Psychology of climate change denial

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Republican U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe holds a snowball on the U.S. Senate floor to show that "it’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable."[1] It was February.[1]

The psychology of climate change denial is the study of why people deny climate change, despite the scientific consensus on climate change. The number of people denying climate change was increasing (in 2014), contrary to the increasing volume of scientific evidence and the consensus of scientists that anthropogenic climate change is occurring.[2] Several psychological barriers have been proposed to account for this phenomenon: Distance in time, space, and influence, framing, dissonance, political worldview, cultural theory, limited cognition, age differences, ideologies, comparison with others, sunk costs, views of others and perceived risk, limited behavior, conspiratorial beliefs.

Psychological barriers[edit]

Various psychological factors can impact the effectiveness of communication about climate change, driving potential climate change denial. Psychological barriers, such as emotions, opinions and morals refer to the internal beliefs that a person has which stop them from completing a certain action. In an article by Gifford R., he said "we are hindered by seven categories of psychological barriers, also known as dragons of inaction: limited cognition about the problem, ideological worldviews that tend to preclude pro-environmental attitudes and behavior, comparisons with other key people, sunk costs and behavioral momentum, discordance toward experts and authorities, perceived risk of change, and positive but inadequate behavior change".[3] People do not necessarily always put these barriers up but, in a way, set themselves up for doubt and fear of change. Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat. This is a barrier for most people when it comes to climate change. They are afraid of change because they believe it will be damaging to their life. People are told that the cause of climate change is because we do certain things that are to blame for climate change. We hear and sometimes accept it yet we choose not to make a change or believe in "climate change". An example would be that, in Iceland, "… Motives predict the purchasing fireworks and the opposition to mitigating action. Noticing public warnings regarding fireworks pollution did not significantly relate to the purchase behavior. The awareness of the harmful effects of firework pollution was, however, the biggest predictor of the support for mitigating action. Despite describing the pleasure derived from fireworks, 57% of the sample favored stricter government regulation, and 27% favored banning the public purpose of fireworks to 'protect them from what they want'."[4]

Distance in time, space, and influence[edit]

Climate change is often portrayed as occurring in the future, whether that be the near or distant future. Many estimations portray climate change effects as occurring by 2050 or 2100, which both seem much more distant in time than they really are, which can create a barrier to acceptance.[2] There is also a barrier created by the distance portrayed in climate change discussions.[2] Effects caused by climate change across the planet do not seem concrete to people living thousands of miles away, especially if they are not experiencing any effects.[2] Climate change is also a complex, abstract concept to many, which can create barriers to understanding.[2] Carbon dioxide is an invisible gas, and it causes changes in overall average global temperatures, both of which are difficult, if not impossible, for one single person to discern.[2] Due to these distances in time, space, and influence, climate change becomes a far-away, abstract issue that does not demand immediate attention.[2]


In popular climate discourse framing, the three dominant framing ideas have been apocalypse, uncertainty and high costs/losses.[2] These framings create intense feelings of fear and doom and helplessness.[2][5] Framing climate change in these ways creates thoughts that nothing can be done to change the trajectory, that any solution will be too expensive and do too little, or that it is not worth trying to find a solution to something we are unsure is happening.[2] Climate change has been framed this way for years, and so these messages are instilled in peoples’ minds, elicited whenever the words "climate change" are brought up.[2]


Because there is little solid action that people can take on a daily basis to combat climate change, then some believe climate change must not be as pressing an issue as it is made out to be.[2] An example of this phenomenon is that most people know smoking cigarettes is not healthy, yet people continue to smoke cigarettes, and so an inner discomfort is elicited by the contradiction in ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’.[2] A similar cognitive dissonance is created when people know that things like driving, flying, and eating meat are causing climate change, but the infrastructure is not in place to change those behaviors effectively.[2]

In order to address this dissonance, climate change is rejected or downplayed.[2] This dissonance also fuels denial, wherein people cannot find a solution to an anxiety-inducing problem, and so the problem is denied outright.[2] Creating stories that climate change is actually caused by something out of humans’ control, such as sunspots or natural weather patterns, or suggesting that we must wait until we are certain of all of the facts about climate change before any action be taken, are manifestations of this fear and consequent denial of climate change.[2]

"It seems as if people stop paying attention to global climate change when they realize that there are no easy solutions for it. Many people instead judge as serious only those problems for which they think action can be found."[2]

