Kenneth Worthy Ph.D.

The Green Mind

Elitism and Climate Change Denialism

What motivates Republicans to deny the reality of climate change?

Posted Dec 27, 2014

Consequences of Climate Change

Scientists worldwide have reached consensus that global climate change is real and human-caused. Global average temperatures are rising, regional climates are destabilizing, and human activity is the main driver of these changes. There’s also agreement that these changes already are impacting modern society with, for example, more severe and damaging storms and droughts that are causing declines in agricultural production in various places. And the problems are going to get much worse.

If you don't believe that there's a consensus about global climate change both as a reality and as a major problem caused by human activity, please read these two sources and do your own research (but don’t cherry pick from the tiny number of dissenting studies out of the thousands that support the consensus):

Researchers also agree that society’s responses to climate change are wholly inadequate and are leaving people vulnerable: future generations and today’s poorest, who can’t afford to move to a higher elevation to avoid floods or to a place where enough rain will continue to fall to support their farming. 

Indicators of Climate Change

Why the Inertia?

Who’s responsible for our national and global lack of movement toward a healthier planet? With all of the complex factors that determine the course of modern society, it’s difficult to point the finger at any one group, but some groups certainly deserve a larger share of the blame for inaction. The United States obviously wields great political power and influence in the world, but our elected leaders have shown little leadership on climate change. It certainly doesn’t help that one of our two main political parties has adopted a near-universal stance of denial when it comes to climate change: the Republicans.

The U.S. Republican party stands alone in the developed, industrialized world as the only major political party to fail to acknowledge that global climate change is real, is damaging (not just to nature but to people and the economy), and requires us to change the way we do business.1 Not that other U.S. politicians have rallied vigorously enough to lead the nation to significantly reduce fossil-fuel and other emissions that cause climate change. But the Republican party, with all of its denial that the problem even exists, presents perhaps the greatest obstacle to action against climate change, particularly now that they will control both houses of congress.

In my view, as the 21st century rolls on and the damages become increasingly evident, the Republican position will look increasingly absurd, and shame will befall the party of recalcitrance and inaction.

Harbinger of Droughts & Floods

Social Domination Leading to Nature Domination?

How can we get past this stumbling block—a voting bloc of climate change deniers? First, it’s necessary to understand the origins of their denial, and that’s where psychology comes in.

In a previous post I discuss studies revealing pathways of denial for Conservative White Males (CWMs) regarding climate change and other environmental problems. They tend to credit or dismiss risks (such as flooding or droughts that impact farming) in a way that supports their cultural identities as conservatives; it’s hard to go against the grain of the conservative movement. They also exhibit “system-justifying” tendencies because of their beliefs in the validity and justice of current economic and power systems; the problem of climate change challenges our current systems, so conservatives feel a compulsion to dismiss the threat. CWMs also identify with elite CWMs such as Rush Limbaugh and defend that perceived in-group’s anti-environmental worldview, which means dismissing any scientific facts that might imply the need for more regulation.

Researchers have recently been able to discover other aspects of conservative and Republican ideologies that underlie this harmful process of denial (not that Republicans or conservatives are the only people practicing denial about a subject—just that their denial in this case is particularly harmful). Psychologists defined two concepts to try to capture relevant conservative beliefs. Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) is a “cluster” of attitudes that includes authoritarian submission (people should submit to the authority of a strong ruler), authoritarian aggression (violence or any other means must be used to destroy threats to the state), and conventionalism (new ways and sinfulness threaten the social order). Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), on the other hand, predisposes people to support group or identity based social hierarchy (that it’s good and acceptable for one group of people to gain power over another—equality is not a fundamental value) and intergroup dominance (for example that it’s good for Americans to dominate the world politically and economically).

Receding Arctic Sea Ice

Apparently, many high-SDO people don’t yet realize that climate change is expected to threaten the very economic basis on which their lives (and those of their descendants) depend, not just the lives of poor people whom it is already harming.

Rising Antarctic Temperatures

On a positive note, the same researchers discovered that some high-SDO research subjects became less likely to deny climate change when shown a video newscast presenting information from the latest authoritative study (by the IPCC) on global climate change and the increasing certainty regarding the information. So even when people are motivated to reject climate change evidence, they may still be open to new information on the subject.

This last part is the heartening part. Even people with the greatest motivation to deny climate change—because it challenges their beliefs in the appropriateness of our current economic system, that it portends the need for change, that it implicitly criticizes right-wing authority figures, and so on—can shift, perhaps ever so gradually, toward greater acceptance of the scientific consensus that we’re doing major harm to the planet and, because of our economic dependence on nature, to ourselves—so change is needed. And that in the long term nobody may be immune to the effects of global climate change.

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Done with Denial

1. ; ; ; .

2. Kirsti Häkkinen and Nazar Akrami, “Ideology and climate change denial,” Personality and Individual Differences 70 (2014) 62–65.