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The Psychology Of Naysayers On Global Warming

July 19th, 2009 by Alison · 16 Comments · sustainability

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.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Tomi Itkonen

    Hi. You might be interested in watching these Christopher Horner interviews:

    There’re 7 parts of those on YouTube.

    Best regards,

  • Lou Grinzo

    Alison: Thank you very much for writing this. It perfectly describes what makes deniers tick, and I think it also highlights just what those of us fighting to educate and activate mainstream voters and consumers are up against.

    The people I find most frustrating to deal with are the ones who’ve barely thought about global warming. All the talk about it in the media and by people they know is just so much noise they ignore as they go about business as usual. My guess is that most of them fall into the CD category. Even in their ignorance (which is not meant as an insult) they perceive that this is a problem that requires major lifestyle changes or other inconveniences, something they refuse to do, so they don’t let themselves think about it.

    I’ll point my readers to your site and post.

  • Rebecca Jacobsen

    I am a regular reader of Lou’s. I have some experience with ODD as my son has been diagnosed with it. I can really see the connection between ODD and climate science denial and it makes sense. Thanks for writing this.

  • David Cognito

    That certainly describes many of the deniers I’ve encountered over the last few years. They’re totally immune to evidence, science and rational debate.

    The other big component of the denier mindset is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning-Kruger_effect - many of them are certain that their expertise in one subject allows them to become expert in any subject from reading a few blog posts.

    P.S. What ExxonMobil says does not always match what they do - http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jul/01/exxon-mobil-climate-change-sceptics-funding

  • Alison

    David: Thanks for telling me about the Dunning-Kruger effect. It sounds like an ego problem, also a thinking error, to assume that expertise in one arena then transfers to another arena. And concerning ExxonMobil, I see their newfound-allelulujah greenness to be nothing but posing.

  • Alison

    Thanks very much for plugging me on your site. I agree that the millions in the ‘apathetic middle’ are the biggest problem, bigger than the relatively few who are passionate naysayers and deniers.
    Rebecca, thanks for writing. It’s the first time I’ve floated the ODD idea on my site, and it’s good to hear some validation from someone with firsthand experience of the disorder. Warm wishes to you and your son.

  • D Newton

    I’m a lucky guy. Most people have to call Dr. Laura and wait on hold for hours to be psychoanalyzed by an unlicensed, narcissistic quack. Allison generously provided this unsolicited service free of charge over the Internet

    When Her green faith healing gig runs out of steams she may have a future in the entertainment industry.

    Allison seems to believe that schoolteachers are entitled to use public school classrooms to promote their personal agendas. Would she be so forgiving if a fanatic right wing teacher attempted to indoctrinate her children? Mr. Bigelow’s blind faith in the Prophet James Hansen is the least of his problems; he is a relatively recent convert to green theology.

    My point Allison was not to attack your self-righteous green cult (you will eventually grow up) but to object to this fringe radical proselytizing in public schools.

  • Alison

    Reply to D. Newton: The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change is not fringe, fanatical or radical, but a body of international scientists. Science is by nature cautious, meticulous and conservative. When international scientists concur on climate change, which they’ve done, the responsible course is to then teach the facts on climate change, aka climate literacy, to the generation that will be dealing with our damaged climate all their lives. Facts have no relationship to proselytizing.

    I’m part of a self-righteous green cult? A public opinion poll released earlier this month
    found that 75% of the U.S. public thinks the federal government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions. See http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/07/opinion_071009.html
    A cult by definition is very much in the minority. Concerning global warming being a reality that needs action, it looks like I’m in the mainstream, and you’re on the fringe or in a cult.

  • Richard Pauli


    What a wonderful, succinct description of the problem. Thank you so much. I am forwarding your link.

    I hunger for your wisdom on how to approach a future that is going to be colossally different than expected. What culture do we abandon? which do we cherish?

  • Gail

    Alison, very well put. RPauli sent me the link to your post, which I have now bookmarked and look forward to reading more in the future.

    D. Newton couldn’t have better exemplified ODD if he tried!

  • Richard Pauli

    Thank you for allowing some further words - you have I wonderful site. So very important. I am thinking more about your closing statement:

    “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…”

    Clearly you choose those words carefully. I fully agree. But a Climate ODD ( a Clodd ?!?!) - well they can do real harm. I would label Senator Inhoffe a clodd. He wields tremendous power and acts to prevent adaptation or mitigation. He should be seriously ignored. But he cannot. I know we must, but I am not sure how.