Individuals are alarmed about the dangerous potential futures resulting from a high-energy world in which climate change was occurring, but simultaneously create denial mechanisms to overcome the dissonance of knowing these futures, yet not wanting to change their convenient lifestyles.[6] These denial mechanisms include things like overestimating the costs of changing their lifestyles, blaming others, including government, rather than their own inaction, and emphasizing the doubt that individual action could make a difference within a problem so large.[6]

Political worldview[edit]

Degrees of concern about the effects of climate change vary with political affiliation.[7]

In the United States, climate change acceptance or denial is largely based on political affiliation.[8] This is partially caused by the idea that Democrats focus more on tighter government regulations and taxation, which are the basis for most environmental policy.[2] Political affiliation also affects how different people interpret the same facts.[2] The more highly educated an individual is, the more likely they are to rely on their own interpretation and political ideology rather than rely on scientists’ opinions.[2] Therefore, political world views override expert opinion on the interpretation of climate facts and evidence of anthropogenic climate change.[2][9] Another reason for the discrepancy in climate change denial between liberals and conservatives is the idea that "contemporary environmental discourse is based largely on moral concerns related to harm and care, which are more deeply held by liberals than by conservatives," whereas if the discourse were framed using moral concerns related to purity that are more deeply held by conservatives, the discrepancy was resolved.[10]

Affiliation with a political group, especially in the United States, is a very important personal and social identity for many.[11] Because of this, it is likely that an individual will carry the popular values of their political affiliation, regardless of their personal belief on the matter, solely so they are not ostracized from the group and their identity.[11][9] A study of climate change denial indicators from public opinion data from ten Gallup surveys from 2001 to 2010 shows that conservative white males in the United States are significantly more likely to deny climate change than other Americans.[12][9] Furthermore, conservative white males who reported understanding climate change very well were even more likely to deny climate change.[12] This is further proven through another study done in Australia, that showed that when participants had their political identity made salient, through definition and characteristics of supporters, were more likely to deny climate change and reject governmental climate change policies, especially when those participants were aligned with right-wing politics.[8]

One telltale worldview that leads to climate change denial is the belief in free enterprise capitalism.[3][13] The "freedom of the commons", or the freedom to use natural resources as a public good as it is practiced in free enterprise capitalism destroys important ecosystems and their functions, and so having a stake in this worldview does not correlate with climate change mitigation behaviors.[3][5] Political worldview plays an important role in environmental policy and action (or inaction). Liberals tend to focus on environmental risks, while conservatives focus on the benefits that economic development brings.[14] Because of these differences in world views, with one political ideology focusing on risks while the other focuses on benefits, conflicting opinions on the acceptance or denial of climate change arise.[14]

Cultural theory[edit]

Conservative white males are much more likely than other Americans to deny the existence of climate change according to public opinion data from Gallup surveys, and the statistical significance remains even whilst controlling for each of the direct effects of race, gender, political ideology, and other control variables.[12][15] In the initial Flynn et al. study in 1994, this white male effect was due to a smaller subgroup of white males in the sample who self-reported high risk acceptance.[16] People often cognitively process their perceptions regarding risk through their world views and as shared by their in-groups. If information that contradicts these beliefs and risks is presented by perceived out-groups, individuals tend to strongly resist any change to these aforementioned beliefs they have otherwise psychologically invested in—in this case, evidence of climate change is the information they resist.

This phenomenon has been coined as identity-protective cognition. This way of thinking allows people to preserve the self-perception benefits they retain through this perceived group membership, and thus they continue to appraise incoming information through a lens that supports beliefs associated with belonging in these groups. Kahan et al. offered strong support for this identity-protective cognition hypothesis through their multivariate analysis, noting that white males are thus likely to dismiss any reported risks of climate change and perceive reported risks of climate change as an out-group challenge to the existing hierarchy socially, politically, or economically.[17] McCright & Dunlap also found a positive relationship between self-reported understanding of global warming and intensity of endorsement of climate change denial beliefs, which underscores the identity-protective cognition hypothesis, in that it further illustrates the system-justifying tendency present in confident, conservative white men.[12]

Limited cognition[edit]

Limited cognition of the human brain, caused by things like the fact that the human brain has not evolved much in thousands of years, and so has not transitioned to caring about the future rather than immediate danger, ignorance, the idea that environments are composed of more elements than humans can monitor, so we only attend to things causing immediate difficulty, which climate change does not seem to do, uncertainty, undervaluing of distant or future risk, optimism bias, and the belief that an individual can do nothing against climate change are all cognitive barriers to climate change acceptance.[3]

