This article first appeared as a final project for GEN499 General Education Capstone at the University of Arizona Global Campus, October 17, 2021. Certain URLs have been left unlinked to avoid providing additional validation to known disinformation sites, but their full addresses have been left for the sake of transparency.
Anthropogenic climate change is a global issue that poses a significant, deadly threat to every living being on the planet Earth. There is full consensus among the world’s scientists
hat not only is human activity responsible for raising the average global temperature by over 1 degree Celsius in under 200 years, creating increasingly unstable climate patterns across the globe, but also the window of time in which to mitigate the results of human actions is closing rapidly (IPCC Report, 2021). However, despite overwhelming evidence, there remains a significant portion of the population that deny climate change through a variety of expressions. Some deny the fundamental nature of science at all in the same spirit as those who deny the earth is round or that vaccines are beneficial, while others deny that humans are responsible for the destabilized climate. There are other more nuanced forms of climate change denial and skepticism, including ideological, theological, and nationalist rhetoric, but the existence of climate change denial at all is itself dangerous: the true threat comes in the form of politicians and people in places of authority using their skepticism and doubt to thwart legitimate efforts to reduce or eliminate climate-impacting human activities (Jessani & Harris, 2018). Therefore, this discussion will focus on the psychology of climate change denial and what might be done to overcome, bypass, or eliminate the hazard they pose to the rest of the world. Overcoming the effects of climate change denial through conscious messaging and designed engagement strategy is a vital piece of the survival strategy for the entire planet because enough climate change deniers are in places of political power to be able to reject or delay key methods of mitigation and adaptation.
The Deniers, Their Messages, Their Platforms, and Their Audience
The most problematic aspect of climate change denial is that there is no single argument to debate, and moreover that the nature of the debate is not epistemological but rather ideological. There are some apparent commonalities, such as a resistance to increased (or any) government regulation such as restricting industrial pollution, reducing carbon emissions, or shifting economic incentive focus (Dunlap & McCright, 2011). Although multiple key groups have been identified, three will be discussed in this paper, each with their own unique brand of dispute, motivation, and misinformation: those in the fossil fuel industry, those with far right/conservative political ideology, and traditional American evangelical Christians. Each of these groups rationalizes their arguments from vastly different paradigms, from unabashed focus on greatest maximum profit to religious mythological interpretations to conspiratorial ideation. Within each group, there are also distinct ranges of psychological and cultural influence that create enormous challenges to overcoming resistance to action.
The fossil fuel industry has powered the world almost single-handedly since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (Ritchie & Roser, 2020), so their interest in maintaining their economic relevance is understandable. However, research from within the industry itself confirmed global climate destabilization as the result of increasing fossil fuel consumption as early as 1977 and oil companies actively worked to suppress this information (Banerjee et al., 2015; Hall, 2015). Using precisely the same tactics and the same team as the tobacco industry in their denial of the smoking and lung cancer relationship, the fossil fuel industry aggressively campaigned to dismiss, discredit, and create the illusion of debate regarding climate change among scientists (Supran & Oreskes, 2021). Despite the now inescapable awareness of anthropogenic climate change, many business entities across multiple industries continue to engage in denial-and-debate rhetoric (Carroll et al., 2018; Cook et al., 2019; Supran & Oreskes, 2017). These figures of doubt provide the seed of current climate change denial messaging among non-corporate groups, cited by right-leaning media and distributed on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, where the sophistication of the “debate” is allowed to improve its appearance and face validity within the homophily among individuals with personal motivated reasons to embrace climate denial (Bloomfield & Tillery, 2018; Samantray & Pin, 2019).
