What is climate denial?
Climate denial is when people contradict, minimize, or find other ways to avoid the overwhelming evidence from climate science that global warming is real, human-caused, and largely the result of burning fossil fuels. To understand climate denial, we need to understand denial in general: what it is and what sustains it.
Forms of denial
General denial: Denial covers the different mental strategies that people use to avoid facing the emotional impacts and implications of unwanted truths. That people can and do deny reality speaks to the power of wishful phantasy to override reality-based perception.
Most of us can intuitively sense when people are “in denial” or “living in a bubble”. However, understanding denial and how it operates is far from simple. First of all, denial is not ignorance. With denial, the disturbing reality is seen and then discounted. Often people are not consciously aware of when they are “in denial”. However, usually a part of the mind continues to see the reality. An example is a terminally ill patient planning a bright future while troubled by the thought, “Who do you think you’re kidding?”.
Negation: Negation, a common form of denial, “negativizes”, claiming what is true is not true; what happened did not happen. Negation, when transient, can be a useful stepping stone to accepting reality, acting as a shock absorber when faced with brutal losses that feel too hard to bear in the moment.
When flexibly applied, negation is part of mourning illusion and accepting reality, with mourning generally involving first negation (“It’s not true“), then blaming (“It’s true, and someone caused this”), and only then gradual acceptance and grief (“It’s true, and I am sad and grieving”). Of course, the grieving process does not always follow this straight path.
Disavowal: With disavowal, another common form of denial, the reality is accepted but made to seem trivial and inconsequential (“It’s true, but that does not matter because …”). Disavowal is often called “turning a blind eye”.
Political, social and cultural group pressures can work to keep disavowal entrenched, and can also fuel a stubborn form of negation that stops people from moving on and accepting reality. An example is, “Joe Biden did not win the 2020 US election. It was stolen“. In 2023, Fox News settled $787.5 million to avoid being prosecuted for knowingly and blatantly spreading this lie.
Denialism: This refers to the insidious and conscious process whereby industries find strategic ways of undermining knowledge that their products cause harm. Denialism works by boosting negation and disavowal at the cultural level. An example is how the tobacco industry, beginning in the early 1950s, cast doubt on the scientific evidence that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer.
Denial and denialism in the climate crisis
- is best understood as a function of groups and group culture
- supports maintaining a fossil-fuel based economy
- blocks feeling sad and guilty about harm caused by burning fossil fuels
- operates through climate denialism
- is spread through a culture of uncare
The two commonest forms of climate denial are negation (“Global warming is a hoax”) and disavowal (“It’s happening, but that’s not a problem because …”). One form of disavowal is isolationism (“It’s happening but other crises are more urgent, so climate must wait”). With isolationism, addressing climate is always cast as less urgent, despite underlying awareness that not addressing climate exacerbates the other crises. Isolationism is fanned by distraction (“Look at what that celebrity has just done!”) by the press and social media. Implicatory denial (“It’s happening but it’s nothing to do with me; it’s not my responsibility or fault”) is another form of disavowal.
Climate denialism is largely driven by fossil fuel corporations with massive power and influence. They fund, often covertly, think tanks, and cultural campaigns (press, advertising, lobbying) that encourage climate denial. Exxon knew from the 1980s that burning fossil fuels causes global warming which, unabated, would eventually lead to ecocide. Understanding that climate reality posed an existential threat to their oil-based profit and shareholder value, fossil fuel corporations funded climate denial to block or at least delay the move to renewable energy. This strategy has been called “predatory delay“. It involves lulling people into a false sense of security.
Climate denialism has involved:
- High pressure lobbying (over 600 oil and gas lobbyists attended the COP27 climate talks in Egypt in 2022, outnumbering any community affected by the climate crisis).
- Discrediting climate scientists (for example, see the ‘Climategate’ scandal).
- Sowing doubt on climate science.
- Energetically promoting and funding what psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has called a “culture of uncare“.
The “culture of uncare” undermined truth and boosted denial in all its forms, aiming to block people from reaching the stage of sadness and acceptance of environmental harm done. In her book, Psychological Roots of the Climate Ciisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare, Weintrobe has outlined how this culture boosted Exceptionalism in our era (“I/we can consume without concern“) and undermined caring values in order to encourage collusion with denial. (See also Donna Orange on the rise of individualism, greed, and envy.)
