The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP 27, is currently underway. Preliminary reports already suggest a deep strain of pessimism among attendees about the world’s efforts to avert a catastrophe and limit the rise in global temperatures to a manageable threshold. The United States itself is doing much less than necessary to avert a climate crisis. Half of Congress—the Republican half—is still not convinced that burning fossil fuels warms the planet. If this political impediment to effective climate action is to be overcome, it must be understood and addressed.
As a psychologist, I think I have identified one important factor that encourages climate change denial. As a therapist, I think I know what to do about it.
Motives for climate science denial are easy to identify. The fossil fuel industry has a lot to lose in this debate, and it has funded disinformation campaigns to convince the public that the science is not settled, so we have no solid knowledge about global warming and therefore no basis for action.
But motives are not enough—how do disinformation campaigns succeed if the science is so clear? If we delve into the psychology underlying climate change denial, part of the answer becomes apparent: the form of cognitive distortion we call black-and-white thinking. Concepts and issues that are complex and contain a spectrum of possibilities are simplified and polarized into stark binaries—pairs of opposites. Shades of gray are missed; everything appears to be either black or white, true or false, right or wrong.
Climate science deniers make this thinking error over and over again in their objections to climate research. If we could correct this error, it would accomplish a lot.
Black-and-white thinking is heavily characterized by asymmetrical ways of making sense of the world. For example, perfectionists categorize their work as either perfect or unsatisfactory; good and very good outcomes are lumped together with poor ones in the unsatisfactory category.
It’s like a pass/fail grading system in which 100 percent earns a passing grade, and everything else gets an F. With this grading system, it’s not surprising that opponents of climate action have found a way to give global warming research an F.
Cognitive interventions for dismantling black-and-white thinking have one big thing going for them: Once people realize what they’re doing, they usually stop, because they know most realities exist as spectrums, not binaries. Cognitive therapists help clients see the complexities that exist underneath the simplified dichotomies they have formed. Learning how our thinking goes wrong and learning how to set it right are two aspects of one process.
Something like this needs to happen on a macro, political level for our country to take strong action against global warming. Climate change deniers need to understand how they are misunderstanding the science so they can grasp it accurately and use it as a basis for action.
The familiar idea of a 10-point scale is a handy tool for unpacking binaries into spectrums. In my book Finding Goldilocks, this tool is applied to both mental health problems and political issues.
For example, here is a spectrum for treating perfectionism:
Climate change deniers apply unrealistic, perfectionistic standards to research. They view the spectrum of possible scientific agreement as either 100 percent consensus, or inconclusive controversy. If it’s not one, it’s the other.
A 2021 review of climate change research concluded that 99.9 percent of studies have found that human activities are warming the planet. That’s not good enough for the deniers. If they can find one contrarian scientist somewhere, like the late Freeman Dyson, they quote him or her, categorize the state of the field as inconclusive, shrug their shoulders, and say that no one really knows whether burning fossil fuels warms the planet.
In their evaluations of climate research, climate skeptics divide the spectrum of possibilities into two categories: perfect understanding and no understanding at all. As a result, they misinterpret minor departures from scientists’ predictions as evidence their entire models are invalid. Because former President Trump confused short-term fluctuations in the weather with long-term trends in the climate, he misinterpreted every winter cold snap as a refutation of global warming. Deniers also misunderstand minor differences between analyses to mean that “the scientists disagree with each other” about the fundamental question of whether fossil fuels warm the planet. They do not.
As increases in global temperatures have become obvious, some climate science deniers have given up on refuting them and switched to reframing them. Their oft-repeated line is that the climate has always been changing, typically delivered with an air of patient wisdom, based on a striking lack of knowledge about climate science. Do they imagine researchers have not thought of this?
Once again, their reasoning is based on an invalid binary: Either the climate is changing or it’s not; and since it’s always been changing, there is nothing new here and no reason for concern. That’s in spite of the fact that the data shows us not all climate change is the same or driven by the same factors. The current rate of warming is much faster than almost all past episodes, and the few exceptions were planet-wide disasters that caused massive extinctions. Here is a diagram of the invalid binary on which this thinking error is based:
Another objection to climate science, also typically delivered with a world-weary sigh, is, “They think they can control the climate” or “only God can control the climate.” In this false dichotomy, control is viewed as an all-or-none phenomenon, and since it’s obvious that we cannot command the climate to do what we want, the conclusion is that it’s futile to try to reduce global warming. However, there is a gray area between total control and no control, which is called “influence.” This is what climate scientists actually think people can do: reduce burning of fossil fuels to decrease global warming. No scientist has ever said that people can “control” the climate; this is an exaggerated, satiric caricature and a straw man.
Something analogous to cognitive therapy on a political scale is needed to correct the thinking errors currently impeding strong climate action. If public advocates of climate science denial cannot be persuaded to change their minds, at least the public can learn to see through their tricks.
In debates around the dinner table and in the media, political campaigns, and the halls of Congress, the fallacious dichotomies underlying climate change denial can be exposed and refuted by comparing them to an accurate picture of the science. These efforts are most effective when they are guided by the psychology of persuasion, and research in this area demonstrates that interpersonal skills are at least as important as knowledge of the facts. Research shows people resist persuasion when they feel their opinions are being trashed. In fact, the most effective way to get people to agree with us is to start out by agreeing with them—at least partially. This establishes common ground and helps people open up to influence.
This isn’t a difficult tactic at all. There are plenty of scripts you can use to get started and work to dismantle black-and-white thinking in those who are buying into climate change denial:
- “Yes it does seem strange that winter cold snaps happen while the climate is supposedly getting warmer, but in complicated things like this it’s normal for there to be short-term fluctuations within long-term trends. If you look at graphs of the stock prices of Google, Facebook, and Apple, this is exactly what you’ll see: They had down days while they were going up thousands of percent.”
- “I think you’re right that the climate has always been changing, but it hasn’t always been changing like this, and warming this rapid will cause heat waves, droughts and floods resulting in massive dislocation and loss of life.”
- “I agree that climate change models are not perfectly accurate in their predictions, and scientists do disagree about the details of these models, but there is full consensus about the basic facts: Burning fossil fuels is warming the planet, and this warming will cause disastrous consequences if it’s not brought under control. If we wait for all the details to be worked out, it will be too late to do anything about it, and we won’t be able to preserve a livable world for the next generation.”