Climate Change Denial and Australia’s Devastating Bush Fires

Climate Change Denial and Australia’s Devastating Bush Fires

Climate Change Denial and Australia's Devastating Bush Fires

Denial is a psychological defence employed when an individual or group is challenged in what they believe and when that belief is central to their sense of self. Facing climate change deniers with scientific facts is not only not successful in changing their minds, but often strengthens their denial.

Climate Change Denial and Australia’s Devastating Bush Fires

Denial is a psychological defence employed when an individual or group is challenged in what they believe and when that belief is central to their sense of self. But what is most intriguing is that denial is a state of believing A and not A at one and the same time. It challenges logic and is not influenced by logical arguments. Hence, the experience that facing climate change deniers with scientific facts is not only not successful in changing their minds, but often strengthens their denial. Because at an unconscious level, something is known that must be strongly denied, lest one’s own sense of self and purpose is challenged.

Climate Change Denial and Australia’s Devastating Bush Fires

The fires that are now devastating several areas in Australia are linked, through heat, drought and intense winds to climate change according to climate scientists. Yet, many of our Australian leaders continue to deny links between climate change and bush fires, or even deny that climate change is a fact. This has been a great divide in Australian politics. Our position is increasingly recognised by overseas commentators, for example, Ketan Joshi in The Guardian, Wed 8th January 2020 says:

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, always teeters at the edges of this style of disaster denialism, using coded digs that suggest there is nothing unusual about what’s going on. “We have faced these disasters before” and “I know how distressing that [smoke haze] has been, particularly for young people who haven’t seen it before” both stand out as examples of Morrison’s strategy: disguise straightforward climate denialism with appeals to “common sense”, collective memory or the misguided passions of the young. (Something else is out of control in Australia: climate disaster denialism by Ketan Joshi The Guardian, Wed 8th January 2020)

In 2015, I wrote about climate change denial (Long 2016) where I noted:

at least three levels of denial with respect to climate change – now referred to as ‘climate variation’ by some governments, perhaps an institutionalised linguistic form of denial. These three levels are similar to Nuccitelli’s (2013) five stages but I place his second and third stages in my second level and his fourth and fifth stages in my third level.

The levels described there are:
Level 1

The general populace tends to think locally rather than globally and especially cold winters lend support to erroneous perceptions about global warming. This is the first level of denial. Often, contrarian writers, will cherry pick their arguments from local conditions and generalise. But because they appeal only to immediate experience rather than to a range of experiences and present quite emotionally charged arguments, they may capture an audience already wishing to deny the impositions that climate change recognition will impose on lives and beliefs. This first level of denial is simply that climate change does not exist. We are merely undergoing part of a normal fluctuation pattern in climate.

Level 2

Some large social institutions, governments and industry are beginning to believe the science. However, the second level of denial argues that human activity (anthroprogenic) has little if anything to do with proven climate change evidence. In the first instance, this dynamic involves splitting the reality (of climate change) from human accountability which is consequently denied. Connected to this is denial of the seriousness of climate change and its effects (see Dunlap and Mc Cright 2010). Dunlap and Mc Cright argue that while the self-interest of the large fossil fuel energy corporations is a large motivating factor for denial, the environmental protection and sustainability movements challenge a dominant social paradigm. This is the paradigm underlying the belief in permanent ‘western progress’ or the fantasy of perpetual economic growth. Climate change has become a focus point for the differences between the dominant ‘progress’ paradigm and the environmental movement. At a less conscious level, I will argue that the seriousness of the problem is also denied through a process of perverse dynamics (Long 2008) along with manic denial where companies hubristically believe they can overcome any issues through further technological development.

Level 3

Increasingly those governments who take the science seriously believe that communities, as well as attempting prevention measures must adapt to the changes. While such changes are necessary, they will only be available to those who have the resources to build adaptive practices. This is the third level of denial. It is not denial of evidence, but denial of global responsibilities and is manifest in international inability to make collaborative efforts to prevent further change or to build adaptive practice. This level of systemic denial is accompanied by the depressed stance of ‘there is nothing we can do’. In Australia, the consistent argument has been that we contribute only a small amount of pollutants to the world environment: a denial of our own responsibility to do as much as we can.

Denialists over time, slip from straight out level one denial to level two denial – which accepts some of what is known and denies other aspects. This allows an escape from the biggest challenges, while acceding to some of the ideas that seemingly attack the denialists belief.