As damage to the climate system becomes more widespread and harder to deny, climate denialists shift tactics, seeking ever new ways to promote further denial. By the time that Extinction Rebellion had declared a climate emergency in 2019, boosting disavowal of the form, “It’s real but that does not matter because …”, had largely taken over from boosting negation (“It’s a hoax“). However, with multiple crises – exacerbated by climate breakdown – now present, boosting isolationism is increasingly common (“Addressing climate must wait“). Implicatory denial is on the rise (“It’s your fault, not mine“). Preoccupation with blame games ramped up by the press and social media is emerging as a new form of climate disavowal. It distracts from sad awareness of environmental harm done and the urgent need to act on climate. It fuels tribalism (finding security in polarised political and religious groups). Blaming is an ordinary stage towards finally accepting reality, but denialism tries to use blaming to block sadness and processing guilt from emerging.
With climate impacts now fast accelerating, negation is reappearing in entrenched forms (“It’s a hoax and don’t you dare disagree”) spearheaded by political and group pressure. Strident negation becomes the required badge for inclusion for certain Republican and evangelical groups in the United States.
The psychoanalyst Michael J. Diamond (2022), in his book Ruptures in the American Psyche: Containing Destructive Populism in Perilous Times, examines the current appeal of authoritarianism and populism by emphasizing the unconscious aspects and power of the group to impact an individual’s thinking. Keene (2012) points to the power of the group to instill loyalty to the tribe and the tribe’s worldview. In today’s polarized society, loyalty to the group and the group leader becomes all-important.
Naomi Klein (2014) had referred to negation as “hard” climate denial, contrasting it with disavowal, which she termed “soft” climate denial. However, Weintrobe (2021) argues for distinguishing between transient and entrenched negation, while cautioning that disavowal is hard to undo because it so distorts truth and values and corrupts morals. Negation when entrenched is also hard to undo, requiring struggle to withstand social and political pressures. Perhaps rather than concentrate on what to label current types of denial, she argues that it is more important to understand the underlying aims of denialism: to maintain high levels of denial as the climate crisis worsens and climate reality intensifies.
Climate denial as conflict avoidance
Many authors on climate have discussed how the mind (individual and group) is divided between caring and uncaring parts. Social psychologists like Tim Kasser and Tom Crompton have described how people hold competing incompatible values systems (intrinsic versus instrumental). Weintrobe (2021) has referred to the caring and uncaring parts of the self/the group, and has argued that continued denial of the climate emergency leads to increasing moral conflict as the climate tragedy unfolds.
The psychoanalyst, Donna Orange (2017) refers to “double-mindedness” – the capacity to hold two realities at the same time. The sociologist Kari Norgaard (2011), uses the term “double reality” to connote this same experience. Norgaard depicts how double reality is a collective reality that is socially constructed through cultural norms.
Climate denial reduces perceived inner conflict. For example, faced with whether to fly on holiday (“I want to” versus “I know it adds to collective harm“), denying the harm reduces felt conflict. However, this goes with deeper awareness that this is an illusory “quick moral fix“, leading to an erosion of moral values and increasing unconscious guilt. Weintrobe (2021) has argued that the culture of uncare seeks to persuade people they can live without inner conflict; can “have a nice day”.
By contrast, Hoggett (2022) sees rising indifference to the climate problem as a sign of a rising lack of care, particularly about the violence and harm denial causes in the long run. In this sense indifference, linked with cynicism, is a more actively destructive condition than apathy. Indifference shows clearly as active group denial when anyone who shows signs of caring is swiftly silenced and undermined by the group. A stance of indifference can be fiercely guarded and defended.
Climate denial essentially spreads the false idea that we can ignore real limits without harming planet, people and non-human life. John Keene (2012) has likened this to the infant who sees mother as indestructible and there solely to provide endlessly and absorb all waste products (termed the “breast/toilet mother“). Alton Krenak, an indigenous leader from Latin America, has argued that Westernised modern humans are caught up in what he calls “the drool“, that moment when mother earth is seen as real and with limits, but rather than accept that reality and mourn illusion, reality is denied and limits continue to be flouted.
Mental health impacts of climate denial and denialism
When climate denial starts to break down, people are liable to experience a series of shocks and can feel easily overwhelmed at seeing the colossal harm and death the denial has led to. To cope with the shock, they may screen themselves from climate news. This may be to protect their hearts and minds to enable them better to continue to struggle to face climate reality.
