climate change denial.
Humans in the far past dealt with more simple immediate issues like shelter, hunger, and safety compared to the more intricate societal problems of today. Psychologist John Tooby has stated, “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.” He describes that we deal with threats of today using psychological tools from our evolutionary past. Climate change is one of these intricate modern dilemmas that can make emotional response complicated. Dealing with these issues is not simple and it can be difficult to put it into a familiar perspective. Humans are better at dealing with problems that are concrete, close-at-hand, familiar and require skills and tools that we already possess
Humans react most strongly to events that psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to as PAINful (Personal, Abrupt, Immoral, and Now). Accidents and personal trauma fall into this category, whereas the more complex issue of climate change is more difficult to categorize. Climate change is often talked about as gradual, impersonal process that will happen in the future, making it even less likely to trigger a strong reaction. We may appreciate the potential impacts of climate change, but many will not respond until it immediately affects their livelihood and safety.
Another example of the psychological response to climate change can be described as a student procrastinating on an assignment. According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, when we are faced with uncertain threats in the future, our brains begin to create excuses why we shouldn’t act on them immediately. The continual referral to climate change in the future tense reinforces this principle and allows us to rationalize our excuses. According to a poll by Yale University, 71% of people believe that climate change will harm future generations, compared to 42% believing climate change will affect them personally.
Some climate change threats (such as natural disasters) have become so familiar through constant news coverage that they now just feel normal instead of outrageous. Before the widespread use of the internet, people would get their news from fairly neutrally biased local sources. As the internet became more popular, traditional media formats began to lose audiences. Hyperbole induced media is common now due to the continual use of “clickbait” and dramatized headlines to attract readers. Americans have become numb or indifferent to issues that aren’t about to literally kill us. Patricia Linville and Gregory Fisher argue that we have a finite pool of worry and that is affected by our groupings by importance. Climate change often isn’t in that pool of worry.
According to Sociologist Stanley Cohen, climate change denial isn’t “not knowing” or “refusing to know”, but rather “choosing not to notice” so we can blend in with our chosen social groups. Humans view and make sense of the world through “frames”, which help us to categorize what we value and what we can also ignore. People build these “frames” based on their social groups including, religion and political affiliation. Viewing the world through the same “frame” as your social groups is important to fit in with your peers. Conformity in regards to climate change is often affected by political affiliation. For example, Republican party leaders and recognized members have publicly expressed skepticism towards climate change, influencing other members to subscribe to the same beliefs.
"Wealthy right-wing ideologues have joined with the most cynical and irresponsible companies in the oil, coal, and mining industries to contribute large sums of money to finance pseudoscientific front groups that specialize in sowing confusion in the public’s mind about global warming. They issue one misleading ‘report’ after another, pretending that there is a significant disagreement in the legitimate scientific community in areas where there is actually a broad-based consensus." -Al Gore
Lobbying groups tend to be either political advocacy groups or companies in the oil, coal, and mining industries who might be hurt by climate change laws. As described by Al Gore, these groups typically aim to confuse the public and spread doubt about climate change to delay progress. One such group is ExxonMobil, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. In 1978 (before the 1999 merger), Exxon was warned of the dangers of climate change by James Black, an expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division. Exxon began doing its own research on climate change in the coming years in order to see if their business model would still be viable. Also, researching would make Exxon a reliable source in case the government decided to pass laws on climate change, meaning Exxon could try to influence any such laws.
In 1988, over 300 scientists and policymakers convened at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and demanded reductions in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Due to rising concerns over climate change, Exxon launched a campaign to start spreading doubt about climate change and delay an action that might hurt their business. In doing so, Exxon has spent over $30 million funding think tanks that promote climate change denial. This money could be used, for example, to pay a scientist who contends climate change is caused by solar cycles, even though this idea has been discredited by mainstream science. In 1997, Exxon’s former CEO Lee Raymond claimed "there's a lot we really don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond … We need to understand the issue better, and fortunately, we have time."
As support for climate change grew, ExxonMobil declared in their 2007 Corporate Citizen Report that the company would discontinue contributions to climate change denial groups that “divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.” However, since then ExxonMobil has given $1.87 million to Republicans in Congress who deny climate change. In addition, between 2008 and 2015 ExxonMobil gave over $6.5 million to groups disputing the effect of fossil fuels on climate change.
One political advocacy group involved in climate change denial is the conservative/libertarian group FreedomWorks. With roughly 6 million members, FreedomWorks aims to find and educate individuals “who are enthused about showing up to support free enterprise and constitutionally limited government.” The group contends that "the pursuit of alternative energy should not come at the expense of our current prosperity or freedom." Despite claiming to be a grassroots organization, there may be evidence that FreedomWorks is linked to the oil industry. Americans for Prosperity, a similar political advocacy group of 3.2 million members, is funded by the Koch brothers of Koch Industries, a multinational chemical manufacturing company involved in petroleum manufacturing.
When dealing with controversial topics, people have a tendency to react more to evidence that supports their view. This confirmation bias helps explain why so many people can blatantly disagree with a scientific consensus. Additionally, groups can abuse confirmation bias to impede their opposition by spreading doubt and uncertainty. While there is evidence of such abuse in the lobbying groups listed above, further work is needed to expand the list of companies and advocacy groups involved in spreading climate change denial. For example, coal mining companies may have an interest in delaying climate change laws. In the end, people can only be expected to act according to their own agendas, even when the stakes are as high as they are with climate change.
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