Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Climate change denial motivation

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Climate change denial motivation:
What motivates climate change denial?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The focus of this chapter is to understand what motivates people to deny climate change from a psychological perspective, and why it is important to understand and tackle the continually growing denial and spreading of misinformation. Scientists have indicated that climate change action is integral to the survival of life on earth (Darmofal, 2005). This makes the threat of growing denialism stressful and discerning for those who understand and accept climate science and global warming (O'Neill, & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). The denialism can be explained by several different components including sociological and psychological factors, or to do with values and worldviews (Dunlap & Jaques, 2013). It has also been detected that there exists a more sinister, strategic and extrinsically motivated kind of denial often referred to as organised denial. To counter climate change denial, responding to deniers quickly and appropriately is in everyone's best interest. Understanding how specific motivational research and theory can explain the existence of such denial and related behaviour is key. It is also beneficial to know about how some of these theories can counteract it (Hopf, Krief, Mehta, & Matlin, 2019).

Focus questions:

  • What is climate change denial?
  • What motivates people to partake in climate change denial?
  • How can specific motivation theories and research help counter climate change denial?

What is climate change denial?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Starving polar bear unable to hunt due to excessive ice melting caused by climate change

What is being denied?[edit | edit source]

Since the mid 20th century, scientific evidence supporting unprecedented and rapid climate change has become more refined and compelling. According to NASA (2020), the probability that this accelerated change is due directly to human activity is greater than 95%, making it extremely likely that humans are the leading cause of the ongoing damage to the Earth's climate and the potential for it to sustain life in the future.

Over several decades, scientists from all over the world have researched and presented significant scientific evidence depicting the many consequences of climate change, including; global average temperature rise, warming and acidification of the ocean, shrinking ice sheets and glacial retreat, reduced snow cover, rising sea levels, extreme weather events and an increase in the occurrence and severity of natural disasters (NASA, 2020). Despite all of this, denialists and skeptics of this occurrence and its existence are on the rise (Gross, 2018). This denialism is considered harmful and poses a threat to the much needed climate change action agenda. Climate change denialists aid in the spreading of misinformation and increase the doubting of science, and replace it with pseudoscience propaganda, which can result in political unrest, furthering the issue of climate inaction (Bjornberg, Karlsson, Gilek & Hansson, 2017).

When did climate change denial become an issue?[edit | edit source]

The denial of science is not a new or unfamiliar concept. Throughout modern history, many people have chosen to reject science and expert opinion, in favour of various contradictory or unconventional beliefs (Bjornberg et al., 2017). These beliefs can be as extreme as conspiracy theories or align with attitudes and ideologies of cults. Politics have also had a particularly large impact on climate change denialism, with the conservative movement playing a critical role in the ever growing scepticism of the phenomenon. Throughout the 21st century, an increase in self-published anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denial books has helped manufacture the growing uncertainty and legitimacy concerns regarding climate science within the general public (Dunlap & Jaques, 2013). Unfortunately, there is now consequently much public debate and controversy as to whether it is occurring, and if it is being accelerated at an unprecedented rate by humans.

It was the year of 1988 when James Hansen, an American physicist best known for his research in climatology (Howlett, 2014), made a congressional testimony about climate change, pushing the agenda of AGW into public interest. The alarming evidence he presented ensued high levels of discussion, and was considered by many politicians as disputable and highly threatening to the economy (Dunlap & Jaques, 2013). It was around this time that a campaign was launched in corporate America to implement doubt, suspicion and confusion regarding AGW[factual?]. It is evident that many fossil fuel companies were worried about restrictions on their products, if an agreed reduction in carbon emissions were to be administered. Over three decades later, and after the development of the internet and social media to help spread misinformation and anti-science campaigns, denialism is more widespread than ever (Levy, 2017).

How prevalent is climate change denial?[edit | edit source]

To deny climate change is to deny at least one of the following:

  • that climate change is occuring,
  • that it is accelerated anthropogenically, or
  • that it is a serious problem that needs to be addressed internationally.[factual?]

It was found in a 2017 study on a large sample of the general public, that only about 48% of Americans accept all three of these statements, while the other 52% are in denial of widely recognised and published climate science materials from decades of scientific research[factual?]. Readily available climate science clearly states that all three of these statements are factual (Gross, 2018). Similarly, a major survey that gathered information on climate change opinions amongst Australians in 2014 indicated that 38.6% did not believe climate change was accelerated anthropogenically and 7.9% denied that climate change existed or was a "real concept" (Van Rensberg & Head, 2017). These statistics are considered alarming among the scientific and conservationist community. The increased prevalence of denialism creates more challenges around motivating society to support climate change action policies and engage in pro-environmental behaviours (PEBs), which are also integral to the sustainability of the planet and its resources (Xiang, Zhang, Geng, Zhou, & Wu, 2019).

