Facing up to Stealth Denial



‘To a greater or lesser extent, we are all climate deniers.This human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions’

 “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future. We EITHER continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, OR we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption” Prof Kevin Anderson

A new Report from the Royal Society of Arts based on research in Britain in 2013 about why we fail to act effectively on the ‘wicked problems of climate change and decarbonisation of our economy’ – extracts from the Executive Summary comprise this summary
Why do we deny or fail to act?


Our data indicate that about two thirds of the British population intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but ‘deny’ some or all of the commensurate feelings, responsibility and agency that are necessary to deal with it.

This ‘STEALTH DENIAL’ may be what perpetuates the doublethink of trying to minimise carbon emissions while maximising fossil fuel production, and also what makes us expect far too much of energy efficiency gains in the face of a range of rebound effects that lead the ‘saved energy’ to be used elsewhere.

The knowledge of the reality, causes and implications of human-caused climate change creates a moral imperative to act, but this imperative is diluted at every level by collective action problems that appear to be beyond our existing ability to resolve. This challenge is compounded by collectively mischaracterising the climate problem as an exclusively environmental issue, rather than a broader systemic threat  to the global financial system, public health and national security.

We should turn more of our attention to those who, like the author of this report, fully accept the moral imperative to act, but continue to live as though it were not there.  Most British NGOs walked out of the recent UN climate conference in Warsaw because governments appeared to be placing the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our need to retain a liveable planet.

When asked, most British people do care about climate change to some extent, but as long as the issue remains relatively unimportant in terms of daily concerns, competing political commitments (e.g. to energy prices and energy security, and to particular forms of economic growth) it will make it very difficult to create the political will necessary to decarbonise at scale and speed.

The very notion of denial, in which we somehow simultaneously know something and yet choose not to face up to that knowledge – is perplexing when the working assumption is that human beings are unitary, rational and self-consistent.

Denial begins to look normal, even adaptive, when you realise that our sense of self is constructed from a coalition of fragments, that most of what we do is unconscious, that we are motivated to keep feeling good about ourselves, and that we are, in many ways, strangers to ourselves. The postmodern self, by contrast, is fragmented and accepts fragmentation.’

Socialised & automatic behaviour tends to dominate individual behaviour  based on conscious deliberation about long-term consequences based on evidence

People engage more in rationalising their prior beliefs than in thinking rationally, i.e. RATIONALISING  rather than BEING RATIONAL!

Three Types of Denial

Among 64% in the survey  were ‘Climate Ignorers’ or The Unmoved Majority’  who are unmoved by climate change issues. The heart of the behavioural challenge is therefore about how to better ‘move’ parts of the unmoved majority to take action and overcome:

 •• Emotional Denial (47.2 per cent): ‘I don’t feel uneasy about climate change’

•• Personal Denial (27.6 per cent) ‘My daily actions are not part of the climate change problem’

•• Practical Denial (65 per cent) ‘There is nothing I can do personally that will have any significant effect on limiting climate change.’

Three levels of denial. (Weintrobe)

  •  NEGATION involves saying that something that manifestly is, is not, usually because accepting the truth is too painful  or threatening.
  • DENIALISMwhen misinformation seeks deliberately  to misdirect people’s attention from the truth.
  • DISAVOWAL, reality is accepted, but its significance is minimised – ‘knowing and not knowing at the same time’. It frees us from the emotional distress of confronting the problem head on. It undermines our capacity to care, love, or show concern. Further, without care there is no action, so disavowal hinders our capacity for creative solutions because we just don’t care enough.

Why do governments fail to act?

Markets drive fossil fuel production and follow government signals to make energy investment decisions, while governments follow democratic pressures to make political decisions. Lack of progress on climate change is caused by this mixture of vested interests, political paralysis and civic ambiguity. While directions of causality on such complex matters are never linear or one-way, what we appear to need most are forms of ‘behaviour change’ that get (some) people to change, in ways that get governments to change, in ways that get markets to change.

A reiteration of the evidence may be part of what Robert Kegan calls our immunity to change in which we fail to face up to the competing commitments and hidden assumptions that inform our approach to intractable problems.

