How to beat denial - a 12-step plan

It’s easy to feel so overwhelmed by the problems facing our planet that we turn away to whatever will cheer us. Pat Thomas shows us the pattern of climate change denial
We live in a world haunted by the issue of climate change. A world with problems seemingly so severe and out of control that to stop and think about them is to risk intellectual and emotional paralysis. So we take the issue apart in small doses and sugar the pill with familiar, but ultimately destructive, distractions wherever we can.

Witness the papers on the day the Stern report was published. The front pages told us that the problem of climate change was official and real and important – as if it hadn’t been just one day before. But elsewhere in the daily papers there was little comment or analysis of the report’s implications. Instead it was business as usual – with some of the financial pages reporting, for instance, that Quantas had ordered eight new airbus A380 superjets; while others fêted the arrival of the first long-haul airline to offer non-stop flights from Gatwick to Hong Kong for just £75 one way.

The Times encouraged readers to start collecting its air miles, and boasted a free flight to Europe for every reader. The Independent featured a motoring supplement that trumpeted the merits of the 3.2-litre Land Rover Freelander 4x4, the 6.12-litre Mercedes Benz Rocket (with a ridiculous top speed of 225mph) and the 6-litre Bentley GTC convertible. Aware of the irony, the paper noted that the waiting lists for some of these cars would give its readers ‘time to fight your conscience’ over their CO² emissions. The Guardian featured an arts supplement recommending that the best way to appreciate the world’s finest pieces of art was to fly to wherever they were and see them up close and personal.

Within a matter of days, the mass media tendency to report and move on was all too apparent: the Stern report had sunk, mostly without trace.


The scientific evidence for climate change grows more incontrovertible and damning by the day, as does evidence of the role that human activity (and inactivity) plays in this destructive phenomenon. Our inability as individuals to make sense of and tackle the problem head-on seems baffling, until seen in the context of our modern information culture. It is not simply the overwhelming volume of information that comes at us each day. More, it is the lack of reference points, the absence of a framework to help an average person make sense of the problem and locate their roles and responsibilities within it that is holding us back.

There are other problems. Psychologists have documented how integral the ‘messenger’ can be in helping individuals interpret a given piece of information. Our climate-change messengers include a media steeped in the language of drama and disaster; and groups of (largely anonymous) scientists, politicians and economists, who debate the topic on a lofty platform and in a language that excludes so many average individuals. Is it any wonder that so many people have switched off or are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the ‘right’ moment to step in?

In the macho worlds of politics and ecological debate, it is all too easy to get sucked into a war of words and clever arguments, in which each side becomes obsessed with being right and little effective action is actually taken.

For the past eight years or so, most people’s response to climate change has been played out on this mental plane, ultimately making the major challenges we face seem distant and abstract.

Not long ago, an American group called the FrameWorks Institute looked at the way that the climate change message was presented. Among its conclusions was that stressing the large scale of global warming and then telling people they can solve it through small actions such as changing a light-bulb, brings about a disconnection that undermines the urgency of the message and encourages people to think that individual action is meaningless.

Evidence of this disconnection is everywhere and is sadly reminiscent of a man who continues to comb his few remaining strands of hair over his scalp, in the hope of disguising – from himself and everyone else – the fact that he is going bald.
Studies show, for instance, that there is a strong tendency on the part of the public to associate climate change with activities that are both large-scale and not undertaken by individuals. Thus the burning of fossil fuels for energy is widely associated with climate change, but only a small proportion of individuals (around 20 per cent) associate their own household energy use with the problem. Likewise, many car owners think of car emissions as solely a local environmental problem and do not relate it to wider issues such as global warming.

Losing our minds

To return our focus to a human scale it is necessary to hold up a mirror, put ourselves in the picture and reflect on what it is that keeps us from making a personal connection with the challenge of climate change.

With this in mind, and at the risk of being accused of throwing like a girl, let me throw this out. You are in denial. So am I. So are we all. Never have so many seemed so oblivious to the implications of so momentous a future-shaping condition.

Denial is an all-too-human psychological process that disconnects us from uncomfortable emotions. It is a common defence mechanism that ‘protects’ us from things we’d prefer not to face up to – which it does by distorting reality, blocking deep understanding, and thus assuaging guilt. It helps us to ignore responsibility, prevents foresight, hinders the ability to see patterns in the apparent chaos of our lives, and stops us learning from our mistakes.

