Why is Climate Change Denial So Seductive?

By George Monbiot

There is no point in denying it: we’re losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious disease. It exists in a sphere that cannot be reached by evidence or reasoned argument. This sphere is expanding with astonishing speed.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that the proportion of Americans who believe there’s solid evidence that the world is warming has fallen from 71 percent to 57 percent in just 18 months. This trend certainly doesn’t reflect the state of the science, which has hardened dramatically.

Interestingly, climate beliefs seem to be strongly influenced by age. The Pew report found that people over 65 are much more likely than the rest of the population to deny there is solid evidence the earth is warming, that this warming is caused by humans, or that it’s a serious problem. Why might this be?

There are some obvious answers: older people won’t be around to see the results; they were brought up in a period of technological optimism; they feel entitled, having worked all their lives, to fly or cruise to wherever they wish. But there might also be a less-intuitive reason, which shines a light into a fascinating corner of human psychology.

In 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker proposed that the fear of death drives us to protect ourselves with “vital lies” or “the armor of character.” We defend ourselves from the ultimate terror by engaging in “immortality projects”—projects and beliefs that boost our self-esteem and grant us meaning that extends beyond death. Over 300 studies conducted in 15 countries appear to confirm Becker’s thesis. When people are confronted with things that remind them of death, they respond by shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it, and working to boost their self-esteem.

One of the most-arresting findings is that this behavior can actually bring death closer. In seeking to defend the symbolic, heroic self we create to suppress thoughts of death, we might expose the physical self to greater danger. For example, researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Israel found that people who reported that driving boosted their self-esteem drove faster and took greater risks after they had been exposed to reminders of death.

A recent paper by biologist Janis L. Dickinson, published in Ecology and Society, proposes that constant news and discussion about global warming makes it difficult for people to repress thoughts of death and that they might respond to the terrifying prospect of climate breakdown in ways that strengthen their character armor but diminish our chances of survival. There is already experimental evidence suggesting that some people respond to reminders of death by increasing consumption. Dickinson proposes that growing evidence of climate change might boost this tendency while raising antagonism toward scientists and environmentalists. Their message, after all, presents a lethal threat to the central immortality project of Western society: perpetual economic growth, supported by an ideology of entitlement and exceptionalism.

If Dickinson is correct, is it fanciful to suppose that those who are closer to the end of life might react more strongly against reminders of death? And could it be that the rapid growth of climate change denial over the past two years is actually a response to the hardening of scientific evidence? If so, how do we confront it? ❧

Photo © Guardian News & Media Ltd., 2009

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