Level three denial is perhaps the hardest of all to face as a community, because it implicates all and leaves us feeling helpless. If we are to act in a way that prevents such tragedies as are currently faced in fire-stricken areas, we must understand the dynamics of denial and their non-logical basis. We must understand our own part in the denial process and face up to what we have to change, even though this may challenge what we hold dear. But importantly we must find leaders who can do this and who are courageous enough to put the future before current egoistic desires. In Australian bush fire emergencies, we have a ‘leave early or stay and defend’ policy. It is now too late to leave the climate change problem early. We have to stay and defend what we have with courage.


Dr Susan Long
Director of Research & Scholarship, NIODA

10 January 2020

Climate Change Denial and Australia’s Devastating Bush Fires

ps Are you a leader or manager and would like to learn more about group dynamics? Have a look at the NIODA Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics) course.


for Climate Change Denial and Australia’s Devastating Bush Fires

Dunlap, R.E. and McCright, A. (2010) ‘Climate Change Denial: Sources, actors and strategies’ in C. Lever-Tracy (ed) Handbook of Climate Change and SocietyRoutledge, N.Y. pp 240-252.

Long, S.D. (2008) The Perverse Organisation and its Deadly Sins, London: Karnac.

Long, S.D. (2015) ‘Turning a Blind Eye to Climate Change’ Organisation and Social Dynamics, 15(2) 248–262

Nucitelli, D. (2013) ‘The five Stages of Climate Change Denial are on Display Ahead of the IPCC Report’ The Guardian, September 2013.


Climate Change Denial and Australia’s Devastating Bush Fires by Dr Susan Long

Authority – a short enquiry

Authority – a short enquiry

Authority - a short enquiry

Authority is the legitimate use of power.

But what do we count as legitimate authority and how is such legitimacy achieved?

Authority – a short enquiry

The NIODA Group Relations Working Conference in November 2019 (Identity, Gender, Authority and Community at Work) has a focus on how difference and identity influence the ways we take up authority and leadership. Authority is the legitimate use of power. But what do we count as legitimate authority and how is such legitimacy achieved?

Perhaps it means legitimate given the laws of the group, community or organisation, however formed and even when those laws may appear to be unfair or unethical? The idea of the ‘divine right’ of a monarch is seen as bestowing legitimate power from a deity, for example; or the power of a dictator may be legitimate in the sense of their power being supported in the law even when that law is despotic. There is an underlying assumption here that authority is linked to charisma – a term derived from the Greek ‘gift of grace’. Although now meaning a special power to influence others, its origins in divine conferral are clear.

Or, legitimacy may mean when the law and authority is endorsed by a majority, such as we believe occurs in a democracy – even if that majority may be persuaded by ‘false consciousness’ or misinformation, or even when there is awareness of the influence of ideological thinking (Zizek 1989 – The Sublime Object of Ideology) but with a blind trust in figures of authority.

Authority and its legitimacy, from a psychoanalytic perspective, stems from primary authority figures – parents, other family figures and teachers. The unconscious picture of authority is formed in early experience and then projected onto new figures of authority. The legitimacy here lies at both somatic and psychological levels and strong emotions of love, fear, anger and dependency are attached. Consequently, legitimacy in social settings may be achieved insofar as authorities mirror or resonate with unconscious images.

And, what of authority in those organisations that operate in a capitalist system? Authority lies in the structure of governance. First, company boards confer authority to senior staff. And boards, if they are vigilant and driven by organisational purpose, will attend to markets. In this sense, the authority invested in the board is market influenced, if not market-driven. The process is similar in family-owned or individually owned businesses. Except that there may or may not be a board in the governance structure. In the not-for-profit sector, most often a board drawn from the community and specialist professions is in place.

Such organisational systems are quite different to a democratic country government. In democratically elected government organisations, the legitimacy of authority is ultimately in the hands of ministers who delegate to public servants (even if the public servants have other powers of their own). Whereas the authority of the minister is endorsed by election from the group who vote, in companies and other organisations authority is bestowed from a few in specialised roles.

All this indicates that there may be good or bad authority as well as good or bad leaders who wield authority. As authority makes decisions on behalf of the group/community, so good authority makes decisions that fit laws that benefit the group as a whole and its individual members as much as possible. Any political system may become corrupt and no longer benefit the group, so it is important to find the safeguards that work against corruption: some of which might be in the ways we construct the nature of authority. So, the question of authority crosses the paths of group psychology/dynamics and political analysis.