It’s not deliberate and it’s not malicious, but it is progressive and addictive; the longer we deny something, the more pervasive and entrenched in our psyches it becomes. Left unexamined, it can cut a damaging swathe through everything that is precious and worth preserving in life.

There is nothing unique about the course of climate-change denial. It resembles, for instance, that of people suffering alcohol addiction; or of people with sudden, severe impairment brought on by brain damage, such as stroke. Alcoholics are commonly seen as persons overwhelmed by experiences or circumstances beyond their ability to cope, and denial is common amongst them and their families. Likewise, in some stroke patients, ‘anosognosia’ (the inability to recognise or acknowledge their paralysis) is a common form of denial in which the patient concocts elaborate stories as a rationalisation for their inability to move.

Climate-change deniers are coping with an overwhelming experience too: an almost insufferable contradiction between past convictions and present circumstances, and a need to defend themselves against an intolerable and painful truth: we have been destroying, and continue to destroy, the only home that any of us have known. For a psychologist, the signs of our denial are all too obvious. It can take many forms, both individual and collective; and in the world of climate change we have gone through them all. For instance:

Simple Denial takes the form of flatly denying that climate change exists. Such arguments, often masquerading as debate, have an almost Python-esque quality to them. For example:
‘Climate change is a fact.’
‘No it isn’t.’
‘Yes it is.’
‘Sorry, is this the five-minute argument or the half-hour argument?’

Minimising allows the opposing side to appear reasonable by admitting that the problem exists – but doing so in such a way as to make it seem less serious or significant than it actually is.
‘Yes, of course the climate is getting hotter. But remember, this is part of a larger natural cycle of climate change.’
‘It was much hotter than this during the Middle Ages, you know.’

Rationalising is making excuses or giving reasons to justify why our behaviour isn’t the problem. The behaviour is not denied, but an inaccurate explanation of its cause – or our power over it – is given.
‘We can’t do anything about climate change, because it would destroy our economy.’
‘Climate change is just another excuse to raise taxes.’

Intellectualising or generalising avoids the emotional, personal awareness of the problem by using sometimes crazy theories and keeping the argument vague.
‘How reliable are the figures for climate change? I mean, we’re just guessing most of the time.’
‘Why would you regulate a pollutant that’s an inert gas vital to plant photosynthesis, and which people exhale when they breathe? That can’t be a pollutant.’

Blaming (also called projecting) is maintaining that the responsibility for the problem lies somewhere else, not with us. The behaviour is not denied, but its cause is placed ‘out there’, not with the person doing it.
‘The real problem isn’t carbon emissions, it’s the fact that the sun is getting more radiant.’
‘It’s all due to cows farting, you know.’

Diversion is changing the subject to avoid talking about something that is perceived to be threatening.
‘What about AIDS or cancer? Don’t those things deserve my attention as well?’
‘But just think, we’ll be able to grow palms and pomegranates in Sussex? Won’t that be lovely!’
‘The Maldives is going to disappear? We’d better get on a plane quickly, then.’

Bargaining involves cutting deals or setting conditions for when things will be right to deal with the problem.
‘I’ll do something about cleaning up my CO² emissions, when the council cleans up my high street.’
‘It’s all America’s fault. There’s no point in doing anything about it until the US does.’

Passivity is ignoring the situation, or being its victim.
‘What can I do? It’s just little old me against the system.’
‘Well, how much difference can just one person make?’
‘There’s no point, nobody ever listens to what I think anyway.’

Hostility occurs when the person becomes angry or irritable whenever the subject of climate change is mentioned.
‘It’s always something with these loony ecologist types – they are just a bunch of doom-mongers.’

Through denial in its various forms we have failed to face up to the magnitude of the trap we have created for ourselves. We look to the fixes of technology and investment as the quickest ways out of the trap. Better, less polluting, more innovative technology and more positive investment are important. However, our current climate crisis is not fundamentally one of technology, but of heart and mind and spirit and will.

Coming to our senses

Without change on these fundamental and very personal levels, is change possible at all? And what is the intervention, the catalyst that sets that change in motion? Usually such questions are applied only to people in crisis, to drug addicts, alcoholics, and prisoners. ‘Intervention’ is not something for ‘normal’ people going about their everyday lives, who aren’t self-harming or harming others.

Yet what is climate change if not an act of extraordinary self-harm? And what is the destruction of the planet and the other species that we share it with, if not an act of harm and aggression directed at ‘others’?

