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Emotional Causes of Climate Change Denial

Why do bad ideas happen to good people?

In my August blog post, I explained climate change denial as a result of motivated inference, in which people's beliefs are biased by their goals. I still think this is a good explanation of why some politicians and oil company executives ignore the substantial evidence for global warming resulting from human carbon emissions. But a new book provides an alternative explanation that applies very well to denial of climate change problems by ordinary people.

Kari Marie Norgaard is an American sociologist who spent a year in a small city in Norway interviewing people about their beliefs and attitudes concerning climate change. Her new book Living in Denial provides a sophisticated account of why a group of people, who are largely well informed and politically progressive, nevertheless tend to deny that climate change is a serious problem. She points to psychological and social processes that are different from my motivated inference explanation.

Norgaard says that global warming is difficult for ordinary Norwegians to think about because it threatens their individual and collective sense of identity. Norwegians tend to view themselves as egalitarian and socially just on an international scale, so it is difficult for them to acknowledge that their country's large production of oil and gas contributes to global warming. In part, this reluctance can be attributed to motivated inference, but Norgaard points to more subtle processes that are also emotional and social.

She argues that the problem is not ignorance, since Norwegians have witnessed the effects of global warming such as the scarcity of snow depicted on the cover of her book. But rather than inferring like some right-wing American politicians that climate change is a fraud cooked up by liberal scientists, the Norwegians just prefer not to think about climate change. Instead of inferring that we don't have to worry about climate change because it's not a problem, the practice of Norwegians is to avoid thinking about the problem. Rather than motivated inference, I would call this process something like "worry-driven inference avoidance". Given their knowledge of climate change and their political values, it upsets Norwegians to think that global warming is a threat to human well-being, so they steer clear of thinking and talking about it.

The processes that Norgaard describes are social as well as psychological. Emotion regulation is partly an individual process of attending to one's emotional states and thinking of ways to avoid extremes. But it is also a social process in which group norms about being optimistic, maintaining control, and being proud of Norway lead people to avoid communication of beliefs and attitudes about climate change that threaten their individual and collective identities. Norgaard plausibly argues that explanation of climate change denial by ordinary Norwegians needs to be framed in terms of complex links between emotions and social structures. Denial results not just from individual thought processes, but also from processes of social interaction that encourage people to talk and think in some ways rather than others.

Hence Norgaard's book is worth reading for two reasons. First, it provides an empirically rich discussion of a interesting group of largely well-motivated people who nevertheless engage in climate change denial. Second, it is a fine example of the rare kind of social science that integrates psychological and sociological explanations. In economics and politics, it is common for rational choice theorists try to reduce the social to implausibly idealized psychology, and in anthropology and sociology, it is common for postmodernists to ignore psychology in favor of vague claims about social construction. Norgaard's blend of emotions and social communication combines psychological and social insights that need to work together to explain climate change denial.

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