Why Do So Many Deny Global Warming Could Be Occurring?

Why are so many people determined to deny that we are facing some daunting problems? I can understand that scientists interpret data differently, and don’t expect that scientific opinions will all agree.  The denial I see, however, is mostly not coming from scientists.  

Ignorance, lack of education, and misinformation are serious problems. One cause appears to be that some people haven’t the education to understand what they are being told when it comes to climate change, for example, or “peak oil” (the effects of oil supplies declining), or the population explosion. Without sufficient education it is easy for them to accept what they hear without question, and many fall prey to charismatic media pundits who have no incentive to provide good information. People aren’t simple, though.  There are a lot of very smart people caught up in the debate around our current and future problems, which include global climate change (global warming).

Information overload and over-politicization of the issues are serious problems. Another cause of denial is that the topic of global warming may be so over-politicized at this point as to be simply confusing to many of us. Once the relative positions on the topic become attached to larger and broader political movements, the discussion becomes hamstrung by the political and emotional associations. The bigger problems of overpopulation and over-use of energy, and of the increasing cost of the limited fossil fuel supplies we have become so dependent on, are much simpler and clearer, but “global warming” has been given a much bigger place in the public consciousness as an effect of its politicization. As we face the need to deal with these global problems, we need to understand the specific motivations behind why many will deny those problems are real and impede the development and implementation of the solutions we will need. Many people and powerful organizations (especially large energy corporations) have an economic or political incentive to deny our problems. It has long been known and documented that some of the most outspoken deniers of global warming, for instance, are now or in the past have derived at least part of their livelihood from the big energy companies (link). This category includes too many of our government representatives, unfortunately (link). This does not obscure the fact that some proponents of global warming also have financial and professional incentives, including scientists who depend on grant funding which might be easier to get if it addresses an area that is getting a lot of media attention. People in this position have a reduced incentive to tell the truth or present other people or issues in a fair and honest manner. Corporate funding and influence tend to amplify the incentives, however, and can cause huge amounts of misinformation (and sometimes slander) to be injected into the public consciousness, warping the public perception and understanding, and harming individuals and groups as well as impeding the solutions we need. A quick read through the streams of comments on certain blogs shows plenty of attacks on environmentalists, Al Gore (producer of “An Inconvenient Truth”), and anything and anyone else who is a proponent of global warming.

The five stages of grieving are inevitable in the face of great loss. An additional factor that supports denial and other unhelpful opinions and behaviors is the simple, human process of grief. Certainly a decline in our standard of living would be a great loss, and we will react emotionally to even the thought of that. We can’t afford to get hung up in the grieving process to the point that we just deny what is happening and don’t act, however.

Denial is the first stage of grieving. There is already a great deal of denial of our problems in the world, and most of it is based on relatively petty concerns compared with our global-scale problems. Some people put enormous energy into denial, and are quite possibly hung up there, and need some help to get past it. Others are being paid by selfish personal and corporate interests to maintain this position.

Anger is the second stage of grieving. There is also plenty of anger which is easily directed at those we might see as being the cause of particular problems.  A bit of “shoot the messenger” can be expected as well. In reality the entirety of humanity is at fault and nobody is to blame, as we have only followed our human nature.

Bargaining is the third stage of grieving. Many people (and even nations) are bargaining, another stage of grief, trying to find a way out of our predicaments in some easy way, but not in ways that address our problems directly.

Depression is the fourth stage of grieving. It is also the case that many are depressed, another stage of grief that is quite understandable. If some of us have given up, don’t think we can avoid calamities, and are withdrawing from hearing or following the news or being involved in local or world affairs that does none of us good, however. It does concern me that one response to depression might be to just carry on, or even be more wasteful and destructive to the environment, expecting that it wouldn’t matter in the face of an unstoppable calamity. The problems facing us are not impossible, fortunately, though they will undoubtedly require a concentrated effort and a lot of sacrifice on the part of everyone.

The fifth stage of grieving is acceptance, and we all need to progress to this stage as soon as possible. What we need is the fifth stage of grieving: acceptance, as that will allow us to look directly at what we know, work creatively to take control of the situation, and do the best we can to reduce the probability and severity of the negative consequences of our actions. Acceptance can free us to learn and work hard, and waste less energy on our emotions and the prior, counterproductive stages of grief.

Grieving may be unavoidable, but it must not be allowed to hold back progress towards a sustainable future. Collective action will be needed to address our problems.  We each need to take the responsibility to learn and do what we can to create a better future for ourselves and our descendants, and to communicate with others (especially government and corporate representatives) about the importance of planning and acting for the long term.

As always, I welcome your comments.  – Tim


8 responses to “Why Do So Many Deny Global Warming Could Be Occurring?

  1. John A. Jauregui

    This election saw most Global Warming initiatives fail, for good reason. The principle reason is that most consumers, farmers, ranchers and foresters understand two things. First, global warming is good, not bad. Second, carbon in general and carbon dioxide in particular is good, not bad. Higher average temperatures together with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduce crop failures and improve crop, grazing and forest production. Those two factors are the principal forces greening the planet and feeding all of us today. Liberal and eco-cults want to torpedo that winning combination. Why? Perhaps readers have some ideas here.

