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The Politics and Psychology of Climate Denial in the United States

By Madhumita Suresh


This article explores the underlying reasons and forces behind climate denial and contrarianism regarding citizen attitudes in the United States. With the need for urgent climate action, American Leadership is particularly essential in accelerating global climate action and in transitioning to a more sustainable economy. The psychology of climate science, the politics behind climate denial and its influence on climate policy and the partisan divide are some of the overarching themes of the article.

Climate change refers to the unprecedented variations in the earth’s temperature which has several effects on global water availability, glacier melt, frequent meteorological events, food patterns, etc. The major cause of this phenomenon is due to anthropogenic activities. Climate science has attested to the long-lasting consequences of delayed climate action which may result in catastrophic climate change and natural hazard events which will leave global economies, climate refugees and international security in a terrible position. Several countries have committed and proclaimed to take climate action in reducing GHG emissions and in shifting to sustainable pathways however, the situation so far has only been – all talk no show. Despite robust evidence backing the science behind climate change, we can observe climate denial and contrarianism in several countries. Public support is highly necessary for radical change in policy and governmental efforts related to climate change, however, studies have observed a huge ideological divide in the United States concerning climate change. This calls for a deeper enquiry into the nature of the problem at hand and psychological processes related to understanding climate change. 

The Psychology of climate change

According to Dr Timmons from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), human thinking can be broadly classified into (i) system 1 and (ii) system 2 thinking. System 1 thinking can be characterised as fast, automatic, and low-effort thinking wherein the way we think, or process information is memory-based. In this regard, mental shortcuts aid us to solve problems quickly and often efficiently, which may sometimes involve systematic errors (or ‘biases’). System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is slow, complex and requires more effort. 

Researchers have classified climate change to be an issue which is processed by our system 2 thinking given that it is new, dynamic, slow, invisible, and yet, urgent. In this regard, the information that we use to process or understand climate change must be reliable and straightforward, which is not the reality given the massive amount of misinformation and contradicting reports by certain institutions. Increasing misinformation has led to reduced support for emissions reductions. This has led to uncertainty and an inability to comprehend the information in a meaningful sense. 

In such cases, psychologists have discovered that we rely on emotion (or affect) to make judgements and decisions. Understanding becomes even more complicated with contradicting attitude roots which include social identity, ideologies, vested interests, and conspiring world views which collectively lead to climate scepticism or denial in an individual. The theory of motivated reasoning i.e., “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” asserts this idea of contradicting attitude roots which majorly influence decision-making. 

Delayed Climate Action

However, the idea that our brains intrinsically find it challenging to process climate change is highly problematic as it frames the climate-policy narrative in a way which might pose a potential barrier to climate action. Additionally, there are several other factors in play which lead to further delay in action. One major issue is Psychological Distance from climate change which can be manifested in the following ways: spatial (“the effects will be seen in Africa so I don’t care”), temporal (the effects will be seen in 2050, I will die by then), social (“global south is more vulnerable, so I do not have to worry”) and hypothetical. Other underlying drivers of delayed climate action/inaction can be the 5Ds: Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial, and Identity. Doom implies the psychic numbing to climate change after repeated exposure to climate-related information. Dissonance is the discomfort in acknowledging the phenomenon when it contradicts or conflicts with what we do or believe in. The fourth stage is denial which in today’s context is a mechanism of defence stemming primarily from fear or guilt. The final stage is identity wherein personal values triumph over facts. Identity is a prime factor in climate action/inaction depending on its alignment with our values and beliefs. 

Adding to these psychological complexities, there are several political factors behind climate scepticism and denial which have further aggravated the situation, particularly in the United States. The following sections will explore the political reasons behind climate denial. 

Conservatism and Anti-Environmentalism

Conservative think tanks played an influential role during the emergence of the conservative movement during the late 1970s. Several scholars have highlighted the role of such think tanks in altering national policies. In this regard, the conservative movement perceived environmentalism as a threat to economic libertarianism, a core facet of conservatism. This is why regulatory measures which were being introduced in the Kyoto Protocol were vehemently opposed by conservatives who wanted consistent economic growth, a free market, and national sovereignty. 

The anti-environmentalism efforts were carried out by – first, challenging the framing of climate change and global warming by claiming the evidence on global warming is weak. Second, by arguing that the net effect of global warming would be beneficial if it is true. Third, creating a narrative which implies a ratification of pro-environmental policies to ameliorate the issue of global warming would do more harm than good. 

Climate Change Denial Machine

For this purpose, conservative think tanks began sponsoring front groups, and eco-chambers consisting of policymakers and politicians to provide counterclaims to global warming. Several media outlets began to report uncertainties in climate science and painted the message that “climate change is a liberal hoax”. Conferences such as the annual International Conference on Climate Change conducted by the Heartland Institute were organised solely to encourage climate scepticism. The fossil fuel and oil industries were also heavily invested in this agenda and started to target media with messages and spent millions on advertorials – which they do not usually do since consumers purchase gas or oil based on convenience and cost and not as much on marketing. Hence, the intention behind these advertorials was to primarily shift public opinions on climate change. During the 1990s, polls proved how 80% of Americans were aware of climate change and accepted climate change as a phenomenon which required drastic action, however, following these anti-environmentalism efforts, the 2008 Gallup report suggested a partisan divide on climate change. 

Partisan Divide in the US

Several surveys and reports have been conducted in the United States to analyse American Public Opinion on Climate Change. A widening partisan divide based on political affiliation can be witnessed. Figure 3 illustrates the findings from a Pew study on the polarising views on climate change between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. The public’s view on climate scientists and their beliefs on climate change is broadly explained by their political orientation and personal concerns with climate change. 

Implications on Climate Action

Considering the complexity behind the psychology of the climate crisis, these efforts in skewing public understanding given the political situation have aggravated the climate science policy environment. These efforts have resulted in delayed action towards climate change which would not be beneficial to anybody. The environment has only been deteriorating and it would slowly lead to a situation where we cannot go back to how we were. There is a serious need for political and multilateral institutions to recognise the drastic effects of climate change and urgently take mitigation and adaptation efforts. 

About the Author

Madhumita Suresh is a third-year student at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, majoring in Environmental Economics. Her interests include water policy, sustainable pathways, just transition, climate finance and natural hazards management. 

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