The psychology of climate change denial

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC 4 about climate change denialism in general, and about Lord Christopher Monckton in particular. Watch it on BBC iPlayer if you missed it.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of whether the climate is changing because of man-made CO2 emissions here (but to cut a long story short: it is). That’s been pretty comprehensively done elsewhere. For anyone who wants to know more, there is plenty of stuff out there, but this is a good place to start.

No, I’m more interested in the psychology of it. Why do some people persist in claiming that climate change is somehow made up, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

I think the motivations are obvious. People lead polluting lifestyles, and don’t want to feel that they are bad people. When they hear that CO2 emissions are harming the planet, that makes them bad people. As a mechanism for coping with the cognitive dissonance that creates, they choose to believe that man-made climate change doesn’t really exist. When some anti-emission measures involve extra taxation, that no-doubt reinforces the effect.

An interesting thing about Lord Monckton is that he claims to be an expert on climate change, although he has no qualifications as a scientist. Does that matter, if he has read the research in great detail (and I have no reason to think he hasn’t)?

Yes, I think it does. Let me explain why.

One of the most important things you are taught as a scientist is to question everything and to be sceptical. If I think back to the days when I was a humble PhD student, I learned a whole load of stuff about obscure organic chemistry reactions and even more obscure biosynthetic pathways, none of which has the slightest relevance to anything I have done in the last 15 years or so. But I still think it was an important part of my education, because it taught me the importance of questioning everything and realising that you might be wrong. There is nothing quite like having a brilliant idea for an organic synthesis that you just know is going to work, mixing a few chemicals together in flasks and discovering you were hopelessly wrong, for teaching you that perhaps you don’t know everything. One thing I learned from my PhD is that everything I think I know could be wrong, and that it’s always important to keep an open mind and allow your views to change if they are contradicted by evidence.

Lord Monckton, who is not a scientist, doesn’t seem to be aware of that. It’s possible he’s perfectly aware that he’s wrong but continues to push climate change denial as a political agenda, but it’s my guess that he genuinely believes the stuff he says. The problem is he started from a position that climate change is imaginary, and then specifically only looks for evidence that confirms that point of view. ┬áThis is a classic example of what psychologists called confirmation bias. I suspect that Monckton’s lack of scientific training makes him far more susceptible to confirmation bias than most scientists.

Monckton also seems to provide a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. As he is unqualified in science, he simply doesn’t realise how badly he has misinterpreted the evidence, so he has no reason to think he’s wrong.

None of the above is all that surprising. It’s also not surprising that many people believe Monckton is right: after all, they are prone to the same sort of cognitive biases that he is.

But what I found really scary in the BBC documentary was that he’d been invited to give evidence to a US government committee. If people like Monckton end up influencing policy makers, then we are all in big trouble.

About the author

Adam Jacobs

set up Dianthus Medical in 1999. He is an experienced medical writer and statistician, has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in medical statistics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter @dianthusmed

4 responses to "The psychology of climate change denial"

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  2. There is just as much overwhelming evidence that man is not the cause of global warming and that the earth has gone through and continues to go through cycles of warming.

    Anytime our government sensationalizes anything in an effort to regulate us even more is reason to be suspicious. There are so many other ways humans are creating devastation to our planet. Where are our government mouthpieces about the rivers of shit polluting our waterways from factory farming? Or the pesticides & pharmaceutical wastes polluting our soil and rivers? Instead our government creates laws to protect the guilty.

    Think about it. Most politicians are millionaires and billionaires. Look at their excessive lifestyles and ‘carbon footprint’. Do you really think Al Gore gives a crap about global warming?

    Its also unfair to say that people who don’t believe in climate changel is because we want to feel better about ourselves for polluting the earth.

    I am pretty much a minimalist. I am against excessive gas guzzling SUV’s and mcmansion size homes. I am a vegetarian and against our excessive lust for eating meat but that doesn’t mean I don’t think its utterly ridiculous to claim cow manure creates climate change.

    You said you like to keep an open mind. I too used to think like you do until I decided to look further down the rabbit hole. Amazing what you will find there.

  3. Adam Jacobs Adam

    I’m curious, Grace: you say that there is overwhelming evidence that man is not the cause of global warming, but you don’t give a link to your source. Where did you find this “overwhelming evidence”?

  4. I echo Adam’s curiosity. Please do provide links for further study. I am especially interested in alternative explanations for the fact that the more humans there are, emitting more CO2 and methane, the warmer our climate gets.

    I believe the last few years have been the hottest on record. A non made-man explanation for this very real phenomenon would no doubt be a huge relief to the many speicies affected by shrinking glaciers and ice-caps, shifting seasons, etc.