Climate Denial Is Not A Disease


A brief search for the social and psychological explanations for the phenomenon of climate change denial turns up a vast array of reasons for our current lack of action to protect each other and our planet. It looks like there’s been as much written about the denial of climate change as about climate change itself. After each of the recent large-scale natural disasters, commentators have trained their attentions on our ability to deny responsibility for the state of the natural world. Jargon from psychoanalytic theory and current behavioural and social psychology has been wielded in efforts to make sense of our inaction. What are we doing when we ask the question "why"? Have we substituted diagnosis for action?

In the mid 1890s, Sigmund Freud was refining his seduction theory, and presenting it to colleagues — who were less than receptive. His theory came from his understanding that for many of his patients, the origin of their distress was a history of sexual assault as children. He was aware at the time that this was not only difficult material for the medical world to absorb, but also that it went against the biological bias of most of his profession.

Freud famously later reversed his theory, opting instead to see these experiences as fantasies. He moved from exploring the impact and treatment of actual sexual assault on babies and young children, to a focus on the mind of the child. He abandoned the exploration of what causes distress, and chose instead to develop a model of how we deny our feelings and experiences, and in this way hamper our development. It is from this reversal, from this betrayal of sexual assault survivors, that we have the clever, attractive and sometimes useful concept of denial.

We use terms like denial, and the more recent optimism bias and cognitive dissonance, as a way not so much to explain our lack of environmental action, but as excuses for our inaction. In most cases this is not what the researchers who developed these concepts had in mind. Their concern was to understand the process by which we avoid paying attention to difficult truths.

Unfortunately, when we use these terms to make sense of climate change inaction, we commit the same crime as Freud. Our focus becomes individualistic and reductionist. We reduce human choices to psychological determinism, and in doing so we betray those who are suffering from our abuses.

Terms like optimism bias, denial, cognitive dissonance and personal efficacy are useful only so far as they help us to make sense of the truth of what we are doing and what we are experiencing. Taken past that point, they risk masking both the fact of behavioural choices and our own personal responsibility. A quick search for sociological and psychological explanations for family violence, racism and sexual assault will also yield a wealth of potentially obscuring jargon. I’m not saying that research into the complexity of psychological processes and social construction is not important and useful. But I question our current intense focus on explanation rather than responsibility.

The fact is that everywhere people are making choices to directly harm others by polluting the environment. The psychologisation of environmental pollution serves as a smokescreen for the abuse and neglect of the natural world. Social, cultural and psychological factors all involve the choices of individual people. In this case the choice of each of us to continue to consume and to pollute.

It is a choice to abdicate responsibility. Many of us choose to deny unpleasant truths and this is an action — not simply a reaction. This is why the outrageous drama of a full contingent of family and friends is often required to help someone confront the facts of their addiction. When we hold an intervention, we don’t present someone with the bio-psychosocial explanations of addictive behaviour. This happens only in the safer place of treatment, when the reality of harmful actions has been accepted. Instead, we talk about what we have endured as the result of someone else’s self harm, and we ask that they care more for themselves and for us.

We are never going to find facing future annihilation comfortable or easy, we are always going to be tempted to lie about the truth of climate change. The explanations for this temptation are well documented.

But to continue to ask why in the face of inaction is to make excuses for dangerous and catastrophic choices. Why is a question for the safer aftermath of catastrophe. To continue to ask why in the face of current danger is to deny the reality of that danger. A deer does not ask "why me?" in the face of the hunter’s gun. She assesses her tactics from a safer distance.

It is always difficult to manage problems for which there are no easy solutions. Much of the research on so-called climate change denial points to the importance of a focus on taking individual action. "What can I do?" is the question being asked — instead of "why am I doing this?" It is these conclusions about the actions required that have been largely ignored in media discussions about the research contributions of sociology and psychology to the understanding of our environmental destructiveness.

We ignore these policy recommendations because we have become preoccupied with diagnosis instead of personal accountability. If we take this psychologisation further, perhaps there is a potential DSM IV diagnosis of Climate Change Denial Disorder. Among the personality disorders perhaps? With a possibility of psychotic features?

Using diagnostic terms deepens the split between knowledge and action. We cannot address climate change and leave behind the reasons we have learned to be indifferent. Freud lost many of his patients and a great deal of his therapeutic progress when he substituted a theory of how we think and feel in childhood for an exploration of childhood experience.

It is largely those who are least affected by climate change who are asking the questions about why we are in denial. Those whose communities are quickly being engulfed by the sea, those who are starving due to the effects of extreme weather conditions on food sources, are not asking these questions. They are asking instead for help, for accountability, and they are asking us to stop.


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