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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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2 Types of denial

‘Every denial is based upon fear of truth’, so begins Paul Hoggett in Climate Psychology: A Matter of Life and Death (Hoggett, 2022, p. 18). He goes on to point out that with the contemporary flood of mass and social media, we can no longer avoid knowing about worsening climate change. The basic defence mechanism might then kick in: we can split off thoughts about climate change from feelings. ‘This results in a special kind of “knowing”; one drained of meaning, so that what we are left with is a set of lifeless thoughts about climate change which fail to trouble us’ (p. 18). It is called disavowal, sometimes ‘soft denial’. The term soft denial is used more generally in political discussion of climate denial, whereas ‘disavowal’ comes from psychoanalysis, where it is used to explore the psychological mechanisms involved. How can we know and not know something at the same time? Again, to explain this requires a depth psychology, because the idea of a rational knower/actor without inner conflict cannot account for this phenomenon. Splitting off refers to the psychological mechanism that enables disavowal.

Activity 1 Splitting off

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Part 1

Paul Hoggett offers the following example. When you have read this, think about a situation where you acted in a similar split-off fashion. Note, we all have to do this from time to time, just to get by in a world that inevitably compromises attempts to live zero carbon lives.

The interviewee recalled sitting at Heathrow airport about to catch a flight somewhere, when his wife remarked that ‘a 747 taking off generates more damage to the environment than a family car driven for a year’. He commented ‘and I remember noting the fact with interest, although not at any point changing my view about where we should go on 747s’.

(Hoggett, 2022, p. 18)

Note down your example in the box below.

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Part 2

In the pages following this example, Paul Hoggett goes on to document many different shades and mechanisms of denial, all based on avoiding thinking truthfully:

  • diffusion of responsibility (e.g. ‘others that produce more pollution than me are the problem’)
  • suspension of curiosity (e.g. not wanting to find out the relevant information about climate change)
  • splitting/compartmentalisation, one of the mechanisms to achieve the example above (e.g. climate change will affect ‘them’ not ‘us’)
  • wishful thinking (e.g. scientists/technology/God will solve it)
  • doubt (e.g. ‘we need more research and evidence’)
  • knowing is not believing (e.g. ‘surely it can’t be that bad’)
  • distancing/detachment (e.g. ‘I can’t do anything about it’, ‘it’s not an immediate threat, we still have lots of time’, or taking an intellectual problem-solving approach)
  • routinisation (e.g. immersing oneself in routine day-to-day tasks or avoiding thinking too far into the future)

It is not hard to see how the demands of everyday life preoccupy most people to such an extent that thinking about climate change becomes fleeting.

Which, if any, of these mechanisms of denial can you apply to your example from Part 1?

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Paul Hoggett points out that ‘the life of the mind and the life of society bear an uncanny resemblance … all of us have learnt how not to think too much, how to make peace with unacceptable situations’ (Hoggett, 2022, p. 17). What we notice, pay attention to and speak about in different contexts is socially constructed through rules. We learn how to behave tactfully and politely in our communities. In his book, The Elephant in the Room, Eviatar Zerubavel illustrates the way in which certain subjects are avoided or even considered taboo. These internalised social rules provide us with social defences against anxiety – they make it easier for us to ignore certain topics in order to avoid feeling pain, fear or shame (Zerubavel, 2006).

Activity 2 Talking about climate change

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Can you think of social situations where you brought up the topic of climate change? How did others respond? Was there a meaningful conversation or were you met with an uncomfortable reaction?

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In the previous sections you learned about how ordinary people might attempt to avoid thinking about the painful truth of climate change as a means of protecting themselves. However, there is also another, more insidious type of denialism which will be explored next. It refers to strategic attempts by particular social actors to promote climate change denialism in order to protect their vested financial interests.