Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Written by: Maya Kattler-Gold
I think a lot about climate denial. It’s so important for anyone who feels passionately about climate action to do our best to understand that climate denial exists, maybe to have the power to change people’s opinion, but more to just to keep our own sanity. How can people so blatantly deny science or lie to themselves and others to the detriment of the whole human race?
I first try to remember a few sociological principles. Andrew Hoffman explains in his book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate that climate denial is a cultural issue. He points out a few key facts. The first is that we all use cognitive filters. This means that we relate to and understand new information through our existing worldviews. The second is that our cognitive filters reflect our cultural identity, and tend to be the same as those within the group with which we self-identify. The third is that cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning. These are well researched sociological phenomena that hold across groups, not just people who deny the reality of climate change.
So now the issue becomes one of culture. People who fall politically to the right in America tend to deny climate change because that is what people in their “group” do. Only 31% of Republicans consider climate change a major threat, compared to 88% of Democrats. As a result, there can be cultural pressure to deny climate change if you’re a Republican.
One example of this was when Bob Inglis, a Republican Congressman from South Carolina, came out as a believer in climate change and a supporter of a carbon tax. This resulted in Inglis, after 7 consecutive terms, losing the Republician primary in his district nearly 3 to 1.
It’s been found time and again that culture and worldview are more important in determining people’s view of climate change than knowledge of science, and learning more about science is unlikely to change opinions. Perhaps the trick is for people within a group to collaborate as trusted change-agents for helping shift perceptions of other members of their party. For Instance, Bob Inglis helped start an organization to bring Republicans on board to the climate fight called republicEN. In any case, it is clear that we need to tackle climate denial in order to solve climate change, and understanding the cultural issue surrounding climate denial is vital in overcoming it.