Varieties of Climate Denial

Extreme weather events have been happening since there has been weather. The current frequency and intensity of those events clearly corresponds to the symptoms of anthropogenic climate change. For skepticism, we can never really know with a hundred percent certainty precisely what causal factors are at work. That applies to all things, not just complicated things. For example, for a skeptic, we can never really know if the sun is going to come up tomorrow. That lack of knowledge does not necessarily imply a lack of ethical considerations. Epistemic skepticism isn’t necessarily a moral skepticism, and moral skepticism does not necessarily imply personal inaction. After all, the sun may come up again tomorrow. Even though we can’t know it with a hundred percent certainty beforehand, it might be worth acting as if tomorrow will be another day.

The appropriation of skeptical thought by climate denialists (so-called “climate skeptics”) wrongly equivocates a whole series of things: lack of epistemic certainty becomes a lack of moral knowledge, and a lack of moral knowledge is a lack of justified moral belief, and most paradoxically, a lack of justified moral belief is justification for the moral belief that inaction is the appropriate response. This abject failure of epistemic and moral reasoning is not due to a lack of knowledge but to an excess. Climate skeptics know that anthropogenic climate change is really happening, and it terrifies them, because they know that it “changes everything,” as Naomi Klein aptly puts it. They know it’s happening, but they can’t admit it, so they simply disavow it or negate it, repress it or repudiate it. It’s denial.

Disavowal (Verleugnung) and negation (Verneinung) are two forms by which Freud finds something like denial or a general negation to take place in human consciousness, alongside repression (Verdrängung) and repudiation or foreclosure (Verwerfung). All four of these forms of denial seem to be at work in climate denial. [To review: Verleugnung is the “I know, but…” formula (e.g., I know I’m addicted, but…); Verneinung is denial in the sense of affirming by negating (e.g., someone having a sex dream and telling their therapist that it was definitely NOT about Mom). Verdrängung is neurotic defense against the denied object, and Verwerfung is a psychotic exclusion of the denied object. It gets complicated. For instance, when your therapist says that your sex dream is in fact about your mom, you might perform a Verleugnung of Verneinung, saying “I know that I’m expressing denial (Verneinung), but…”]

My point here isn’t to give any kind of Freudian reading of climate denial. I want to map out some of the ways that the expression of denial has been changing, and Freud’s distinctions can be helpful to observe that change.

While negation (i.e., “It’s definitely NOT anthropogenic climate change”) and outright foreclosure (i.e., a total refusal to acknowledge or even say “climate change”) could function in the twentieth century, they can’t function very well any more. They are overwhelmed on one side by mounting scientific evidence and on the other side by intensifying symptoms of the climate crisis (floods, droughts, heatwaves, etc.). At some point, climate deniers have to admit that they know something is going on. They have to let it into consciousness. Then they have to deny it while it’s inside them, which means they can disavow it (“I know, but…”) or they can neurotically repress it. Maybe I’ll discuss some of repressive mechanisms later, e.g., the repressive psychopolitics of climate gradualism (incrementalism), cap and trade, and the practice of dollar voting (changing the market with ethical purchases/consumption, thus “voting with your dollar”). For now, I want to focus on the different ways that disavowal has been unfolding among climate deniers. I’ll distinguish four forms: synchronic, diachronic, meta, and optimistic. Let me elaborate.

1. Instead of simply saying, “It’s NOT climate change,” disavowal has to reckon with facts, and then show that there is a “but.” James Inhofe did this when he brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate a few winters ago. Yes, we’ve seen all the charts and graphs, BUT…winter still has snowballs, so global warming must not actually be very warm at all. Inhofe knows that the majority of scientists assert that anthropogenic climate change is happening, BUT…if that were true, there would be no contemporary examples of cold; cold weather currently happens, therefore global warming is false.

It’s wrong to call this skepticism in any way. There is so much to be skeptical about regarding statements affirming or denying the reality of anything (like whether the sun will rise tomorrow), and authentic skeptics wouldn’t come to any clear conclusion about the truth-value of any claims about the reality of a large, complex object like climate change. This synchronic denialism does come to a conclusion, claiming that the scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change is wrong. That epistemic conclusion is then conflated with a moral conclusion that inaction is a justified response. Moral skeptics would probably err on the side of the precautionary principle, addressing risks of climate change without definitively positing its reality.

As scientific evidence amasses and symptoms of global warming intensify, the synchronic argument is ostensibly harder to make. Although Inhofe was able to do it in 2015, it was farcical. Bodies are starting to register the symptoms of global warming at an empirical scale. Unusually frequent and/or intense floods, droughts, heat waves, and other extreme weather events provide a lot of examples, especially for older people for whom the effects of a more stable climate are inscribed in their sense memories. The terms of the argument are shifting. “I found a snowball” is now happening alongside “I experienced the worst storm [or drought, heat wave, etc.] of my life.”

