Last week, we mentioned an academic conference at the University of the West of England about the psychology of climate change denial, which appeared to be rather lacking on the academic front. It was a gathering of a handful of higher beings – Jungian analysts, climate activists and eco-psychologists – who, having shrugged off the shackles of the human condition, are now able to diagnose what is wrong with the rest of us.
The opening address was given by George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, and author of ‘Carbon Detox’, who popped up his week on Comment is Free to tell us just how sick we are:
The greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information.
He sets out the problem with a superficial analysis of ambivalent responses to ambiguous surveys:
nearly 80% of people claim to be concerned about climate change. However, delve deeper and one finds that people have a remarkable tendency to define this concern in ways that keep it as far away as possible. They describe climate change as a global problem (but not a local one) as a future problem (not one for their own lifetimes) and absolve themselves of responsibility for either causing the problem or solving it.
Most disturbing of all, 60% of people believe that “many scientific experts still question if humans are contributing to climate change”. Thirty per cent of people believe climate change is “largely down to natural causes”, while 7% refuse to accept the climate is changing at all.
Pesky humans, making simple black-and-white issues so unnecessarily complicated.
How is it possible that so many people are still unpersuaded by 40 years of research and the consensus of every major scientific institution in the world? Surely we are now long past the point at which the evidence became overwhelming?
Cue the psycho-analysis:
Having neither the time nor skills to weigh up each piece of evidence we fall back on decision-making shortcuts formed by our education, politics and class. In particular we measure new information against our life experience and the views of the people around us.
Yes. And Marshall’s article is a warning of what you might start believing in if you choose to hang around with psychobabblers. Each of his diagnoses can be thrown right back at him. First up:
George Lakoff, of the University of California, argues that we often use metaphors to carry over experience from simple or concrete experiences into new domains. Thus, as politicians know very well, broad concepts such as freedom, independence, leadership, growth and pride can resonate far deeper than the policies they describe.
None of this bodes well for a rational approach to climate change. Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”.
Marshall – like many political environmentalists – kids himself that he is informed only by cold, hard, rational, scientific reality. Ideology is what the deniers do. Which allows him to pretend that his own penchant for ‘broad concepts’ such as ‘restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention’ – and his distaste for freedom, independence and growth – are merely imperatives determined by the science. Who’s delusional here?
Dr Myanna Lahsen, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Colorado, has specialised in understanding how professional scientists, some of them with highly respected careers, turn climate sceptic. She found the largest common factor was a shared sense that they had personally lost prestige and authority as the result of campaigns by liberals and environmentalists. She concluded that their engagement in climate issues “can be understood in part as a struggle to preserve their particular culturally charged understanding of environmental reality.”
Lahsen’s interviews with three high-profile and self-professed sceptical scientists are interesting. They reveal that they recognise precisely what Marshall does not – that scientific information can be interpreted in different ways, and that policy does not flow automatically from any science. Lahsen describes the interviews as ‘remarkably frank‘, and the interviewees certainly appear a lot more self-aware (and to have less to hide) than Marshall, who interprets Lahsen’s findings thus:
In other words, like the general public, they form their beliefs through reference to a world view formed through politics and life experience. In order to maintain their scepticism in the face of a sustained, and sometimes heated, challenge from their peers, they have created a mutually supportive dissident culture around an identity as victimised speakers for the truth.
Which is just hilarious in the light of his claims that his own unpopular ‘truth’ is being steamrollered by dirty oil money, right-wing ideology and a psychologically deranged public.
One academic study of 192 sceptic books and reports found that 92% were directly associated with right wing free market think tanks. It concluded that the denial of climate change had been deliberately constructed “as a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism”.
So, given that scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement, how can sceptics be swayed?
That ‘scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement’ is patently untrue. The environmental movement is far better funded, having at its disposal hundreds of millions for expensive PR and lobbying campaigns. Indeed, the likes of the European Union even fund such groups as WWF and Friends of the Earth to lobby its own MEPs.
No amount of ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ can legitimise any political ideology. Contrary to Marshall’s claims, there is nothing ideological about scepticism. Sceptics aren’t asking for the world to be reorganised around environmental ethics. George is. Where you stand on the climate issue does not determine where you stand on the merits or otherwise of conservative ideology. Sceptics object to environmentalism’s hiding of its politics behind ‘the science’ to claim that science produces moral imperatives, and that failing to observe them will cause apocalypse. Stop to ask if climate problems really demand the special politics of environmentalism – that we must swap development and progress for security, for example, or that living a ‘sustainable lifestyle’ really is the best way to express solidarity with the world’s poor and to lift them out of poverty – and George Marshall will call you a conservative. It’s black and white for him – you either do as he says, or you’ve been brainwashed by Jeremy Clarkson. You’re in denial.
Marshall is forced to fall back on psychobabble because the political case for environmentalism has proved unpersuasive. You can almost hear him putting up his hands in defeat in his answer to his own question, ‘how can sceptics be swayed?’ Forget arguing with them, he says, you can cure them only by appealing to their baser, human instincts, especially peer pressure, ‘probably the most important influence of all’:
when dealing with a sceptic, don’t get into a head to head with them. Just politely point out all the people they know and respect who believe that climate change is a serious problem — and they aren’t sandle-wearing tree huggers, are they?
Yep, that’ll do it.
Ultimately, Marshall’s case is self-defeating. If the arguments made by contrarian scientists and the majority of the world’s population can be written off as a product of screwy psychology, then so too can those made by Marshall and his cronies – and everyone else for that matter. But when it comes down to it, we don’t care to peer into Marshall’s head in search of psychological peculiarities that contribute to his political inclinations, his self-delusion, his low opinion of his fellow humans, his willingness to toe the green party line, to reinterpret cautious scientific findings as a sign of the imminent eco-Rapture, to fail to distinguish science from politics, or, indeed, his creepy habit of peering into the heads of anyone who disagrees with him.