  2. Thanks for your comment, John.
    First, I wasn’t aware there even WERE any global warming initiatives, so maybe if you stop back you could fill me in. Second, there are many more reasons global warming could be catastrophic than that it could be beneficial. For example, since the majority of the world’s population and infrastructure is located at sea level, a rise in sea level of only a foot or two would cut off shipping (including oil) and cause perhaps a billion people (give or take a hundred million or so) to move to higher ground. That sounds pretty bad to me, and even if the farmers produced bigger crops, the costs and time involved in rebuilding shipping facilities would cut off their international sales – a major market. I am concerned about your citing “liberal and eco-cults”, too, as this is the kind of labeling used by sensationalizing pundits who appear to thrive (or think they thrive) on the social and political divisions that have hurt the United States increasingly over the past few decades.
    There is plenty of evidence to suggest that, with the cheap energy of fossil fuels, humans have grossly overpopulated the planet, but that fossil fuels will become increasingly expensive even as the population continues to grow, resulting in critical challenges over the next 30-100 years. As I’ve noted here before, global warming is only one possible problem from the unnatural pollution humans produce in ever greater quantities, and we need to all be concerned about, and learning and acting to counter the effects of, the population explosion and related energy shortages and pollution problems. We are not knowledgeable enough yet to know the full extent of our impact on the planet, it appears, and may keep our heads in our own political sand worrying about “eco-cults” and “global warming deniers” even as we sow the seeds of our own future misery.
    I appreciate your comments, and hope you will think again and more critically, learn more, take a more rational approach to what you see and hear, and take personal action to help correct our course as a species. Best of luck to you (and to us all), – Tim

  3. Hello Tim,

    Great blog.

    If you haven’t seen it, Dan Gilbert’s lecture on why we won’t do anything about global warming (it isn’t scary enough. It doesn’t have a moustache”) is entertaining and thought-provoking.

    There’s a link here, but I think you can find it on youtube too.


    Bonnybridge, Scotland


  4. Here’s another link.

  5. That’s a great contribution, Helen, and thank you so much for providing it. I have racked my brain over why there is so little concern over global climate change, and over the problem that is behind most of our current and future problems: overpopulation. This addresses both, I believe. Thanks again – Tim

  6. It’s also interesting if you look on Amazon – if you search for a global warming book, under the ‘also bought’ section will be all the books which agree that it’s happening and that it’s a problem. If you search for a ‘denier’ book you’ll find that the purchasers also bought other ‘denier’ books.

    If you only read stuff which agrees with your point of view it’s very limiting.

    Many years ago I had to do a school project on a current affairs event. The Russians had just invaded Afghanistan (1980) so I chose that. I had to do a daily diary study and get hold of as many different media sources as possible, they ranged from the Communist newspaper The Morning Star which ignored the event and raged against Mrs Thatcher’s cuts instead, and very right wing newspapers full of personal testimony stories about how badly the Russians were behaving. It was a very salutory lesson in treating media with extreme caution and I think everyone should have to do it at school!

  7. Thanks again, Helen, for another great comment.

    I have been perplexed, appalled, really, at the unfortunate division that seems to have developed in the USA in the past couple of decades. I agree that the media plays to this, and that search engine technology does more to promote the split than is obvious, unwittingly, I expect.

    I continue to try to engage people on all sides in discussion, though it is difficult as talking about their ideologies makes most people uneasy. It may just be my perception, as I live in a college town with vocal “lefties” and quiet conservatives, but it seems like only the most educated of my right wing friends are open to much discussion of their positions, and the farther right and/or less educated they are, the less they want to talk about such things. That is unfortunate, as when I check the facts they offer me I often find them to be quite false, leading me to suspect they are listening to pundits who broadcast emotionally appealing but divisive ideas. We certainly live in challenging times. Unfortunately I have to worry that things will get worse before they get better, but I stay as ideologically active as I can, writing my government representatives frequently and supporting organizations who share my beliefs on a variety of topics. I just wish more people would think critically and actively question what they are told by the media. It is easier for many to just accept, however, even though it may get them riled up about the wrong things.
    Hopefully there will be change for the better – I keep doing what little I can, and urge everyone else to do the same.
    Thanks again for your comment. – Tim

  8. Karen Horne Staab

    I am sixty-nine. My parents were both naturalists, born in 1905 and 1908. My father was a landscape architect who designed the Alabama Gulf Coast Park, Gulf Shores. The roads were made of crushed oyster shells, every natural formation – lake, lagoons, swamps, hammocks, etc. – were included in the Park itself, and cypress wood and ship’s rope marked the roads and walkways. He designed the picnic areas so that all the cars would be parked behind native plantings – even the human settings were grounded in the natural surroundings. The white sand beaches were planted with native shrubs and sea oak by work groups (Civilian Conservation Corps) under his supervision, resulting in, some say, the most beautiful beach in the United States.
    It is all gone now. The area has been dubbed The Redneck Riviera. Please forgive the slur…I first heard that nickname in my birth town, Foley, AL., some 15 minutes from the Park. One thing that breaks my heart is how disoriented the sea turtles must be as they surface and try to find the shore. They come up in a bowl of light – the all night lights of the honky-tonk beach on land, and the rim of thousands of lights on the row of 14 oil rigs, easily visible from the shore. (Unlike some other states, no state law was made to place the rigs out of sight of the beach.)
    My mother taught high school biology for many years in South Alabama, instilling her own strong conservation values in her students. Among other contributions, she conceived the idea of forming a hiking trail to follow the path of the naturalists John and William Bartram, who walked the South in the 1700s. It runs from a site close to the end of the Appalachian trail to south Alabama, and includes at least one section that you traverse by canoe, as the Bartrams did. (The Bartrams found a gorgeous flower, a Franklinia, cuttings of which they sent to their arboretum near Philadelphia. That was fortuitous, because no one has ever found it since that time.)
    Thank you for efforts, Tim. Karen

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