Alternatively, it may be a step back into denial. It is not easy to distinguish which it is, especially in the self. However, struggling to make this distinction is important for staying in touch with climate reality. And, as the emergency worsens, the pressure to avoid reality is likely to increase, at the very time the necessity to face reality becomes more pressing. Taking action on climate requires stepping out of denial and working through the feelings (including anger, sadness and grief) that seeing climate reality brings.
Climate denialism that fuels climate denial has harmed people not just in physical, but also in mental, ethical, and spiritual ways. In this sense, the climate emergency is also a mental health emergency. The failure to reduce carbon emissions, driven by climate denialism, has by now led to people experiencing climate trauma. An example is people looking out for climate information precisely in order to avoid taking it in. This closely resembles maintaining a state of hyper-arousal to avoid being triggered, a classic symptom of PTSD. The result can be a general flattening of affect and loss of meaning. Another form of trauma is moral injury, the heart-soreness at realising one is a perpetrator as well as victim of a system driving death not life.
Part of the reason that the profoundly destructive consequences have not been visible is because many of the consequences of climate change occur in the Global South. The psychoanalyst Donna Orange views the climate crisis and social justice as one unified problem, as opposed to two separate issues, as described in her book, Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics. She movingly writes about how we need to confront and collectively mourn our long history of injustice in order to genuinely face and deal with the climate crisis.
Resistance to dealing with our long history of racism, slavery, and colonialism is another factor in what Orange refers to as “climate unconsciousness”. Centuries of colonialism have been intricately linked with climate injustice – environmental problems affecting the poor and disadvantaged, often residing in the Global South – to much larger extents than those coming from privilege. Keeping a blind eye to our history of colonialism, genocide, and slavery has kept us from dealing with collective trauma and climate change in a way that allows for healing and repair to occur; this only reinforces our collective denial of the climate emergency.
Perhaps the climate justice essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar (2022) articulated the inherent connection between the climate crisis and social injustice most succinctly when she wrote, “Climate denial was never about science and always about white supremacy”.
What else might we need to know about climate denial?
Climate denial interacts with related concepts.
- Cognitive biases: George Marshall, the founder of Climate Outreach, speaks to how human beings are cognitively wired to avoid the climate crisis. More specifically, the human mind is vulnerable to biased assimilation, the human tendency to take in information and fit it into our current frames of reference, and confirmation bias, our tendency to focus on information that already coincides with our existing belief systems.
- The “myth of apathy”: psychologist Renée Lertzman argues that what underlies apathy is actually complex and contradictory desires as well as unconscious guilt, loss grief, and ambivalence. Only by acknowledging and addressing these more complex experiences and learning how to tolerate ambivalence can we move toward awareness, grief and reparation.
- Slow violence: A concept by Rob Nixon describing incremental violence, and the extent it may not be appreciated as it occurs bit by bit and is subject to gradual normalisation (another form of disavowal). With slow violence, we witness the gradual erosion of care alongside the gradual rise of external harm done. Unless checked, slow violence leads to mass death and to climate breakdown, which we are starting to see now, leading to a rising numbers of climate refugees.
What’s more, a review on the scientific literature on climate denial from 1990-2015 found that:
- There are variations about what is in denial: People can deny that the Earth is being warmed (trend denial); that the cause is human activity (attribution denial), or that it will have a significant negative impact (impact skeptic).
- Denial is perpetuated by several actors: governments, political and religious groups (including think tanks, foundations, and institutes), industry and private companies, press and media.
What can we do to address climate denial?
Researchers have identified strategies to counter climate denial:
- Unmasking denial techniques can decrease their influence.
- Correcting the misinformation by providing facts about climate change.
- Innoculation or “pre-bunking”, where climate misinformation is rebutted before it is encountered
- Different forms of denial require different strategies. For example, raising awareness of the scientific consensus of climate change where people are skeptical about the facts, versus promoting messages of common effort and participation where people are apathetic to act.
- Focusing climate change knowledge on how it impacts people’s interests, such as health, national security, human rights, technology, or religious stewardship, can help reach different people.
The Climate Reality Project makes the following suggestions with regard to dealing with and counteracting climate denial:
- Engage in conversation and dialogue about climate change with friends, family, and others. Focus on connecting with peoples’ values or what they care about. Tips are offered on how to facilitate conversations with family members that deny the climate crisis.