How we conceive of authority is influenced by the way we recognise the source of its legitimacy: who confers what on whom. Put this way, it is apparent that identities are at play. Our creation of, and then perceptions and experiences of different identity groupings are critical because such distinctions so often endow the different groupings with differential charisma, power, capabilities, emotions, opinions and worth on the basis of unconscious assumptions, defensive dynamics and rivalrous intentions.

This group relations conference gives members the opportunity to look at how gender, identity and our understanding of community, in our work organisations in particular, affect the nature of authority and leadership. The conference uses experiential methods so that conference participants can learn from their own experience of gender and other identities in the different groups that the conference offers. The conference is a learning community structured as a temporary organisation.

The staff of the conference have been chosen to work alongside conference members in this exploration and has developed a program for this purpose.  Please visit for a description and for online registration.

Susan Long

legitimate authority
Conference Director
NIODA 2019 Group Relations Conference
Community at Work

Community at Work

The 2019 NIODA Group Relations Conference aims to explore the idea of the community at work, especially those systems within the community that affect or are affected by identity and gender, and how these are affected by authority relations see Group Relations Working Conference.  This is the first of a series of blog mini-articles on concepts related to the conference.

Community at Work

The idea of community is different for different people. For many it is about the broader social level, one might say the domain of community. This has resonance for those who think of the communities where they grew up; the local people, businesses, schools and sporting facilities. Community is understood as a social group who share a common location, government, interests and history. Following the illuminating concept of institution-in-the-mind put forward by David Armstrong, we might say that we each have a
community-in-the-mind: an idea of community that we act within. Even an isolated family or individual may have a community-in-the-mind that affects their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The links and breaks between the local community and the workplace are perhaps most evident in rural or country areas where locals are most likely both neighbours and work associates; acquaintances and tradespeople. Roles between local community members require clear articulation as is evidenced by many a local doctor, teacher or council member where people mix in both social and work environments.

Yet now, in the twenty-first century, often people interact more with others at a distance through social media, the internet, phones and travel than they may interact with local neighbours. Communities may be distanced and virtual. Importantly, much of the current citizen’s time is spent at work and identity is forged in one’s professional work, industry or trade. So, we can understand that the workplace itself contains a community-in-the-mind for its staff members. This idea is supported through the attempts of workplace leaders to foster common values and ideals in organizational members. The idea of a community lies beneath workplace culture, whether it be close-knit, under-bound, industrious, rewarding or troubled.

How can we understand community at work?

A work organization contains many systems. The main or primary purpose of the organization gives rise to tasks and these are managed through a task system. This is the system that produces commodities or services. But those who study organizations point to other systems that are present and have an influence on that task system. For example, there is the sentient system of emotional links between people; systems of interpersonal links and friendships; likes and hostilities. There is the political system of varying power relations – some authorised, some informal. There are social systems of hierarchies derived from external society – these may be linked to gender, religious affiliation, ethnicity, skin colour, sexual preference or even more transient differences such as smokers and non-smokers; punks and hippies. Some social/work hierarchies may derive from the internal history of the organisation and the types of roles undertaken by different people, often but not always linked to the task system. For example, secretaries and managers; surgeons and interns or stokers and drivers. Other social systems are linked to informal roles, such as the ‘nurturer’, the ‘bully’, the ‘flirt’ the ‘boss’s favourite’ or the ‘spy’ – however pejorative such titles suggest. At work we are invited, both consciously and unconsciously to take up roles in many of these systems and we can find ourselves at times ‘pulled in’ to enact roles that we would rather not.

All these task, political and social systems interact in many subtle and unconscious ways. Together they are present in the community at work; the community both contains and supports these systems so it is best that we develop collaborative and creative work communities in order to ameliorate the problems of destructive hierarchies and promote more resilient, productive and fulfilling work lives. It is critical that we discover the largely
unconscious community system in our workplaces and how we each take up our roles within this community.

I think the community of an organisation is where its true purposes and values lie. Not the values selected because they are simply politically correct or appealing to the market, but the purposes and values that lie at the heart of an enterprise. These should be discovered in order for an organisation to truly grow and prosper.

We are all equal in our roles as members of the community, however that is conceived. No matter the hierarchy in the task, political or social systems, a community is of equals and that has an energy of its own. What this means about leadership and authority for task; how authority and power are distributed; and how differences are managed in any workplace community, given this underlying equality, is worth discovering.


Susan Long


Conference Director
NIODA 2019 Group Relations Conference

Pin It on Pinterest