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.

References

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

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