What motivates people to partake in climate change denial?[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Psychological Factors[edit | edit source]

There are several psychological factors that can influence the prudent dismissal of science, and psychological defence mechanisms have been widely observed amongst climate change denialists. Denial itself is considered a common defence mechanism, but other more specific terms might help us to understand climate change denial. It has been observed that people often revert to various conscious or unconscious defence mechanisms when facing unpleasant or threatening information, as a means to avoid psychological discomfort, like cognitive dissonance or fear (Dunlap & Jaques, 2013). For example, when presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem such as climate change, a self-deceptive defence mechanism to this perceived serious problem or existential crisis, might occur after the initial appraisal of the scientific evidence is performed (Bjornberg et al., 2017). The mechanism of self-deception allows the threat of the situation to be neutralised and rationalised as a method of coping or adapting, which assists the individual to stay calm. The narrative that is both led and believed by the individual themselves as a maladaptive, problematic form of avoidance, also helps them to justify not taking any action or having to deal with the issue, despite there being clear evidence that doing so is in theirs and others' best interests (Chance et al., 2011). For example, this type of self-deception can be observed in drug addiction, when abusers of the substance continually justify their usage and condition, to avoid the discomfort of getting help and going to a rehabilitation facility. Other applicable psychological defence mechanisms amongst climate change denialists may include repression (excluding the thoughts from one's conscious to avoid thinking about them) or rationalisation (unreasonably justifying certain attitudes or behaviours instead of "facing the truth") (Haltinner, 2018).

Sociological Factors[edit | edit source]

Sociological factors also have a role to play in the motivation to deny climate change and other science or expert opinion. For example, the elite cues hypothesis from Elite theory, proposes that people tend to believe and rely on political beliefs and values of figures that they trust or know. By making decisions and forming opinions based on this only, people can be subject to the biased assimilation effect (bias in evaluative judgements), which is often observed in social comparison theory. Biased assimilation depicts predominant biases that are often contrary to factual evidence provided, and can be challenging to overcome, especially within the social context (Darmofal, 2005). For example; Groupthink mentality and ingroup norms and favouritism can both heavily influence thoughts, behaviours and belief systems within society resulting in bias.

Another sociological factor to consider when addressing denial of science and increased engagement in other unconventional beliefs or conspiracy theories, is socio-economic status (SES). For example, low SES has been positively correlated with a higher likelihood of engaging in climate change denial and other kinds of unconventional skepticism, like medical vaccination hesitancy (anti-vaccination attitude) and holocaust denial (van Prooijen, 2017). This is more than likely due to lacking of scientific literacy from lower levels of access to tertiary education, which disproportionately affects low- SES groups. Not understanding climate science makes it easier to deny its existence. Additionally, the denial can facilitate the spreading of disinformation and harmful propaganda on social media which may then influence friends, family and their broader community to align with extreme or denialist views. This problem will continue to escalate as long as these platforms exist and not enough is done to counteract the impact (Cook, 2019).

Values and Worldviews[edit | edit source]

Our values and worldviews help define who we are as individuals and where we belong collectively within society (Gross, 2018). These values and views influence our self-schema, which is a selection of defined opinions and generalisations about ourselves that impact our choices and behaviour. Self-schema that highly values individualism, which is a theory characterised by astringent individualist worldviews and highly valuing freedom of action and personal rights, as opposed to collectivism, which is based on cohesion and belonging to a society or group that 'always works together', has been positively correlated with climate change denial. Similarly, anthropocentrism, which is the belief that humans are the most important entity above any other living being, has also been linked to climate change denialism. Other specific belief systems regarding private property rights, capitalism, conservative political views and neoliberalism, have been associated with decreased likelihood to engage in PEBs or climate change action. In contrast, research into Culture theory suggests that supporting climate change action and having an increased likelihood to engage in PEBs has been linked to collectivist cultural worldviews, and religious evangelism (Darmofal, 2005; Xiang et al., 2019).

Organised Denial[edit | edit source]

Organised denial, another strong motivator of climate change denial, refers to the act of deliberate, public denial, despite probably having both an understanding and acceptance of climate change (Bjornberg et al., 2017). Unfortunately, this form of denial is extrinsically motivated, meaning it is largely influenced by rewards, such as increased business and money-making opportunity. Organised denial can be primarily observed within groups with conservative ideologies and amongst those who have heavy investments in fossil fuels or other unsustainable business models, such as politicians, business owners and policy-makers (Van Rensburg & Head, 2017). People with these kinds of powerful, leadership roles likely have access to larger sums of money, which assists their intention of strategically spreading misinformation to confuse the public. These individuals start by treating skepticism on par with scientific evidence/research and partaking in organised denial activities such as campaigning against climate change action and attempting to cause distrust of scientists (Levy, 2019). This kind of behaviour is common in Conservative Think Tanks (CCT) and is strategic in its attempt to protect profits, despite the harm it may cause others or the planet.