2. The increasing untenability of synchronic denialism isn’t giving way to the rest of the grieving process (anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). The grief is too much. The trauma is too intense. Denialism shifts gears, becoming diachronic. If you can no longer find a snowball, you don’t say “I can’t find a snowball in this heat wave, therefore global warming is real.” You say, “I can’t find a snowball in this heat wave, but heat waves existed before humans, so global warming isn’t real.” Another example would be to assert that hurricanes have been happening for millions of years; they’re natural and therefore not caused by humans or industrial civilization. This has been part of the “natural cycles” argument against anthropogenic climate change; the climate has always been changing, therefore the current cycle requires no ethical response. Recently, the vague argument about cycles has become much more specific, citing cherry-picked evidence about the strength of storms, frequency of droughts, intensity of heat waves, etc. Hilariously, the same fallacious logic could be applied to lakes; natural lakes have existed for millennia, therefore anthropogenic lake don’t exist (but they do! E.g., there are a lot of lakes in Texas, and they’re all anthropogenic). From lakes to homeruns, we could say that homeruns existed before steroids; they’re natural and therefore not caused by pharmacological enhancements. Cancer existed before cigarettes; it’s natural and therefore is not caused by human-made toxins.

This gives lie to the supposed empiricism of synchronic denialism. Refuted is any claim that you are just waiting to feel the symptoms in your body before you assent to the reality of anthropogenic climate change. As soon as you actually feel the symptoms you were supposedly waiting for (e.g., record-breaking heat, hurricanes, etc.), you abandon the mask of empiricism and reveal a nihilistic disregard for reason by committing a naturalistic fallacy, making an appeal to nature, claiming that if it’s pre-human (natural) then it’s not an ethical problem for humans.

3. Along with synchronic and diachronic denial, we could also list meta-denial. The denial of denial prevents an engagement with the grieving process as such, turning a therapeutic-soteriological problem into a theoretical-epistemological problem of skepticism. This happens when deniers are trying to attack climate science as pseudoscience, or when they argue that a falsification of a particular climatic prediction implies a falsification of climate science in general or of theoretical understandings of the greenhouse effect. This is a perspective that knows the information about climate change and knows they are denying it, BUT it’s in the name of sound reason and the scientific method.

Philosophically, people who make climate denial arguments are less like skeptics and more like empiricists. There’s a naïve empiricism coopted by denialism, as if deniers just want more information, more experiences, more data, and then they’ll assent. They don’t trust models or predictions as much as data, whatever is given in experience. Skeptics know there’s no sufficient amount of data, but the empiricist wants to keep looking. There’s much to appreciate in using one’s own body as a testing ground for scientific hypotheses (cf. Marie Curie). If that empiricism was taken more seriously (i.e., paying attention to the ways that bodies are responding to the symptoms of climate change), some progress could be made. Instead, empiricism is just used as an alibi for disavowal, hence its confusion with the disbelief of skepticism. It’s not skepticism; it’s empiricism coopted for denial. When people call it skepticism, they are denying that it is denialist. They make a category mistake of shifting psychological denial into an epistemological register, and then they fail to notice that the actual epistemological register is empiricism.

4. Finally, there is optimistic denial; global warming is good. This intersects with the “good Anthropocene” discourse. The disavowal looks like this: I know that anthropogenic climate change is real and that the predictive models look bad, but…climate change also looks really good, and the good might actually outweigh the bad. It’s not hard to accept that point or even take it further. Everything is good, perfect even: Great Perfection (Dzogchen), God’s all-pervasive love. However, as I recall, to get the facts of life, you have to take the good and take the bad…

Cancer is good, because it helps teach you about what’s really important in life, so you don’t take things for granted. It also helps spur research and development in medical science and technology. It also provides jobs (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, researchers, etc.). In terms of climate change, it goes like this: I know that more people will die from heat waves, but fewer will die from cold; I know that allergy seasons will be worse, but that’s because allergenic plants will be thriving and enjoying this abundance of carbon dioxide; I know that there will be more and stronger hurricanes, but that means less freshwater scarcity.

When you consider how many ecosystems and species are imbricated in climate change, it isn’t hard to see that some benefits are mixed in with the costs, but the stakes are extremely large in comparison with this utilitarian nit-picking over pros and cons. The basic fact of climate change is that our global economy is ultimately unsustainable because of its waste byproducts (i.e., CO2). Optimistic deniers know this, but they focus on all the little good things that can happen along the way.

Climate change is traumatic, likely repeating a trauma that happened to humankind with the global warming event that marks the beginning of the Holocene. It will take grieving to deal with it. I’m not angry or sad about climate denial, nor do I want to bargain with deniers. I want coexistential grieving practices so that we might move through our trauma and begin to calmly accept what is happening: we are a species inhabiting Earth.


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