Inoculation theory

This section has an excerpt from Inoculation theory

A social psychological theory that uses vaccination terminology and mechanisms to prevent spread of misinformation by "inoculating" with preemptive misinformation.[18] The theory was developed by social psychologist William J. McGuire in 1961 to explain how attitudes and beliefs change, and more specifically, how to keep existing attitudes and beliefs consistent in the face of attempts to change them. Researched primarily relative to health, science and politics, newer research is utilizing this theory as a persuasion tactic in reducing misinformation in conspiracy theories and contested science relative to climate science, vaccination, and the COVID-19 pandemic.[19]

"Inoculation has been tested experimentally in the context of climate change. When participants were exposed to both consensus information and misinformation casting doubt on the consensus, there was no significant change in acceptance of climate change.[18]"

Age differences[edit]

Youth show a deeper understanding and awareness of climate change than adults and older generations.[13] Younger generations of people typically demonstrate more concern about climate change over older generations, and younger demographics show more negative and pessimistic attitudes towards climate change.[20] However, younger demographics also believe at higher rates than older demographics that climate change can be successfully mitigated by taking action, and are more likely to express interest in taking action in order to help mitigate climate change.[20]

About 28% of millennials say that they have taken some kind of action to help with climate change, and 40% have used social media to address climate change in some way, along with 45% of Gen Z youth.[21] Younger generations are also more likely to support and vote for climate change policies than older generations.[21]

Ideology and religion[edit]

Belief that human activity is the primary cause of climate change varies widely by religious affiliation, with less than one-third of white evangelical Protestants holding that belief.[22]

Ideologies, including suprahuman powers, technosalvation, and system justification, are all psychological barriers to climate change acceptance.[3] Suprahuman powers describes the belief that humans cannot or should not interfere because they believe a religious deity will not turn on them or will do what it wants to do regardless of their intervention.[3] Technosalvation is the ideology that technologies such as geoengineering will save us from climate change, and so mitigation behavior is not necessary.[3] Another ideological barrier is the ideology of system justification, or the defense and justification of the status quo, so as to not "rock the boat" on a comfortable lifestyle.[3]

Comparison with others[edit]

Research found that 80–90% of Americans underestimate the prevalence of support for major climate change mitigation policies and climate concern among fellow Americans. While 66–80% Americans support these policies, Americans estimate the prevalence to be 37–43%—barely half as much. Researchers have called this misperception a false social reality, a form of pluralistic ignorance.[23][24]

Social comparisons between individuals build social norms.[3] These social norms then dictate how someone "should" behave in order to align with society's ideas of "proper" behavior.[3][25] This barrier also includes perceived inequity, where an individual feels they should not or do not have to act a certain way because they believe no one else acts that way.[3][25]

Sunk costs[edit]

Financial investment in fossil fuels and other climate change inducing industries is often a reason for denial of climate change.[25][3] If one accepts that these things cause climate change, they would have to lose their investment, and so continued denial is more acceptable.[25][26] People are also very invested in their own behavior. Behavioral momentum, or daily habits, are one of the most important barriers to remove for climate change mitigation.[3][25] Lastly, conflicting values, goals, and aspirations can interfere with the acceptance of climate change mitigation.[3] Because many of the goals held by individuals directly conflict with climate change mitigation strategies, climate change gets pushed to the bottom of their list of values, so as to minimize the extent of its conflict.[3]

Views of others and perceived risk[edit]

If someone is held in a negative light, it is not likely others will take guidance from them due to feelings of mistrust, inadequacy, denial of their beliefs, and reactance against statements they believe threaten their freedom.[3]

Several types of perceived risk can occur when an individual is considering changing their behavior to accept and mitigate climate change: functional risk, physical risk, financial risk, social risk, psychological risk, and temporal risk.[3] Due to the perception of all of these risks, the individual may just reject climate change altogether to avoid potential risks completely.[3]

Limited behavior[edit]

One type of limited behavior is tokenism, where after completing one small task or engaging in one small behavior, the individual feels they have done their part to mitigate climate change, when in reality they could be doing much more.[3] Individuals could also experience the rebound effect, where one positive activity is diminished or erased by a subsequent activity (like walking to work all week because you are flying across the country every weekend).[3]

Conspiratorial beliefs[edit]

Democrats and Republicans have long differed in views of climate change, with the gap widening in the late 2010s[27] and Democrats three times more likely to view it as human-caused.[7]

