A psycho-explanation of climate denial

By Shane Scanlan

How do you tell a vocal and passionate climate change advocate that they are part of the problem?

Climate change activist George Marshall last month managed to diplomatically and skillfully explain to a cabal of fellow travellers at the Wheeler Centre that speaking too forcefully from the high moral ground often backfires.

Mr Marshall was a guest of LaTrobe University’s Ideas and Society “In Conversation” series hosted by Robert Manne as part of the Melbourne Sustainable Living Festival on February 17.

His approach was to explain the neuroscience and psychology responsible for widespread climate change denial, despite irrefutable scientific evidence.

The British author of Don’t Even Think About It – Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change said conversations about climate change often fell within “delimited and marked boundaries of tension”.

He said societies shared an understanding of things which were “outside the boundaries of acceptable conversation”, and climate change was currently one of them.

“People are very actively not talking about it,” he said.

Mr Marshall said people felt somewhat similar to their own mortality as they did to climate change – “we know it’s there, but we keep it at arm’s length.”

He also said that in the absence of a specific “enemy with intentions”, it was hard for humans to focus on a threat.

“We are talking about an issue with immensely diffused moral responsibility,” he said.  “We recognise the multiple complexities involved and this gives people permission to disregard it.”

He said the environmental movement itself had “created a narrative” which had pushed people away from embracing the issue.

He said using iconography of penguins and polar bears on shrinking islands of ice told many people that the issue did not affect them. Furthermore, hard scientific evidence, by itself, was not going to work.

He said the environmental movement had also effectively excused other groups within society from embracing the issue by claiming climate change as its own.

Mr Marshall said a “shock doctrine” of aggressive advocacy by a left-leaning vanguard had prevented more moderated elements of society from getting onboard.

“We need levels of engagement which go much wider,” he said. “It should not be seen as ‘all or nothing’.”

“The narrative from the radical left is important, but it’s not sufficient.  We need to find a way to cross boundaries.  You cannot afford to alienate anyone.”

“We need to find the story in our commonality. It’s not climate change itself that people will respond to, it’s a socially-constructed narrative that people will respond to.”

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