Blame avoidance is another tactic that can be exceptionally problematic to the climate. Organised denial strategies and campaigns, especially within corrupt institutions and government, use it to avoid taking responsibility or to mitigate any negative impact on their reputation. It is common for institutions, namely big businesses and government, to employ blame avoidance to assist their economic growth interests, particularly when it comes to climate change policy-making (Howlett, 2014). It is much easier to admonish others than it is to admit fault and take action, that could be detrimental to the profits and prosperity of the entity (Darmofal, 2005).

  1. Have you ever felt as though you have witnessed blame avoidance in the workplace?

Ask yourself: Have you ever felt like someone of higher power or ranking was doing something they shouldn't have, but they avoided taking any of the blame? Did the blame fall on you, your colleague or another person, group of people or business?

How can specific motivation theories and research help counter climate change denial?[edit | edit source]

Research into motivation theories has shown that, in general, most people are motivated to survive, live prosperously and provide a high quality of life and vast opportunity for their children, and the future generations[factual?]. It is paramount that people, especially the younger generations, are provided with the appropriate education and the subsequent tools needed to ensure this is an achievable goal. According to Krajhanzl & Skalik (2016), people must believe that they are able to take effective action on climate change, to preserve the future of humankind. If they feel like they are able to participate in meaningful, climate-friendly behaviour (PEBs), motivation to do so will increase. This ideology is further supported by Expectancy theory of motivation, which assumes that a certain behaviour leads to a performance, which leads to a reward. The motivation level is dependent on the level of desirability for that reward (Purvis, Zagenczyk, & McCray, 2015). Ideally, people want the reward of feeling like they are doing what is ethically or morally preferable. Encouragement and education surrounding PEBs and climate action in these situations could help motivation, based on this theory.

In regard to countering climate change denial before it begins, Inoculation theory proposes that attitudes and beliefs can be protected from any persuasive pseudoscience, conspiracy theories or other types of readily available misinformation, through a pre-exposure method (Banas, & Rains, 2010). Coincidingly[spelling?], inoculation theory and its techniques have been compared (metaphorically) to medical vaccinations against preventable diseases. The principles behind the theory support the hypothesis that with some preparation, individuals can be protected from having their beliefs altered by incoming fake news or even radicalised propaganda (Maertens, Anseel., & van der Linden, 2020). Specifically, if someone has been forewarned, and is expecting an attack towards their current beliefs and attitudes, they are more likely to detect the attack, and will therefore be more prepared, and hopefully know how to react to it. Examples of this theory are seen within most educational facilities, especially in school-aged children. Persuasive techniques of peer pressure have been used as the pre-exposure (warning) in anti-smoking campaigns, of which can educate students of possible incoming false information like "smoking is not that bad for your health" or "everyone does it." One of the major limitations of inoculation theory is that if someone has already consumed or been previously exposed to the misinformation, it can be deemed too late to use the pre-exposure technique as a warning, and unlearning can be tough. Through early education and incolulation theory, priming resistance to persuasion decreases adherence to anti-science movements and conspiracy theories (Bonetto, Troian, Varet, Lo Monaco, & Girandola, 2018).

Moral disengagement offers some explanation for the motivational gap in climate change action. Moral disengagement is a concept that refers to situations where morals supposedly do not apply to someone, in a particular context, and can be a problematic predisposition to climate change denial. It involves the convenient disabling of the mechanism self-condemnation. This concept can help us understand the motivational gap in between knowing climate change is a serious problem that needs addressing and actually taking action. A notable discrepancy can be observed between these points. This is due to climate change not being conceptualised as an urgent, moral problem to many people (Xiang et al., 2019). On the other hand, moral disengagement could also occur if an individual's judgement is skewed by weakness or lack of willingness to follow their own moral judgement due to laziness or resentment. This could cause them to abide by climate change denialism, if its[grammar?] easier and matches their behaviours. In this instance, it is vital that as a society we continue to encourage people to listen to the truth about climate change from the experts, and discourage any temptation to morally disengage and facilitate self-efficacy, in regard to climate change action (Peeters, Diependaele, & Sterckx, 2019).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Understanding and responding to climate change denial appropriately is urgent in counteracting the negative impacts deniers have on essential climate change action. Dismissing or ignoring denial out of frustration or hopelessness, does not solve the problem (Hopf et al., 2019). The effects of spreading misinformation and denialism includes, but is not limited to, decreasing vital climate action and increasing overall lack of motivation within society to participate in PEBs or pro-climate behaviours by lying about, avoiding, or refusing to accept climate science, and convincing others of this same attitude (Gross, 2018). Countering denial requires a multi-disciplinary approach, which is heavily dependent on the acute need for education and continual exposure to governing bodies and policy-makers, of the alarming scientific evidence that proves the existence of unprecedented AGW, and other climate change related consequences, that future generations will be forced deal with (Lewandowsky et al., 2015). The spreading of misinformation, especially online and via conservative news to uneducated or impressionable groups, has shown to be one of the most harmful issues in the spreading of denialism. Fact-checking information and encouraging people to trust science over politicians, conspiracy theorists and those with unconventional beliefs or organised denial strategies, is foremost[grammar?] (Cook, 2019). There are some beneficial motivation theories and research that help interpret the psychological underpinning of the problem. However, further considerations and studies conducted in this area may help to refine our approach to countering climate change denial in the future (Peeters et al., 2019).

