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

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3.1 What are the main strategies used by organised climate change deniers?

Various strategies and arguments are used to persuade the public either that climate change is not happening, or that it is not serious enough to warrant immediate action (McCright and Dunlap, 2010; Oreskes and Conway, 2010). One such example is the use of fake experts or contrarian scientists. Fake experts appear to be authoritative based on supposed expertise, when in reality they might have none. Contrarian scientists are real scientists who use their credentials to challenge the scientific consensus – in reality, they might have vested interests that make them promote certain positions (e.g., financial interests). Fake experts and contrarian scientists can provide relief to anxiety caused by the knowledge of climate change, ensuring people don’t engage deeply with that knowledge.

Denialists create a distorted version of the scientific consensus on climate change, by ignoring the wealth of evidence that points to the problem’s existence and instead focusing on isolated, often flawed studies, presenting them as opposite yet equally valid to the scientific consensus. This is called selectivity or ‘cherry-picking’ and can create the impression that climate change-denialist positions are backed by scientific evidence. Denialists also sometimes set impossible expectations on what types of scientific evidence count. For example, they often demand data that go back millions of years, which scientists might not be able to provide.

Even when data are provided, denialists can change criteria and demand alternative evidence (also called ‘moving the goalposts’). This is an attempt to discredit science in the eyes of the public, remove the sense of urgency and facilitate disavowal. Finally, another common strategy is the deployment of conspiracy theories. Many climate change-related conspiracy theories posit that climate change is a global conspiracy orchestrated by governments and scientists around the world in order to control people and limit independent thinking. Although such assertions do not reflect reality (it would be impossible for thousands of scientists across thousands of institutions and different disciplines to conspire and promote falsehoods), the idea that ‘climate change is a hoax’ can relieve people of stress related to climate change.

Overall, organised climate change denialism is effective because it can provide a certain part of the public with the tools through which they can operate self-deception and do not have to worry about climate change. The next section will move away from strategic climate denialism in order to discuss some problematic elements in how (especially Western) societies try to deal with climate change. These include an overemphasis on individual responsibility for behavior change (as you saw in Week 2) and on consumers making ‘green’ choices, as well as an undue trust in technology.