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Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 5: A perfect storm of climate change denial

Sunday, November 8th, 2009


Climate change skepticism and denial are fueled by a perfect storm of all four problems coming together.  This is why skeptics and deniers won’t go away, and as long as they’re influential, some people will stay disengaged.

  • Problem 1—Environmental literacy:  When people don’t know enough about climate change, they can be easily persuaded by contrarian arguments.  If the average person can’t explain (1) why modern warming is more influenced by greenhouse gases than natural causes and (2) how we know we are breaking out of natural ranges of climate variability (i.e., a clear sign that warming is anthropogenic), then climate deniers will always be able to peddle credible-sounding misinformation to the public (more on how to answer these correctly in a future post).
  • Problem 2—Communication: As mentioned in an earlier post, media plays a role here.  Traditional media balancing of competing claims adds to the perception of uncertainty.  And when there is uncertainty, people tune out because they think the issue  is not resolved.  By keeping climate warming shrouded in as much uncertainty as possible, skeptics prevent people form forming strong opinions about it.  The media needs to do a better job distinguishing legitimate criticisms of climate science vs. dubious claims from deniers.
  • Problem 3—Personal perception, values, and behavior:  We saw how sociodemographic factors and cultural identity affect whether people engage climate warming.  Half of Americans have not yet accepted the idea that warming is real, and 82% have not taken personal action.  When political parties, certain religious groups, and some conservative think tanks align themselves on the anti-warming side of the issue, there will always be a political base for denial.
  • Problem 4—Political-economic context:   The enormous inertia built into techno-institutional complexes and the huge sums of power and money exchanged by politicians and the fossil fuel industry ensure that there will be constituencies at the highest levels of government who deny warming and fight mitigation.

The question is how much resistance will these problems pose to enacting real reform?

The good news is that the broad coalition forming around energy security, green jobs, and climate warming appears to be overpowering the forces of environmental illiteracy, poor communication, anti-warming values and behaviors, entrenched political and economic interests, and deniers/skeptics—at least in terms of local, state, and federal action:

  • The prospects are looking good for federal climate legislation (examples 1, 2, 3).
  • Businesses are running far and fast from anti-warming groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (examples 1, 2, 3, 4).
  • Some states have already developed climate action plans, and clusters of states have already enacted a GHG cap and trade system, such as RGGI.  Many folks don’t know this.  Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont are already bound to a 10% reduction by 2018.  For those who say that cap and trade can’t work, it already has.
  • As of February 2009, more than 550 U.S. cities have become members of ICLEI, developing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s what will be interesting to watch in coming years:  If problems 1-5 persist, will a sizable fraction of Americans remain unwilling to change opinion or behavior?  How will this square with legislation mandating greenhouse gas reductions?

To learn more about the cottage industry of climate change denial, check out this book.

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Photo credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

3 Responses to “Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 5: A perfect storm of climate change denial”

  1. Kim Smith says:

    This post starts to engage the question that’s been bothering me: Why should we care about public opinion? Decades of research on public opinion demonstrate the same level of confusion and miseducation in all areas of policy. This research also shows that attempts to educate the public usually only increase the confusion, and it doesn’t matter because public opinion isn’t much of a constraint on lawmakers anyway. The relevance of all this for environmental policy is discussed quite cogently by Deborah Guber in “Grassroots of a Green Revolution”–required reading for anyone involved in environmental politics!

  2. [...] Why don’t people engage climate change? Problem 5: A perfect storm of climate change denial [...]

  3. Phil says:

    Good question, Kim. Much of it will probably come down to how the public responds to economic changes resulting from a system that makes carbon expensive. It will be interesting to see how the costs and incentives get distributed once a cap and trade system is in place. This could become political fodder that makes politicians pay attention to public opinion.


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