If, like me, you have little patience for climate change deniers, I would invite you to reflect on the following:
When I hear climate change deniers use phrases like ‘there’s no actual proof’ or ‘it’s just a theory’ I secretly sigh inside and bemoan the lack of scientific literacy. When I hear climate change deniers base their denial in conspiracy theories I am politely infuriated at the precious energy these activists are wasting: energy that they could otherwise be applying to changing what is actually happening to the earth as a consequence of run-away production and consumption. Of course, I get it: the issues we face today are huge in scale. To use the Marvel Universe as an analogy, we have moved from your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman to The End Game in an incredibly short space of time. It can be over-whelming; it can elicit feelings of hopelessness – even denial. The psychologist in me knows this. But really, can I judge? Can we rational minded, concerned environmentalists really judge?
Today I listened to an interview with social psychologist Dr Susan Clayton. Dr Clayton has done fascinating and important work in the field of individual behaviour change, nature-connectedness and conservation psychology over the course of her career. In the interview she was asked what she thought about climate change deniers. My ears pricked up – will she judge? Will she be politely furious? Her answer… ‘we are all climate change deniers to some extent’. This one gentle statement dissolved all my negative feeling toward those ‘stupid conspiracy theorists’. Why? Because if we really faced the whole truth of our situation; I mean psychologically really took fully on board what the climate and other environmental scientists and are saying, we would all be behaving differently! All of us push the ‘emergency’ to the back of our minds when we get in the car or board the plane, or eat a steak. Don’t eat steak? Fine, think harder, because almost no one is a ‘climate saint’, and really, no one can cast the first stone. A climate change denier may not be as psychologically resilient as you or I, but would you judge someone simply for not being as resilient as you? I thought not.
So, if we stop hating on the climate change deniers, what do we do instead? There is no doubt that denial is very dangerous and we all need to face it if we are to build a sustainable future. But can a full blown climate change denier be persuaded otherwise? Dr Clayton suggests that perhaps they could, but this may be the wrong approach. No one likes admitting that they’re wrong, and the task of persuading someone to shift their position on a stance they’ve taken always implies an admission of being wrong on their part. It can happen, but it’s not easy. A better approach, suggests Dr Clayton, is to work on encouraging people who doubt the fact of anthropogenic climate change to focus on the positive things they can do, and benefits they can accrue to themselves, by engaging in mitigating actions, rather than challenging them directly on the truth or falsehood of their beliefs. There are many incentives to taking mitigating action, such as the health benefits that come with ditching the car and cycling to work, or the increased mental wellbeing that comes from contact with green spaces. Perhaps, as strong deniers engage more with choices that benefit the environment - at first for the indirect benefits to themselves - they may just start to feel a little more agency and empowerment. They may just start to connect with nature in a more positive way. As initially self-centered motivations are expanded through positive contact with nature, they may just come to the point of wanting to protect the earth through their own maturing intentions – a much more empowering and positive way to come around to accepting the reality of the climate and environmental emergency that we are all, to greater or lesser extents, learning to face.
Join me, then, in making a promise not to ‘other’ climate change deniers. Othering never does good. It only breaks down understanding and communication and empathy. And where are we without these things?
if you would like to listen to the full interview with Dr Susan Clayton follow the link! www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMWEof0GfVw
(Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels)
is a PhD candidate researching under the topic 'Understanding Behaviour Change toward Sustainability'. Damien is also a strong believer that knowledge should be freely available; a belief that motivated him to start One Beautiful Earth as a way of informing earth lovers everywhere on what behavioural scientists and social psychologists are up to and what we're finding out, all in human readable language! It's not all science though: expect a smattering of environmental ethics, philosophy, interviews and the odd opinion piece thrown in. Enjoy!