Right-Wing Political Ideologies
Conservative or right-wing politics ostensibly concerns itself with six main ideals, as described by the political theorist Russell Kirk (2018): discrete morality, social continuity, prescription of historical achievement, prudence, stratified society, and imperfection of Mankind. In practical observation, right-wing political stances are more strongly associated with individual personalities high in aggression, low in empathy, and heavily invested in social dominance orientation (Carrus et al., 2018; Jylhä & Akrami, 2015). According to the specific messaging found readily online, right-wing climate deniers believe that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by “leftist” or “liberal” totalitarian organizations – a “climate industrial complex” (Darwall, 2017) – designed to take away freedoms and gain more control over citizens and private industries (Schlichter, 2019; Zeller, 2016). They believe that scientists are deliberately misleading the public about rising sea levels, species endangerment, and the true global temperatures being reported (T. Jones, 2018; Madaan, 2017). Some deniers even claim that oil is not a fossil fuel at all but was merely labeled that to benefit John Rockefeller in the early 20th century (Gordon, 2015), or that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax (or else a man-made virus) manufactured by the climate industrial complex to accomplish their rights-stealing agendas (Spry, 2021). The further right-leaning a person’s political views, the more staunchly they will tend to deny climate change, but they will simultaneously be more likely to blame out-groups (other ethnicities, women, and immigrants) for whatever negative effects might befall them as a result of climate change (or rather, the totalitarian responses to the climate change hoax) (Milfont et al., 2018; Uenal et al., 2021). Communications from the right are found via social media, but there are also a remarkably high number of media channels (websites, cable news networks, and radio stations) devoted to transmission of their discourse (Weichert, 2019).
American Evangelical Christians
Though comprising only 17% of the population, predominantly white American evangelicals produced 40% and 46% of the votes for the Republican party in the 2012 and 2016 national elections respectively (R. P. Jones & Cox, 2017), and Protestant Christians make up 63% of the current United States Congress (Mitchell, 2021). The term “evangelical” refers to a specific trans-denominational style of orthodox Christian faith that focuses on Biblical literalism and proselytizing (among other things), and it broadly includes Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterianism, and Methodist (Bird, 2020; Larsen & Treier, 2007). This disproportionate representation of evangelicals in the government is problematic in the context of climate change because they tend to deny science reflexively, such as also rejecting the theory of evolution and often distrusting medical authorities on topics like vaccinations (Veldman et al., 2021). It is worth noting that the beliefs of evangelicals are not necessarily monolithic, but the variations of perspective ultimately lead to the same anti-environmental place (Haltinner & Sarathchandra, 2021): some tend towards “dominionism” wherein humanity has a right to control the earth for itself (regardless of consequence) while others believe that God’s influence over the weather is so powerful that humans are incapable of impacting climate patterns at all (Ronan, 2017). Regardless, the climate change denial response may originate more in the psychology of identity than individuated reasoning, creating a special challenge in reforming effective messaging reliant on identity-forming leaders rather than individual addresses (Vesely et al., 2021; Wong-Parodi & Feygina, 2020).
How the Message Got Lost
Ironically, the tone and drive of the initial messaging of climate change as a catastrophic condition leading to apocalyptic events, though statistically accurate and even probable, may be the primary culprit in the psychological underpinnings of climate change denial. At the most elementary level, climate change denial may be interpreted as similar to the initial stage of grief as defined by Kübler-Ross’ theory on death and bereavement (Corr, 2019). This reflexive rejection of unpleasant news is explained more thoroughly through terror management theory (TMT), an existential crisis triggered by a threat to one’s mortality that can result in remarkably robust defense mechanisms (Fritsche & Hoppe, 2019). Attempts to discredit, undermine, or reject evidence that causes such intense and personal cognitive dissonance is a common feature, and when a group of like-minded individuals all share the same fears, their rationalization attempts are reinforced within the group (Wolfe & Tubi, 2019). As the fossil fuel companies were already keen to understate the consequences of their specific industry and actions, they were able to feed credible-sounding arguments to people who individually and collectively had difficulty conceptualizing such a significant danger (Carroll et al., 2018).
