I embrace differences of opinion. Democracy is based on it, and we make each other smarter and stronger when we exchange views. However, for a literate person in 2009 to claim that human-caused global warming is not a reality is akin to a literate person in 1859 claiming slavery in the South was not a reality. In a minute I’ll address the psychology of this.
Bill Bigelow’s opinion piece in today’s Oregonian is about the need to teach climate literacy, and the problem of Portland schools not yet teaching it (despite U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood terming Portland the green capital of the nation). His piece is followed by comments, some in support, and others taking umbrage at the idea:
“I wonder if parents want their kids indoctrinated by left-wing communists?” “He thinks voodoo science about man made global warming should be taught as fact.” “I’m tired of environmental wacko’s who think their point of view is the only one that matters.” “Using classrooms as bully pulpits for political causes is an egregious breach of professional ethics.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has performed the most rigorous assessment and review of scientific research in the history of the world, and concluded that global warming is a fact, is caused by humans burning fossil fuels, and presents grave dangers. That said, I’ll address the psychology of people who think they know better than the IPCC — and I’ll label this as my opinion, informed by a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
I think the naysayers on global warming have three different things going on: denial, cognitive dissonance and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD).
Denial is when we reject what is true, usually because the truth is too uncomfortable. We all practice denial at least once in awhile, but alcoholics and addicts of all kinds are famous for taking it to extremes. Our culture is addicted to cheap coal and cheap oil; even President Bush climbed out of his denial of global warming enough to remark in one speech that the U.S. is addicted to oil. The implication, though, of not being in denial about global warming is to accept that our future involves rising temperatures and sea levels that create millions of environmental refugees — and that we’ve got to sharply curb our use of fossil fuels to curtail the level of disaster. Ouch! Uncomfortable! Which leads to cognitive dissonance.
It’s painful to hold opposing, dissonant facts or thoughts in our heads. So, we reject one of the facts or thoughts, unconsciously and without even hearing ourselves do it. Example: “We’re supposed to reduce our fossil fuel consumption by 60%. But my lifestyle totally depends on driving my car everywhere, running my air conditioner, etc., and I can’t imagine living any other way. And I’m a responsible, intelligent person who does the right thing when I’ve got the right information. But since I can’t do the right thing here, there’s no way I can have the right information” . The first three sentences created the dissonance, and the last sentence resolved the cognitive dissonance — by dismissing the scientific reality of global warming. The unconscious birth of a naysayer.
Some people are especially devoted to denying and debunking global warming. Until fairly recently, this perspective was mostly profit-driven, yet even Exxon-Mobil now has stopped denying climate change and repositioned itself as an alleged advocate of the environment. I suggest that some of the remaining naysayers not motivated by profit have a psychiatric condition called oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
People with ODD are long on anger, resentment and arguing. Any type of authority or rules tends to trigger defiant and hostile behavior. It’s as if they resist things on principle, the content of the thing being secondary to their core principle of “nobody can tell me what’s what”. People with ODD will go to incredible lengths to oppose and resist what they don’t like, oblivious to reason or to the consequences of their actions, or inactions. Sound like any naysayers on global warming you’ve read? ODD is usually a designation for children and teenagers, which to me reflects that adults who exhibit these behaviors and thought patterns are in a state of arrested development, and haven’t yet grown up.
That last might sound like a harsh statement. It’s considered polite to see all viewpoints in a democratic nation as equal. Yet, some viewpoints, like “global warming isn’t a problem” deny facts and are malignant due to the outcomes they court. Mr. Bigelow’s belief that climate literacy should be taught in schools is a correct one. People whose lack of psychological health leads them to deny or oppose the concept of global warming should be seriously ignored — except to offer them counseling, which offer I’m pretty sure they would also deny and oppose, on principle.