Getting beyond climate change denial

By Savi Hensman
September 27, 2013

There is overwhelming evidence that human activities are mainly responsible for climate change since the mid-twentieth century, and urgent action is needed to tackle the problem, scientific experts have said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a hard-hitting report warning of grave consequences if effective changes are not made now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet governments are largely reluctant to adopt strong measures and many people are still in denial.

To make progress in protecting humans and other species on this fragile yet resilient earth, faith and humanist groups and others aware of the danger should consider the systemic and psychological reasons why proposals for firm action have met with so much resistance. This includes learning from the work of psychologists and social scientists who have studied climate change denial.

To begin with, the dominant ideology in most countries is ‘free-market’ capitalism (though this may be costly in terms of human freedom), in which the most powerful corporations are enabled to pursue short-term profits even if this literally costs the earth. The commercial interests of the richest are treated as practically sacrosanct, any major challenge as unthinkable, especially since most governments and media companies are dominated by their friends and associates.

Those most knowledgeable about climate change may largely abandon hope of major structural change and instead frame the problem as one for which the current ‘lifestyle’ of ordinary citizens is primarily responsible.

It can feel as if families whose wage-earners toil in boring or stressful jobs with little security, in a struggle to pay increasing food and fuel costs, are held to blame. They may get the impression they are being urged to give up their few remaining luxuries without even knowing if this will be enough to avert catastrophe. It is not surprising that some will be tempted either to deny that there is a problem or avoid thinking about it too often.

To achieve a sustainable future, drastic change will indeed be necessary. But appearing to require those with little power and limited privilege to sacrifice the most is likely to make them less receptive, especially if they are also being bombarded by propaganda from well-funded climate change deniers.

It may seem blasphemous to those most closely bound to the present economic and political system to question its belief systems, including a particular concept of economic growth. Yet if those with other values and priorities, including faith communities, can seek to understand and overcome the barriers to action on climate change and foster hope, it will be possible to achieve a better future.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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