Why is there inadquate public pressure to act on climate change?

1. The belief that it doesn’t really matter what we do in Britain.

2. Climate change is still relatively unimportant to people in the UK

3. There is no national conversation about climate change.

4. The issue is currently too amorphous

5. It’s only one part of the energy trilemma and not viewed as the most important

6. About two-thirds of the British population disavow the problem

Unlike many environmental issues, climate change is relatively invisible, completely systemic and extremely urgent. An overall strategy to motivate action on climate change involves helping people connect with each other and spread motivation through shared interests and values.

Climate change is hard to define succinctly, may not be a stable construct in the public’s mind, may not be connected to energy or fuel in the public’s mind, is not really ‘a problem to be solved’ but more like an enduring part of the policy landscape, and is not really an environmental issue.

 What are the roots of the energy/climate problem?

The root problem is global production, not national emissions – anthropogenic climate change is driven primarily by the economic logic of global fossil fuel extraction. Just 90 companies which between them produced almost two thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 and 2010, roughly half of which were emitted in the last 25 years.

Therefore climate change is not just for environmentalists – Climate change does stem from ecological constraints, but it is driven by the social logic of economic activity and its effects, and has significant implications for public health, immigration, industrial policy, pensions, financial stability and energy security. People are primarily consumers with financial interests rather than citizens with democratic interests.

There is a radical misunderstanding of the nature and ubiquity of climate change denial as something purely cognitive, and also significant underestimation of rebound effects on emissions reductions made through energy efficiency. ‘Rebound effects’  occur when efficiency actions  encourage more energy use as it becomes cheaper or that energy not used for one purpose in one place will still be used for another in another place. Therefore efficiency gains are only a small part of the solution.

We have to connect with the root causes of the climate problem, which is partly about using too much energy to fulfil socially and culturally constructed needs and desires, but is more profoundly about the price of fossil fuels that produce that energy, and political and economic structures that keep us addicted to them.

What strategies are needed?

Addressing climate change means working with cultural values.

Strengthen pro-environmental or intrinsic values – challenges like climate change require us to promote intrinsic and ‘bigger than self’ values.

Weaken consumerist or extrinsic valuesthey are harmful and most often reinforced -. In everyday life people are confronted with stimuli that are more likely to reinforce extrinsic values. Indeed, for every pound of social marketing, several pounds are spent on commercial marketing. The way to reach ‘extrinsically motivated groups’ is through communication strategies that appeal to self-esteem, self-interest, financial gain and so forth but this may block the acquisition of intrinsic ‘bigger than self’ values.

Act as citizens challenging governments to do more – the UK 2008 Climate Change Act is a robust framework for reducing emissions (80 per cent reduction on 2000 levels of CO2 by 2050).  But John Ashton, UK Government Special Representative for Climate Change concludes that ‘None of our big national parties is yet serious about climate change. People would be more open to personal sacrifices if they felt it was part of national leadership. ’   Even those policymakers who in principle want to take serious action on climate change are terrified of the short-term political backlash. There’s only one way around this kind of paralysis: public pressure, e.g. Zero Carbon Britain 2030 project, which has led a large coalition of scientists and social scientists to present an integrated strategy to make Britain carbon neutral. Shake off the hold of ‘stealth denial’ to motivate political pressure

Avoid stealth (failure to be honest) – ‘You can’t transform a country by stealth. It requires consent and in a democracy that means an explicit political choice. It requires mobilization and therefore a call to arms. It requires honesty about the burdens, and supports for measures to help those whose communities and livelihoods depend on the high carbon economy.

  • Credibly connect people to solutions and solutions to problems
  •  Target the ‘Pioneers’  i.e. Around 36% in the survey = inner-directed people who have ethical concern for bigger-than-self challenges like climate change.
  • Build a Climate Alliance with clear shared objectives that is not part of the environmental movement;
  • Consistently refocus the debate away from the existence of the problem towards competing ideas about solutions;
  • Create public platforms for people to speak to each other about climate change for more than a few minutes at a time;
  • Lobby for consumption-based emissions reporting;
  • Support and promote divestment (withdrawing investment) in fossil fuels;
  • Campaign for the reduction of fossil fuel subsidies and the dismantling of the European Emissions Trading Scheme;
  • As far as possible, collectively supply and manage your own renewable energy;
  • Build reciprocal international commitment by highlighting that we are not alone  in our attempts to lead on climate mitigation and adaptation.