See also[edit | edit source]

Climate change (Wikipedia)

Climate change denial (Wikipedia)

Climate change and consumer behaviour motivation (Book chapter, 2018)

Scientific consensus on climate change (Wikipedia)

References[edit | edit source]

Banas, J. A., & Rains, S. A. (2010). A meta-analysis of research on inoculation theory. Communication Monographs , 77(3), 281-311.

Bjornberg, E.K., Karlsson, M., Gilek, M., & Hansson, O. S. (2017). Climate and environmental science denial: A review of the scientific literature published 1990 - 2015. Journal of Cleaner Production, 167(1), 229-241.

Bonetto, E., Troian, T., Varet, F., Lo Monaco, G., & Girandola, F. (2018). Priming resistance to persuasion decreases adherence to conspiracy theories. Social Influence, 13(3), 125–136.

Chance, N., Norton, M.L., Gino, F., & Ariely, D. (2011). Temporal view of the costs and benefits of self-deception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS, 108(3), 15655–15659.

Cook, J. (2019). Understanding and countering misinformation about climate change. Handbook of research on deception, Fake News and Misinformation Online, 281-306.

Darmofal, D. (2005). Elite cues and citizen disagreement with expert opinion. Political Research Quarterly, 58,(3) 381-395.

Dunlap, R. E., & Jaques, P. J. (2013). Climate change denial books and conservative think tanks: Exploring the connection.The American Behavioural Scientist, 57(6), 699-731.

Gross, L. (2018). Confronting climate change in the age of denial. PLOS Biology, 16(10).

Haltinner, S. (2018). Climate change skepticism as a psychological coping strategy. Sociology Compass, 12(6).

Hopf, H., Krief, A., Mehta, G., & Matlin, S.A. (2019). Fake knowledge and the knowledge crisis: ignorance can be fatal. Royal Society Open Science, 6(5).

Howlett, M. (2014). Why are policy innovations rare and so often negative? Blame avoidance and problem denial in climate change policy. Global Environmental Change, 29, 395-403.

Levy, N. (2017). Due deference to denialism: explaining ordinary people’s rejection of established scientific findings. Synthese, 196(1), 313-327.

Lewandowsky, S., Oreskes, N., Risbey, J.S., & Smithson, M. (2015). Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community. Global Environmental Change, 33, 1-13.

Maertens, R., Anseel, F., & van der Linden, S. (2020). Combating climate change misinformation: Evidence for longevity of inoculation and consensus messaging effects. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 70, 101455.

NASA. (2020). Climate change: How do we know? Retrieved from NASA website:

Peeters, W., Diependaele, L., & Sterckx, S. (2019). Moral disengagement and the motivational gap in climate change, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 22(2), p425-447.

O'Neill, S., & Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). "Fear won't do it:"Promoting positive engagement with climate change through visual and iconic representations. Science Communication, 30(3), 355-379.

Purvis, R.L, Zagenczyk, T.J., McCray, G.E. (2015). What’s in it for me? Using expectancy theory and climate to explain stakeholder participation, its direction and intensity. International Journal of Project Management, 33(1), 3–14.

van Prooijen, J. (2017). Why education predicts decreased belief in conspiracy theories. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31(1), 50-58.

Van Rensburg, W., & Head, (2017). Climate change scepticism: Reconsidering how to respond to core criticisms of science and policy. SAGE Open, 7 (4), 1-11.

Xiang, P., Zhang, H., Geng, L., Zhou, K., & Wu, Y. (2019). Individualist–collectivist differences in climate change inaction: The role of perceived intractability. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 187-187.

External links[edit | edit source]