As evidence continues to mount that profound and disastrous changes to the Earth’s climate are taking place, it’s important to reflect on the intense persistence of climate change denial.
Keith Kahn-Harris, author of a new book called Denial: The Unspeakable Truth summarized his views on the topic in a recent article for the Guardian newspaper’s Long Read essay series.
Everyone engages in self-deception, he writes. But what he calls denialism is “an expansion, an intensification of denial,” a form of denial that is “combative and extraordinary.”
Dangerous forms of denialism include the claim that the Holocaust never occurred, or that no connection exists between HIV and AIDS. This last type of denial resulted in backwards health policies in some countries that resulted in perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Another insidious form of denialism involves so-called climate skeptics, who have cast doubt on an entire field of science even as the Earth hurtles towards climate chaos. Climate science deniers often find a platform on Facebook, notably among the comments on news stories about global warming.
I recently documented protests that followed the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body that brings together experts from around the world to assess published literature about climate change.
Reactions to this article included one Facebook user who asked, “Don’t plants need CO2 to breathe? Then they give off oxygen? Has everyone forgotten basic science?”
Still another commenter said of climate change, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The latter is particularly baffling in the wake of what has been called the worst wildfire season on record in British Columbia, one that choked our skies with smoke for days on end.
This was also immediately after a summer that saw heat records smashed in places as far afield as Scotland, Armenia and Oman. Montreal saw its hottest day since record-keeping started nearly 150 years ago.
It takes a tremendous amount of mental effort for deniers to overcome the cognitive dissonance involved in rejecting the body of evidence before them, and some simply follow the lead of people like Trump and invent their own facts.
This leads to a question posed by Kahn-Harris about the motivations behind denialism.
It’s difficult to know, he writes, whether denialists “are secretly longing for the chaos and pain that global warming will bring, are simply indifferent to it, or would desperately like it not to be the case but are overwhelmed with the desire to keep things as they are.”
I believe that for most people it is the latter. One frank comment about the climate change protests came from a man who described the demonstrators as “people who want to make [it] even more unaffordable to feed my family and heat my home.”
This comment doesn’t reflect denialism per se, but fear about how economic changes linked to climate policy may affect people’s livelihoods.
If such fears are fuelling denialism, which in turn inhibits the curbing of emissions, then perhaps the challenge isn’t to debunk the denialists. Rather, the challenge is to articulate a vision for a world where people can have jobs, economic security and even prosperity without ushering in climate chaos.