What about climate change  makes response  difficult?

The effects (of climate change) are distant in four dimensions: “not here”, “not now”, “not me”, and “not clear” [Oliver Payne, Behavioural Economist]

  • limitations in attention, memory and information processing, referred to as bounded rationality’ (not seeing the big picture beyond our own private worlds).
  • we heavily discount the future relative to the present, so the motivation to act for our future selves or future generations is much less than our desire for pleasure or convenience in the present.

http://poptech.org/popcasts/dan_gilbert__poptech_2007 – Dan Gilbert proposes four reasons why we ignore the threat of climate change, why haven’t we rallied our collective power to solve global warning?

1.         Climate change has no bad guy. Being a social species, we’re alert to the machinations of others. We’re naturally inclined to respond to a personifiable enemy, and there’s no beardy villain here.

2.         Climate change doesn’t move us. If something makes us angry or upset or disgusted, we’ll respond. Despite the emotive images of polar bears, the climate crisis doesn’t “violate our moral sensibilities”.

3.         Climate change isn’t immediate. The human body will move at lightning speed to avoid a sudden danger. We’re not so good at thinking about the future.

4.         Climate change is slow motion. If change is gradual, we don’t really notice it, and we’re prepared to tolerate long-term change that we’d never accept if it happened fast.

Economic growth is currently perceived to be an axiomatic goal by the political class and general population. “Sustainable consumption runs counter to dominant tenets of neoliberal economics and conventional political objectives”. Significant reductions in the energy currently needed to sustain consumption at scale may be incompatible with a form of capitalism that relies on consumption to deliver growth.

Global perception of energy demand is driven by the social practices we come to view as normal (e.g. two hot showers a day, driving short distances, regular flying), features of life relating to contingent norms of cleanliness, comfort and convenience rather than inherent features of human welfare. Each behaviour exists within a broader cultural context of values and attitudes that are hard to measure and influence. The individual is not the originator of the behaviour at all, but rather the carrier of the practice – which will go on after the individual has finished carrying it out.


One thought on “Facing up to Stealth Denial”

  1. Perhaps the central point of the paper is STEALTH DENIAL = intellectually accepting the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but ‘denying’ some or all of the commensurate feelings, responsibility and agency that are necessary to deal with it.
    The 64 page report that offers a more sophisticated analysis, based solidly on empirical social science research, of why individually and collectively we are so reluctant to break out of our denial of the climate change problem. This requires changing cultural norms and behaviour, both individually and collectively. Education has a key role to play. ENIRDELM and CASE can play their part. CASE is about care for ‘Spaceship Earth’ that leads to action in the community.
    CASE is, at root, about changing cultural norms and behaviour away from excessive consumerism and short-term self-interest (“more, more and still more”) towards ‘bigger than self’ values that make long-term survival and species well-being the first ethical and behavioural consideration (“enough is enough”). A Spaceship Earth ethic is certainly ‘bigger than self’. The metaphor of a bounded, finite spaceship to represent the earth addresses the fundamental problem of economic growth:
    Stealth denial has to be overcome by enough democratic citizens so that they will bring pressure on governments to regulate markets that are damaging spaceship earth. As the paper forcefully points out: there can be no non-radical future.
    Economic consumers (the role that seems stronger for most of us than being democratic citizens) can also bring some direct pressure to bear on markets by their consumer choices, but this is likely to be far less significant in moving towards a circular, steady-state, low-carbon economy than regulation of markets by the rule of law.
    CASE can contribute to starting national (and international) conversations by encouraging students to engage in community action for a sustainable spaceship earth and by trying to reducing our own stealth denial by practising the “individual behaviour based on conscious deliberation” that we preach.


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