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Dialogue: Climate change denial

Updated Wednesday, 20th February 2013

Psychotherapist Paul Hogget and psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe discuss climate change denial 

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Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe talked to Laurie Taylor about denial of climate change, a central topic in a new book she has edited, Engaging with Climate Change. They were joined by psychotherapist Paul Hogget, Professor of Politics at the University of the West of England and one of the contributors to the book.  

If you haven't already, listen to this Thinking Allowed episode on the BBC website. Now tead more about Weintrobe’s and Hogget’s ideas on denial below.

Paul Hoggett

It is now common for experts to talk about people ‘being in denial’ about climate change. But what do we mean by denial here? There is a danger that we psychologise and think of this purely in individual terms. I believe that denial is so significant precisely because it is a key dimension of a perverse culture in developed societies.

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Psychoanalysis since Freud has linked denial to perversion. Besides the outright repudiation of disturbing reality that we see in psychosis there is a much more subtle and pervasive form of denial, called disavowal, in which one part of the mind sees whilst another discounts what is seen.

Here denial takes its place in the wider context of perverse forms of thinking and acting where deviance involves leading oneself or others astray.  The psychoanalyst John Steiner sees such practices as ‘artful’, they thrive on ambiguity, evasiveness and guile and often draw upon collusion. 

Just before the financial crash in 2008 Susan Long had analysed precisely this kind of culture in companies such as Enron and Long Term Capital Management. To understand the antisocial corporate practices of these firms she coined the term ‘the perverse structure’ and sketched five dimensions of it including denial and collusion. In my chapter I use Long’s framework to examine climate change denial as an organized phenomenon. 

I look at what one some have called ‘denialism’, that is the hard core denial lobby who are supported by oil, coal and right wing think tanks.

Denialists deploy a perverse logic which, for example, insists that if something cannot be proved beyond doubt then it cannot be true. But science doesn’t proceed in this way, all scientific communities are faced by evidence that does not fit with the emerging scientific consensus.

No science is beyond doubt but climate change ideologists, like creationists, use this to question the entire truth value of the scientific outlook. 

But the more subtle and pervasive form of denial accepts some or all of the evidence but finds ways of carrying on undisturbed. We see the facts but drain them of their affective significance by using all sorts of internal propaganda…after all they’ll come up with something before it gets too bad (etc, etc). 

One particular way of carrying on undisturbed that I explore in my chapter concerns what psychoanalysis has called ‘the as if’ phenomenon. We saw this at work in the financial sector where a range of new technologies supported the illusion that real wealth was being created by the trading of derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, etc. when in fact the economic activity was almost entirely virtual.

I speculate that in recent years we have seen the emergence of an ‘as if’ approach to governance, including climate change governance, where the danger is that the use of targets and indicators (such as the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act) provides a reassuring virtual world in which it looks as if action is being taken to mitigate climate change when the reality is that things are getting worse rather than better.      

In sum, I see climate change denial as a form of perverse thinking and action which has been greatly facilitated by the spread of virtualism in economic and political life.   

Sally Weintrobe 

I agree with Paul Hogget that climate change denial is not best understood at an individual level, but needs situating within a perverse culture of denial.  But I would add that it is as individuals that we suffer anxiety and emotional pain when we do allow ourselves to face climate change as real and happening.  And, we need public support to bear our feelings about climate change, support we are currently not getting.

In a chapter in the book on our underlying anxieties about climate change, I look at three main forms of denial:  

'Denialiam' (see Hoggett above). 

Negation. Negation is saying what is, isn't. 

Disavowal.  Where you do see reality but minimize its significance and emotional impact. 

I concentrate on negation and disavowal and go into both in some detail. Both can be ways to manage feeling overwhelmingly anxious when we learn about climate change, particularly about our survival and knowing about loss of and damage to what we love.

We regularly use both negation and disavowal when reality feels "too much" to bear.   They restore the world to how it was before the bad news: “that’s fine then, nothing to be anxious about”, but of course they are quick magical fixes; fantasy solutions.  

It would seem negation is the more serious form of denial, as it offers a flat no to reality, but actually disavowal is more serious in its consequences. This is because negation may be the first stage of facing reality and mourning illusion - while it initially says no to the truth, it does not distort the shape of the truth and is part of gradually moving to accept the truth. Negation can help when the truth is too much to bear, all in one go.  

Disavowal is the territory of fraud, distortion and finding more enduring ways of not facing the truth and hanging onto our illusions. Disavowal can severely undermine our thinking, particularly being able to think rationally and with a sense of proportion.   

Denialism, disavowal and negation may become interwoven in a dynamic way.  For example, take media coverage of Superstorm Sandy.  Hardly any reports linked Sandy with climate change.  When the occasional link was made, mostly it was quickly followed by the argument that science tells us no single act of extreme weather can be proof of human made warming.

This is true, but if said with no real interest in or sense of disturbance from knowing that all this weird weather matches scientists’ predictions for warming, then it is such narrow minded truth as to constitute perverse thinking. Denialists may use this actively to close the subject of warming down, and then people who are understandably anxious about climate change can enlist this kind of point to support their disavowal.  

Soon after Sandy, Obama won the US election and he did make a statement about climate change.  He joined the dots.  However, the mainstream media chose instead to headline, for instance, Beyonce lip-synching the anthem, again providing support for our disavowal by minimizing the disturbing impact of the big news story.

The problem with disavowal is it leads to a build up of underlying anxiety, and this can then fuel further disavowal.  Disavowal can spiral, making it dangerous. A big current challenge is how to engage with people sympathetically about climate change, when it is a topic they both want to know about and actively avoid. 





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