Empowerment to Overcome Climate Change Denial

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

"You Adults are shitting on my future.” Greta Thunberg

My recent Post, “New Challenges … “ details the already present threats and catastrophes of climate change. This Post presents strategies for overcoming ihe resistance of climate change deniers by expanding their awareness and enabling them to support alliances for mitigating climate destructiveness.

Empathic engagement with climate change, for most people, is felt more deeply when the exponential increase in ongoing extinctions is considered. In Native American perceptual sensitivity, these are “all our relatives.” The loss is not only of individual beings, but whole species, forever! On Earth where life forms are interdependent, the eventual Impacts of these losses are unknown.

The personal impact of climate change is also more sharply felt, when considering the health risks to oneself, family and friends.

Given the personal, collective and extensive magnitude of climate change threats, why and how do some people deny what is happening? Answering “why?” some people deny human caused climate change is less complex than answering “how.” The impacts of climate change are painfully grievous, perhaps guilt inducing and that they are beyond the reach of personal control makes for a feeling of helplessness. Denial, if it can be effective, avoids both the associated grief and powerlessness. Understanding “how” climate change denial can effectively shield awareness, is essential for overcoming resistance so that broader coalitions to mitigate climate change can be constructed before there are major system disruptions. (Such as the collapse of ocean currents that warm continental coasts and sea rise that destroys cities) Following is a discussion of the psychological tools climate change deniers use to shield themselves from awareness.

1) Our perceptual apprehension capacities are biased toward being aware of what is near-at-hand rather than faraway or abstract. It was strategic to evolve in this manner when for thousands of years our world of action was much more circumscribed. Deniers of happenings that are not local or information that is abstract can readily focus on what is close and familiar to the exclusion of global events and scientific information. Implication: communication can be enhanced by using media to transform distant realities or abstract information into virtual proximity.

2) All of us humans practice dissociation, separating attention from information which we will ignore. The world around us is filled with more information than we can process. We even have the ability to gate out sounds before they enter our inner ear, (like not hearing the train or airplane that we are riding on or the sound of traffic when we are riding in a car. We can dissociate sights as when we fail to notice homeless people sitting on the sidewalk as we walk by on an urban street. We can easily ignore printed material when we have a need to or a desire to focus on other matters. Similarly we can dissociate from stress evoking matters such as climate change. Dissociation does work, protecting a sense of psychological well-being and happiness in the midst of a troubled world. Open-mindedness, with expanded awareness, on the other hand, may be a virtue but nevertheless can infuse us with depression.

Dissociative barriers that exclude expanded awareness, however, are not installed with permanence and can become permeable. When they begin to falter, a person develops cognitive dissonance; that is, sensing information that doesn’t square with major beliefs. Such a situation is unstable and either the person will fight off the dissonant information with increased vehemence to reestablish security; or face the pain associated with taking steps toward broader awareness.

Whether or not dissociative behaviors effectively shield awareness or become permeable, depends upon a number of factors:

  1. A. If a group of people whom the resistant person identifies with, espouses the denial of climate change, then she/he can more easily dissociate from information that discloses the ongoing impacts and scientific projections of climate change. In the United States, our partisan political divide is associated with opposite perceptions of climate change.

Regarding climate change, 71% of Democrats and 15% of Republicans were very concerned about it. So, a person who took on their sociopolitical identity from being a Republican, finds a great deal of support for dissociative barriers that gate out climate change information.

Since ideological values for many people who identify as Republican, includes skepticism of government actions, it is reinforcing of dissociative barriers to deny the seriousness of climate change as an issue that would require government engagement. with an issue that is more collective than personal. The summation of these reinforcements is the creation of an energy field that keeps people drawn into their shared belief system, dissociative barriers included. Energy fields of this type may be invisible but they are readily apparent from their strong pull on participants.

Summing up support for the dissociation of climate change concerns, there are the advantages of avoiding distress about extinctions, about health risks, extreme weather events, about being at odds with one’s sociopolitical identification group, and freedom from helplessness about being unable to do anything about an issue that is more collective than personal. The summation of these reinforcements is the creation of an energy field that keeps people drawn into their shared belief system, dissociative barriers included. Energy fields of this type may be invisible but they are readily apparent from their strong pull on participants.

Slamming into a climate denial energy field with information alone will usually create at best, cognitive dissonance and a bounce back. I am reminded of a story of power struggle between the sun and the wind. Up in the sky talking arrogantly about who was the most powerful, they spied a boy walking alongside a road down below. Wind, said, “watch me I will blow that boy’s coat right off.” But the more forcefully Wind blew, the more tightly the boy held onto his coat. Sun, now took her turn and shined warmly upon the boy. Soon he took his coat off :-). The implication of the story is that if we are going to penetrate or go around climate deniers’ dissociative barriers, we are strategically required to be warmly invitational rather than forceful.

Two important ways to be invitational are: a) provide information that includes a ray of hope as well as doom; and b) provide interpersonal support that will bridge the person’s movement from the energy field of denial to the energy field of recognition and action. Providing hopeful information is not the same as needing to provide optimistic formation. Optimism might include the belief that there is a probability we are going to be able to overcome this challenge, perhaps keeping the parts per million of greenhouse gas down to 350 ppm thereby limiting the rise in temperature to 1°C, implying extreme weather events but probably safe from the collapse of any planetary ecosystem. Since we are already up to 415 ppm and going up, this is possible (if we could go back) but not probable.

Being hopeful, on the other hand is measured by a less stringent standard, but implies that there are still things we can do to stop the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations and mitigate the rise in global temperature, retaining a damaged but livable planet. This pathway of hopefulness is possible if we can raise awareness and mobilize the planet toward 100% renewable energy. We can do this. The following 2 charted pathways show 1) a pathway to 80% renewables and 2) a pathway to 100% renewables.

Subsequent to offering hope, the 2nd part of being invitational is to provide interpersonal support for r switching from the energy field of denial to the energy field of climate change awareness and action. If organizing an event to which climate deniers are implicitly invited and that event includes a consideration of climate change, it would be supportive to engage organizations such as Republicans for Environmental Protection and The Coalition of Green Elephants to be part of the sponsoring network. Additionally, since many climate deniers are Evangelical Christians, it would be good to include one or more of the dozens of organizations formed by the interfaith and denominational communities to advocate Biblical support for environmental care.

A fial step for easing a potential switch between energy fields is to recognize: Mother Earth as an energy field who encompasses all of the other energy fields including both sides of the partisan divide. You may recall that James Lovelock, scientist/founder of the Gaia movement showed how the planet is always endeavoring to balance all of its ecosystems including the atmosphere, to enhance life. Before endeavoring to hold events or conversations targeted toward reversing climate change deniers to climate advocates, meditation or Shamanic outreach to Mother Earth to provide allies for the endeavor is a powerful step.

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