Given the rapidly closing window on effectively mitigating or adapting to the consequences of climate change, the potential solutions are few but can be powerful. In one part, using alternative messaging targeted at specific groups who hold disproportionate amounts of authority and influence may help move legislation, regulation, and community action forward more quickly. While it is impossible to ignore the “doom and gloom” prospects as published by the IPCC and related organizations – for instance, choice in phrasing such as “climate change” over “global warming” has shown to improve supportive response among Republicans by over 16% (Soutter & Mõttus, 2020) – conversations regarding climate change must now deliberately move past attempting to debate legitimate science and focus exclusively on actionable directives and clear-cut personally relevant consequences. This key strategy – connecting the actions with idiocentric interests – is crucial to generating the support and effort necessary to effectively mitigate climate change (Hornsey & Fielding, 2017; Jylhä, 2018). Another vital part is to create an atmosphere of public accountability through media, news, and community-centric focus by using the existing momentum of climate change coverage (Bohr, 2020) and denial to transmit messages designed to incite action.
Creating Corporate Accountability Strategies
The majority of culpability for climate change – and climate change denial – falls squarely on oil and gas companies (Grasso, 2019; Moss, 2020), though other major pollution-producing companies must not be allowed to imagine exemption from climate change mitigation responsibilities. Corporate entities have moved notoriously slow in response to climate change (Mazutis & Eckardt, 2017), but in order to speak a message “in their own language,” emphasizing the financial ramifications is the next step. Fossil fuels are dwindling and short-term profits in a finite sphere, whereas sustainable and safe energy sources (wind and solar power) are aggressive growth markets that will require ongoing upkeep – a fiscally attractive “paid now/paid later” scenario (Bulavskaya & Reynès, 2018; Chang et al., 2020; Gerardi, 2021). Such rationale is most effectively delivered by stockholders (Damert & Baumgartner, 2018) despite government regulatory attempts (Tang & Demeritt, 2018). Additionally, corporations are looking at significant liability in civil and legal courts as climate disasters continue to cause more damage year over year, creating enormous financial losses (Bouwer, 2018; Simlinger & Mayer, 2019) on top of the material losses of direct negative impact on energy infrastructures (Penmetsa & Holbert, 2021).
Ideological Resistance to Climate Change Reality
From a practical perspective, addressing conservatives and evangelicals requires a similar approach. In each case, their identity often drives their prejudice, including prescribing inaccurate beliefs about science in general (Kovaka, 2021) and the effects that climate change will have on them directly (Cook et al., 2018; Harvey et al., 2018). Given the TMT response of denial from the psychological perspective, reducing the message of mortality around climate change and instead focusing on actions and positive personal outcomes may provide more traction in actionable discourse (Hornsey & Fielding, 2017; Jylhä, 2018). Perhaps illustrating that unmitigated climate change has and will continue to have catastrophic effects such as loss of livestock availability (Rojas-Downing et al., 2017) and loss of national security with forced mass immigration (N. Jones & Sullivan, 2020) will appeal to the right-wing sensibilities of enjoying meat-based diets and generally advocating for closed and controlled borders. Engaging in theology-based entreatment of evangelical Christians as the stewards of the Earth, the rightful protectors of the planet, has shown to be an effective messaging as well (Goldberg et al., 2019; Shin & Preston, 2019). However, studies have found that the context of message delivery is critical: messaging from trusted and aligned sources such as clergy and church faculty have shown to have profound influence on the personal perspectives and actions, especially of evangelical Christians in their congregations (Hayhoe et al., 2019).
Global climate destabilization is a worldwide condition that grows increasingly worse with each passing season (IPCC Report, 2021). It does not discriminate based on religion, skin tone, or politics, and it will ultimately impact every living creature through both active and passive ecological collapses (Heidari et al., 2021; Klutse et al., 2020). Humans react to change in a remarkable number of ways, but very rarely are they positively motivated by excessively negative instruction, and climate change discussions are no different. While it can be frustrating to feel locked into a false debate about climate change, the spirit of compassion and a willingness to think “outside the arena” is required to overcome these psychologically based obstacles (Jylhä, 2018). Moving beyond epistemological and educational directives and casting the ability to respond to climate change in at appeal to idiocentricity, framing climate change action as self-serving financially, emotionally, mentally, religiously, or ideologically allows access to the resources and will of current climate change deniers. After all, this is their planet, too, and they can be some of the heroes that help save it.
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