    I am old enough to remember Senator Joe McCarthy (demagogue from the 1950′s) - his true self was exposed on TV in the Army/McCarthy hearings - after which he drunkenly faded away. It looked to me like the exposure to his real self worked to protect us. But the stakes now are much higher and the science tells us we do not have the luxury of time for all the necessary counseling.

    I know that is a big issue in the counseling profession.. but the analogy holds up in politics - what do we do with someone whose behavior is harming us all? I can ignore delusional words from a clodd… but when they hold power, then we must speak truth to that power. Or speak over it. Or vote them out of office.

    It is like we are sitting in our seats in a crowded theater, we smell smoke, feel heat and see flames… but some CLODD tells us to stay seated and even buy more tickets in a theater that is about to burn… that is harmful language to everyone.

    I know we are working out the answers here… thanks for all that you do.

  • Ralph Doncaster

    This NASA page contradicts the IPCC statement, “it is likely that the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year during the past thousand years”


    When I zoom in to the NASA temperature graph I see a ~+2C peak around 400-500yrs ago.
    I see a few more periods of ~+2C over the past 11,000 years. From 11,000 to 120,000 years ago the graph shows a much colder period (~-6C), then a relatively large warm period (~+3C) about 130,000 years ago.
    The shape of the hump at 130,000 years ago looks very similar to the hump at ~330,000 years ago.

    When fully zoomed out, to me it looks like the past 11,000 years as the most stable (the trend appears relatively flat) of the past 450,000 years.


  • Russ Finley

    Ralph, with all due respect, you fit the description of an armchair climatologist:


    It has been said that we are all crazy. It’s a just matter of degree. Coping mechanisms, denial and cognitive dissonance, are natural and normal. There are tens of millions who think global warming science is wrong. They have not all crossed the line into a diagnosable mental illness. Are America’s religionists all mentally ill?

    I have to admit that I’m nervous about teaching too much climate science to school kids. It’s a scary subject, maybe not something kids need to hear too much detail about. If we hit a tipping point it will mean the end of civilization, not just a big immigration problem.

    The magnitude of what it will take to stop it has not dawned on most of us:


  • Steve Easterbrook

    Alison - thanks, great article.
    Here was my own attempt to answer the question:
    Also, John Mashey did an even more detailed breakdown:

  • Dan C

    Thanks, Allison.
    Bear with me on this: When I was in the military (1980′s), one of the things that I noticed was that close quarters with so many young people (average age 19) seemed to extend puberty for everyone until they were discharged.
    I think a similar thing is propagated by our modern, ‘always on’ communication systems which are dominated by children and geeks (overgrown children).
    I don’t see the Left being much more mature than the right. “One party has no brains, and the other has no spine.” Everyone wants to just cry until their comforts are met. Nobody wants to do the tedious daily work of living. That’s why we have so many machines burning so much carbon and any talk of reduction means loss of some little comfort in some little way.
    Humans are spoiled little brats with yeast for brains. They get the government and the disasters they deserve.

  • richard pauli

    Alison, your conclusion strengthens with time. The distractors, enablers, peddlers and panderers “should be seriously ignored” as they are dangerous to our future.

    Even though we may accept the inevitability of global warming, we want to forget and ignore how bad it can be, how serious, dire, and grim. And we are consistently re-shocked by the learning of new tipping points and an increasing rate of change.

    Right now I feel an empathy with the smoker who first coughs up blood, the pre-diabetic with numb feet, the alcoholic with a DUI. This is the uncomfortable time when we realize the real consequences, and we first know that we have a
    serious problem with no real solution. The very best we can do is pledge survival, reform behavior and work hard for some serenity. All while we face the problem. But there are no guarantees.

    But much like the diabetic, alcoholic, smoker - we may know what we have to do, but it is so difficult or impossible to change. And just like we as a society have chosen to deal with those bad habits: We should stop advertising messages (like with tobacco), we should offer treatment and information (as with a diabetic), and we should not permit anyone (drunk driver) to injure the innocent. This is consistent with our long cherished civility that supports healthy change, along with a sense of law and accountability.

    And we should speak this loudly. Thanks so much.

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