Institutional Denial of Climate Change


The failure of global warming and climate change to become major political issues in Australia is hard to explain given the life threatening nature of these phenomena. For politicians the problems and issues may be just too hard to deal with. If we accept, prima facie, that global warming is a human produced problem caused by over-population and over-consumption, it is clear that there are no easy solutions. No country today will embrace population control as a social good and the idea that economic growth is absolutely necessary for all countries is deeply entrenched. It is harder to explain why voting publics appear so uncritical of the causes and issues surrounding climate change – on the basis of public polling, we can say for certain that climate change and environmental issues were not important to voters in Australia’s last Federal election. These issues ranked behind the economy, health, education and political leadership. It may be that increased enthusiasm for recycling and choice of sustainable energy generation sources do indicate some increased concern about global warming and climate change, but this is not reflected in voting behaviour where, consistently, Australian governments are able to promote increased consumption, economic growth and a relaxed approach to major environmental issues such as deforestation, food and water security, and the pollution of air, water and land. As discussed in my book Beyond the Limits, this growth orientation is deeply rooted in individual psyches, industrial practices and all social institutions. Voting publics may feel concerned about big issues, such as war, terrorism, the fate of refugees, public health and industrial pollution, but they generally feel powerless to change or effect any of these issues. In wealthy countries the implicit threat that alternative strategies appear to pose to currently enjoyed quality of life is also a likely factor affecting individual attitudes. However, it is puzzling that in a country like Australia – wealthy and secure - climate denial can be so prominent. Our politicians appear convinced that more radical action - such as the European Parliament’s recent commitment to far more extreme targets for reduction of Green House Gases – will not be approved by voters. For whatever reason, more positive political action in Australia is anathema. Just consider how heated debate about even the modest carbon tax proposed by the Gillard Labor government became. The psychological roots of denial may be deeper than commonly known. Hypothetically, a major symptom of the deep roots of denial is the personal reflex of keeping a secret: because we are all self interested but unable to abandon the ‘social contract’ we are obliged to undertake as a condition of survival, we necessarily keep a large part of this self interest as a secret. Necessarily then, denial and the cultivation of illusion comes easily to us all. If denial and illusion are ‘default conditions’ - a condition of being part of society – the denial of climate change is much easier to understand. We are not and have never been bound by ‘the truth’ or always telling the truth. Truth telling is only ever partial. What we are most basically bound by is the need to survive in society with others. This requires the routine denial of facts and inconvenient truths – psychological tactics and strategies are among the first things we learn as emotionally competent children and successful adults. The illusion of ‘self identity’, for instance, is a good example. We learn to fit in and convince others that we are substantively like them, by behaving ‘as if’. Self and self-identity are from first principles, negotiated personal realities and incorporate much necessary socially sanctioned denial and illusion. But beyond individual realities there is a much larger and more impersonal ‘institutional’ level of activity that is highly significant in understanding how denial works as a social force. When denial enters narratives about puzzling collective behaviour there is always more than individual psychology involved. For example, in the analysis by Peter Hartcher of the dangerous popularity of Donald Trump, he describes the ‘denialism’ of US voters as having three levels:

First , that he could not possibly win . . .

Two, that he could not be serious about the things he said. . .

The third and final level of denialism[sic.] is that, even if he’s elected, and even if he tried to press ahead with his policies, the US system would stop him (SMH, October 10, 2016, p. 9).

One important point emerges from this common sense definition: a distinction between Trump’s attempted deception (‘he could not be serious’) and systemic considerations (people would not vote for him - ‘he could not win’ / ’the system would stop him’). Of course, there is the possibility that Trump is so deluded that he believes his own rhetoric, but this only highlights the other point that is normally made about psychological denial: reality is being falsified or distorted. This is an important aspect of the use of denial to describe mass phenomena. Denial is not the same as ignoring: mass denial involves deliberate distortion of ‘the facts’. Whilst individuals may be deluded or behave in apparently perverse ways, for various reasons that may be quite idiosyncratic, denial of global warming and climate change is more like the denial of war crimes or even denial of the holocaust. That is, there is a degree of social intent involved in mass phenomena that require further explanation than a psychology that might ultimately refer to the routine distortion of ‘reality‘ by individuals, or even their mental illness. Whilst one cannot rule individual psychology out (as banal, or over-medicalised, or culturally blinkered), there are major institutional considerations involved that require a different kind of explanation. Indeed, the possibility of systematic criminal behaviour involved in the denial of climate change might even become a serious and systematic consideration – international courts might prosecute crimes against ecologies much as they prosecute war criminals.

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