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The Psychology of Climate Change Deniers

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When there is irrefutable evidence of serious and rapid climate change, why do we still have climate change deniers? What is their psychology?

Are they irrational? For most, probably not. In fact, in their minds, they have good reason to deny that climate change is something that they should act on.


Have climate change deniers been lied to before by their governments and institutions? 

Yes, frequently. In the recent past, they were told that diesel was better for the environment, and that was false. They were deliberately misled and deceived on diesel pollution figures by large corporations, with the emissions software scandals.

Climate change deniers have many good reasons not to trust what they are told. They are aware that “politics is the art of deniable deceit”, have seen that “politicians only lie when their lips move”, and know that “a diplomat is someone who goes abroad to lie for their country”, to quote just some of the well-used phrases that have endured because of their self-evident truth.

Some people don’t believe a word that comes out of any large organisation; they are certain they are being lied to, they just don’t know which part of what they are hearing are the lies. Accordingly, they distrust everything.

Whose fault is it that the climate change deniers don’t believe institutions? Frankly the tale of the child who ‘cried wolf’ comes to mind; if institutions lie to their stakeholders on such a frequent basis, it should come as no surprise that they are distrusted even when they are telling the truth.

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Science education

Other climate change deniers are less cynical about politicians and more distrusting of science. They probably break down into several categories. Here are just four:

  • Those with no understanding of science; to them, science is a foreign country. These are not stupid people; they simply don’t have the necessary scientific education to enable them to process or understand the evidence.
  • Those who understand enough of the principles and practices of science to be able to challenge and undermine any findings. They are the scientific equivalent of the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; they can see problems everywhere and solutions nowhere.
  • Those who think scientists are just creating more status and work for themselves, and expecting the rest of the population to pay for it. They will cite the cliched end to many scientific papers: “more research is required”, as evidence that the scientists are simply seeking to create employment for themselves.
  • Those who think the science is faked. Here they can cite case after case, as evidence. I have heard even well-informed people express views that scientists are just as prone to corruption as others; they will give a long list of scientists and companies that have created false data to support their stance. They will cite the physicians who said that smoking is safe, and that drug X had no side effects when they knew the opposite was true. Those climate change deniers of a legal bent will even be able to trot out the names of the law firms that sought to persuade courts that the data was not falsified when the exact opposite was the truth. Again, the climate change deniers have a point – who can they trust? Some drug, chemical and other science-based companies have falsified data, too. Lawyers have lied to courts in recent memory. Even judges have been found to be corrupt. The combination of a lack of understanding of science, and well-founded distrust of institutions has created huge numbers of climate change deniers.

False attributions

Some climate change deniers attribute the evidence of climate change to other factors, most of which have more than a grain of truth in them. For example, the natural cycles of the sun, the expansion of the sun, the greenhouse earth- ice-age cycle – those and other theories have been explored by the world’s scientific community. All are real phenomena and have historical evidence to support them. 

Compared to the effect of the vast volumes of greenhouse gasses humans create, and the country-sized destruction of all kinds of trees, the size of all the other possible causes, put together, is tiny. 

Throughout history, it has been observed that when people don’t want to believe something, they will find any false attributions that they can.  

Personal interest

Some climate change deniers are coming from a place of personal interest. Because the changes they are being asked to make or fear they will be asked to make, are going to have a negative impact on their lives, they are motivated to deny the need for change. 

As with most climate change denier categories, this is not irrational; it is how most humans behave when they have unwelcome life changes imposed on them. 

The first two stages of the grief cycle are denial and anger.  Climate change deniers are exhibiting what we all do when faced with grief or change when it feels imposed.

Being in denial doesn’t make it wise to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the sinking Titanic, (global warming), it merely explains the behaviour.

Risky shift

When people gather in groups they will take much riskier and less moral and ethical decisions than they would as individuals. That accounts for many organisations committing fraud in plain sight and claiming that something else is happening.  

Climate change deniers, when they gather together, are prepared to risk being wrong in ways that they might not if they were thinking on their own. In a group, their views are supported, reinforced and amplified, by the processes of social facilitation. So powerful are these dysfunctional dynamics that they have been studied, worldwide under the heading “group think”.

When a collection of people are captured by group think, they reinterpret the glaringly contradictory facts to suit the group norms. They can convince themselves that day is night. 

Climate change deniers may be caught up in their own groupthink bubble. It certainly seems that way if you look at social media. If bubble-bound, they will be likely to claim that the climate change activists are the ones who are in a groupthink bubble. Indeed, such claims have already been made. 

What is the solution?

Frankly, it is the same solution as is always required to help people in change denial: listening, compassion, engagement, education, incentives, and integrity.

If we are to encourage the climate change deniers to help themselves and all future generations, we must understand why they are in denial, and help them to help us all.

Some will not be persuaded. There are still some holocaust deniers, despite the vast evidence, the admissions of guilt, the piles of corpses, the… you know the rest. 

We can’t persuade the extremists, or all climate change deniers, we just have to persuade the moderate majority.  We can only do that if we understand the psychology of climate change deniers. 

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the leadership coaching practice PsyPerform and is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.


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