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Dealing with climate denial.
How to keep climate discussions and reporting from being hijacked by delaying discourses.
Welcome friends, this is Climate Psyched, a newsletter where we explore all things related to the psychological, behavioral, and emotional aspects of the climate and environmental crises. As we’re approaching the end of 2022, we’re feeling immensely grateful that this publication reaches people across the globe, from New Zealand (Hey!) all the way over to the States (Hello!), and several countries in between. Our hopes for 2023 is to keep growing and reaching even more people who, as much as us, believe that incorporating psychology into the climate work is essential if we want to enable large scale change whilst nurturing psychological resilience. Thank you for being here with us!
In this edition we’ll be diving straight into something that’s having a bit of an upswing in Sweden right now: Climate denying discourse in the media, promoted by climate denying/delaying politicians.
As the climate crisis intensifies, so are the urges for bold and progressive climate action. This is, unsurprisingly, met with resistance from forces who in various ways try to delay climate action, and who use tactics to shift the narrative away from one of the most important questions right now: How do we phase out emissions, increase social justice and simultaneously preserve and increase biodiversity?
In Sweden, where we’re situated, we’ve recently transitioned to a new government that actively need the support of a far-right populist party, with roots in the nazi movement. In line with a direction that several far-right parties have been taking in recent years, climate denial/delay has grown into a core value in the party. Several things have happened in the past few months: the department of environment is being shut down, the government’s own budget states that it will increase emissions for the coming years, which includes spending billions on decreasing the fuel tax. We could go on, but we think you get the point. Things are looking up for climate delayers.
A consequence of this is that we’ve been seeing an increase of politicians in power express climate delaying discourse in the media – which brings us to the main point of this text: how do we identify and tackle climate delaying discourse in media?
First thing first, that we always need to remember: One cannot ”believe” in climate change, one can accept the climate research or not.
But, it seems, we can accept it to various degrees.
At the Center for Studies of Climate Change Denial (CEFORCED) in Gothenburg, researchers have identified four different forms of climate denial:
ORGANIZED – climate denial is in many ways a result of a systematic work carried out by a number of lobby groups and think tanks (often funded by the fossil industry itself) over several decades. It’s not a random coincidence that some people don’t accept the climate science. There’s a growing body of research that’s mapping these actors, and it is a subject that definitely requires attention beyond the scope of this text. In the meantime the newly published book “Climate Obstruction” as well as this newly published article, both co-authored by researchers from CEFORCED, might be of interest.
DENIAL ON THE POLITICAL PARTY LEVEL – when climate denying/delaying discourse is embedded in a political party, which shows in its politics and rhetorics. This seems to be becoming more common amongst far-right wing parties, for example in Sweden.
RESPONSE DENIAL– when people in leading positions, such as politicians, say that they accept the climate science, but in their decisions and responses still act as though the climate crisis doesn’t exist. Can be found all over the world.
EVERYDAY DENIAL – a category where most of us find ourselves from time to time (although some more often than others). In this group people accept the climate research, but still in their everyday actions behave as though the climate crisis isn’t a reality. For example, taking airplane rides several times a year. This type of denial on the behavioral and everyday level doesn’t seem to be connected to political ideology or influenced by the fossil industry in the same direct way as the organized climate denial, but is probably rather, amongst other things, a result of the contextual factor of living in a system that constantly encourages us to make unsustainable choices.
The discourses of climate denial and climate delay can take various expressions, sometimes described as “The 12 discourses of climate delay”, summarized in the picture below, taken from this article:
There are several common tactics used as part of the climate denying and delaying agenda, where two main strategies are undermining the mainstream science (for example by cherry picking research results that oppose the gathered field of climate research) and intentionally shifting the narrative around what the main questions on climate change are (for example from how to lower emissions to whether we’re actually in a crisis or not).
Media plays a significant role in what climate narrative is legitimized and what climate issues are perceived as more important, depending on 1. To what extent media reports on climate, but also 2. How and on what climate issues they report.
This plays into several psychological biases and mechanisms, that in turn influence our perception of the climate issue. To mention a few:
AVAILABILITY BIAS– we all have a human tendency to rely more on the information that comes more readily to mind when we asses various situations. And the information more readily at hand is usually what we’ve been hearing a lot about recently. In other words: the more we hear about something the more important or common we tend to think that something is, and the easier this information comes to hand. This relates both to the frequency with which the climate is reported on, and what more specifically is reported on. For example: if media over a period of time only reports on energy when talking about climate, and perhaps even more specifically on whether a country should expand its use of nuclear power, then that will feed into our availability bias, making us (on a general level) perceive nuclear power to be of great importance when dealing with climate change, at the same time as perceiving other climate related issues as less important.
FALSE BALANCE – a widely used approach by the media. In attempts to be perceived as objective and neutral, media has oftentimes let opposing perspectives be heard in its reporting on climate. Whilst bringing in different voices generally is helpful in gathering a nuanced perspective on an issue, there’s a real problem when the world’s collective climate research is balanced with voices of climate skeptics expressing their own (and sometimes funded by the fossil industry) opinions – and the two are framed as equally sound and valid perspectives. It reduces the climate science to a question of primarily opinions, with the unfortunate consequence of legitimizing delaying discourse.
FICTIONAL STATUS QUO – humans tend to prefer to keep things as they are, and oppose things that change the current state of one’s affairs. This is called the status quo bias, and makes us generally negative towards change (funny enough, since humans also happen to be a very adaptable species). When it comes to climate change, there is however no status quo in the sense that there is no scenario where we both can keep acting like we do now and keep things as they are right now. On the contrary, if we continue with business as usual, we will be seeing massive consequences, and our best chance of reducing the impact of climate change is to make large scale systemic change as soon as we can. But a lot of the discourse on climate is framed around a fictional status quo, as if not acting and still avoiding the massive risks of climate change were possible. This is of course not a realistic scenario, but it is one that feeds into our status quo-bias, and frames suggested climate interventions and policy as requiring larger costs (whether these be financial, behavioral or other) than just letting things be as they are and making no changes.
All of us need to learn to recognize the most common climate denying/delaying discourses. And not only recognize them, but resist the impulse to play into them. Spending time debating whether we actually are in a climate crisis also means giving space to a narrative that not only questions the available climate science, but also lets climate delayers frame the climate narrative. If we are to achieve rapid, large-scale change, we need to bas our discussions on a premise that is in line with the climate research.
Specifically, journalists and media outlets have a big responsibility in not communicating delaying arguments without putting them into proper context.
Don’t lose track of the main question, and never debate or report from a climate delaying narrative. The main question should never be “are we in a climate crisis?” (It’s real, it’s us, experts agree, that debate has been settled).
Don’t contribute to false balance – if wanting to show different perspectives, let them be perspectives of people who accept the collective climate science. There’s plenty of different voices and viewpoints within the community of people working on climate and much room for interesting angles and debates.
Never accept the fictional status quo – reality is that change will happen either way, if we delay climate action more of that change will happen unexpectedly and to a larger extent by nature’s own massive forces. Any reporting should be based on the premise that keeping status quo – according to the climate research – is impossible.
Statements that contradict the current climate science should be put into that context. Never leave climate delaying discourse uncontradicted.
The climate crisis is a reality, but so is also climate denial in its varying degrees. We need to deal with the latter to be able to deal properly with the first.
We want to wish you all happy holidays, days of rest and joy! We’ll be back in January with more Climate Psyched and am looking forward to the coming year and to keep following all the good work that continues to be carried out by the global climate community.
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