- Focus on the facts. Resources include: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; NASA; NOAA.
- Maintain hope.
- Attend a climate café, where you can speak with others about your thoughts and feelings in a safe setting. Here are some websites to help you find a climate café: Climate Cafes; Climate Psychology Alliance; Climate Psychology Alliance North America.
- Psychotherapy may be valuable in helping individuals to manage their emotions around the climate crisis and turn avoidance into action. A list of climate-aware therapists can be found here (primarily for the UK) and here (for North America).
Climate Psychology: A Matter of Life and Death by Wendy Hollway, Paul Hoggett, Chris Robertson, and Sally Weintrobe, published in 2022 by Phoenix Publishing House.
Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics by Donna Orange, published in 2017 by Routledge.
Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall, published in 2015 by Bloomsbury Publishing
Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Sally Weintrobe, published in 2013 by Routledge.
Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard, published in 2011 by The MIT Press.
Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity by Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser, published in 2009 by World Wildlife Fund UK.
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published in 2012 by Bloomsbury Publishing.
Psychological Roots of the Climate Ciisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare by Sally Weintrobe, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury Academic.
Ruptures in the American Psyche: Containing Destructive Populism in Perilous Times by Michael J. Diamond, published in 2022 by Pheonix Publishing House.
Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon, published in 2014 by Harvard University Press.
Climate change in a perverse culture by Paul Hoggett, in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Sally Weintrobe, published in 2013 by Routledge.
Unconscious obstacles to caring for the planet: Facing up to human nature by John Keene, in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Sally Weintrobe, published in 2013 by Routledge.
The myth of apathy: Psychoanalytic explorations of environmental subjectivity by Renée Aron Lertzman, in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Sally Weintrobe, published in 2013 by Routledge.
Articles and Online Sources
Climate denial’s racist roots, published in Atmos on June 15, 2022, by Mary Annaïse Heglar.
Climate deniers shift tactics to ‘inactivism’, published in Scientific American on January 12, 2021, by Richard Schiffman.
Climate sceptic thinktank received funding from fossil fuel interests, published in The Guardian on May 24, 2022, by Helena Horton and Adam Bychawski.
COP26: Former sceptic apologises for role in Climategate, published in BBC News on November 5, 2021.
Exxon knew everything there was to know about climate change by the mid-1980s—and denied it, published in The Nation on October 20, 2015, by Bill McKibben.
‘Explosion’ in number of fossil fuel lobbyists at Cop27 climate summit, published in The Guardian on November 10, 2022, by Ruth Michaelson.
Fox will pay $787.5 million to settle defamation suit, published in The New York Times on April 18, 2023, by Jeremy W. Peters and Katie Robertson.
Naomi Klein on climate change and capitalism, published in Maclean’s on September 13, 2014, by Nancy Macdonald.
Scientists have been underestimating the pace of climate change, published in Scientific American on August 19, 2019, by Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer, and Dale Jamieson.
Starting the conversation – five tips on how to talk to climate deniers in your family, published on February 23, 2021, by The Climate Reality Project.
Climate change denial’s racist roots, podcast episode by Into America.
Donna Orange: Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis and Radical Ethics, interview with Donna Orange, presented by AuthorStory.
How to talk to a climate change denier, video by VisionOnTv with George Marshall.
How to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming, TEDGlobal Talk by Per Espen Stoknes.
I’ve learnt the most about climate change from those who deny it, TEDx Talk by George Marshall.
Living in denial, lecture by Kari Norgaard, presented by Earth101
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Björnberg, K.E., Karlsson, M., Gilek, M., & Hansson, S.O. (2017). Climate and environmental science denial: A review of the scientific literature published in 1990–2015. Journal of Cleaner Production, 167, 229-241. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.08.066
Diethelm, P., & McKee, M. (2009). Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?. European journal of public health, 19(1), 2–4. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckn139
Lewandowsky S. (2021). Climate Change Disinformation and How to Combat It. Annual review of public health, 42, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-090419-102409
Schmid, P., Betsch, C. Effective strategies for rebutting science denialism in public discussions. Nat Hum Behav 3, 931–939 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0632-4
Schwadel, P., & Johnson, E. (2017). The Religious and Political Origins of Evangelical Protestants’ Opposition to Environmental Spending. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 56(1), 179–198. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26651863
June 2, 2023
Authors: Sally Weintrobe, with a contribution from John Turtz
Editor: Colleen Rollins