Knowledge is not the cure for denial; it rarely motivates people to change. Emotion and connection are the only things that can move mountains. Through emotion and connection we are brought up against our sense of grief, of loss, of helplessness and of guilt in the face of climate change. Experiencing those emotions as part of ourselves, claiming ownership of them, can be the trigger for that all-important ‘ah-ha moment’ where we begin to feel powerful again and where a change in attitude and behaviour is possible. Science can’t deliver that ‘ah-ha’ moment because it speaks the language of the mind rather than the language of the heart or the spirit.

To get out of the addictive spiral of climate change denial we quite literally have to come to our senses. In this respect the 12-step programme – originally devised for Alcoholics Anonymous, but adapted and used by many other self-help organisations – may be useful. The 12-step programme is essentially an admission of humility and failure, an acknowledgement that our actions have an effect on others, as well as ourselves and that all of us need help and support to live better lives. Adapted to the realm of climate change, such a programme would look something like this:

1 Admit our failures. Like the alcoholic who can’t keep away from the bottle, the first step in our recovery from denial is a humble admission of failure: the failure of our economics, which has become disconnected from real life; the failure of our politics, which has forgotten the moral fibres that bind us and call us to action; the failure of our science, which has lost sight of the connectedness of all things; and our own failures as human beings, for mortgaging our future against numerous meaningless possessions and for not loving this world and the precious lives it sustains deeply, sensitively or intelligently enough.

2 Acknowledge our grief especially over what we have already lost – the communities, the animals, the world’s wild places – and what we are losing – more animals, more wild places, non-renewable resources, a safe healthy future for our children. We need to think deeply and come up with answers to what our loss of contact with nature means to us, to the way we think, to the way we live our lives.

3 Take a moral inventory of ourselves. Are we living by morally responsible/sustainable values? There was a time when to be human meant to be alive, to be curious, to participate. Now it means to consume. Thinking of ourselves solely as consumers is problematical because a consumer will always look for a consumer solution or a techno-fix. Thus people living in Surbiton can feel good about buying solar-powered radios even though they have no need of them. Supermarkets can promote ‘biodegradeable’ plastic bags that come with the message that we can all continue consuming at these community-destroying temples of commerce with a clear conscience. We have to ask ourselves, what in our lives is not sustainable, and what can we do to change?

4 Realise that science and intellect are not the higher powers that will save us. Science long ago ceased to be a search for truth. Today it is a search for grant money and publication rights. In many areas science has become just an- other tool of industry; indeed, many of the scientists who are climate-change deniers have been exposed as being funded by oil and tobacco multinationals. Likewise, logic and rationality only take us part of the way on life’s journey; an intelligent mind that is not connected to the heart and soul is near worthless.

5 Acknowledge that all things are connected and all things matter. Man is not isolated from the world. Everything we buy, everything we use, everything we wash down the drain or flush down the toilet, leaves its mark on the world. Ask yourself: What mark am I leaving? Is my sunscreen causing fish to spontaneously change sex? How many non-renewable resources did I use in that car journey to school or the market? How much more energy does that plasma TV I want use compared to a conventional set?

6 Make a list of the ways we harm the planet and contribute everyday to climate change. This needs to be a personal list, not one focused on industry. It’s the things we all do that we know are part of our personal footprint on the earth. It includes every light left on when we are out; every unnecessary car journey; every plastic item in our homes or offices; every cheap flight we’ve ever taken to anywhere; every exotic fruit we simply ‘had to buy’. Then, having made the personal list, we need to note how our individual contributions are fuelled by industry and by advertising and not by genuine need.

7 Admit to our children that we have not taken good care of ourselves or the planet. Confession is good for the soul… so make a list of all the animals that have become extinct since our child, or grandchild, was born. Include also all the plants that are dying out due to global warming, all the natural places that once existed in our community that are no longer there, and all the good things that we experienced as children, but which our children will not.

8 Be willing to make amends for this harm, starting today. What can we do NOW and keep doing every day – for ourselves, our families, our communities – that will constitute our personal and positive contribution to a better world?

9 Accept that we are here to take care of the world, not the other way round.

10 When we fall off the path of fore caring, admit it and make immediate amends

11 Seek, through meditation and contemplation, through consciousness and regular contact with nature, to live more sustainable and responsible lives. Regular contact with nature is the only way to remind ourselves how precious and necessary it is in all our lives.

12 Use community support to strengthen our resolve to take care of the world. Share what we have learned with others in the community. Everyone is on a different stage of this learning journey. We can help others see the problems more clearly by helping each other realise we are not alone.

Pat Thomas is the Ecologist’s Health Editor

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2006

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