Climate change denial is commonly rooted in a phenomenon commonly known as conspiracy theory, in which people misattribute events to a secret plot or plan by a powerful group of individuals.[28] The development of conspiracy theories is further prompted by the proportionality bias that results from climate change — an event of mass scale and a great deal of significance — being frequently presented as a result of daily small-scale human behavior; often, individuals are less likely to believe large events of this scale can be so easily explained by ordinary details.[29]

This inclination is furthered by a variety of possible strong individually and socially grounded reasons to believe in these conspiracy theories. The social nature of being a human holds influential merit when it comes to information evaluation. Conspiracy theories reaffirm the idea that people are part of moral social groups that have the ability to remain firm in the face of deep-seated threats.[30][31] Conspiracy theories also feed into the human desire and motivation to maintain one's level of self-esteem, a concept known as self-enhancement.[32] With climate change in particular, one possibility for the popularity of climate change conspiracy theories is that these theories knee-cap the reasoning that humans are culpable for the degradation of their own world and environment.[33] This allows for maintenance of one's own self-esteem, and provides strong backing for belief in conspiracy theories. These climate change conspiracy theories pass the social blame to others, which upholds both the self and the in-group as moral and legitimate, making them highly appealing to those who perceive a threat to the esteem of themselves or their group.[34] In a similar vein, much like how conspiracy belief is linked with narcissism, it is also predicted by collective narcissism. Collective narcissism is a belief in the distinction of one's own group whilst believing that those outside the group do not give the group enough recognition.[35]

A variety of factors related to the nature of climate change science itself also enable the proliferation of conspiratorial beliefs. Climate change is a complicated field of science for lay people to make sense of. Research has experimentally indicated that people are used to creating patterns where there are none when they perceive a loss of control in order to return the world to one they can make sense of.[36] Research indicates that people hold stronger beliefs about conspiracies when they exhibit distress as a consequence of uncertainty, which are both prominent when it comes to climate change science.[37] Additionally, in order to meet the psychological desire for clear, cognitive closure, the likes of is not consistently accessible to lay people regarding climate change, people often lean on conspiracy theories.[38] Bearing this in mind, it is also crucial to note that conspiracy belief is conversely lessened in intensity when individuals have their sense of control affirmed.[39]

People with certain cognitive tendencies are also more drawn to conspiracy theories about climate change as compared to others. Aside from narcissism as previously mentioned, conspiratorial beliefs are more predominantly found in those who consistently look for meanings or patterns in their world, which often includes those who believe in paranormal activities.[40] Climate change conspiracy disbelief is also linked with lower levels of education and analytic thinking.[41][42] If a person has a predisposed inclination towards perceiving others’ actions as having been actively done willfully even when no such thing is happening, they are more likely to buy into conspiratorial thinking.[42]

Though there are numerous different specific conspiracy theories regarding climate change, there are a few consistent examples found as denoted by researchers Douglas and Sutton. Some people believe that fabricating the existence of climate change for purposes of exerting political influence, while others believe that it is being fabricated in order to alarm governments into financially supporting future research. Some people believe that climate change is a scam on behalf of environmental groups that have bribed scientists in order to protect their financial interests in renewable energy. As referenced in "The Great Global Warming Swindle" documentary from 2007, some believe global warming is a conspiracy crafted in order to promote interests in the nuclear sector.[43]

The global COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the increase of conspiratorial beliefs, contested science, skepticism, and overall denial of climate science.[44] Researchers studying science skepticism of vaccination for COVID-19 see direct linkages between this and science skepticism for other large scale domain issues like that of climate science.[44] Rise in contested science and misinformation in the global pandemic has had harmful effects for some, those for example that have ingested Hydroxychloroquine because of widespread misinformation.[45]

"COVID has opened everyone’s eyes to the dangers of health misinformation.[46][3]"

Threat to self-interest[edit]

The realisation that an individual's actions contribute to climate change can threaten their self-interest and compromise their psychological integrity.[15] The threat to self-interest can often result in ‘denialism’- a refusal to accept and even deny the scientific evidence- manifested across all levels of society.[26] Large organisations that have a strong vested interest in activities directly responsible for climate change, such as fossil fuel companies, may even promote climate change denial through the spread of misinformation.[5][47]

Denial is manifested at the individual level where it is used to protect the self from overwhelming emotional responses to climate change.[13] This is often referred to as ‘soft denial’ or ‘disavowal’ in the relevant literature.[48] Here the dangers of climate change are experienced in a purely intellectual way, resulting in no psychological disturbance: cognition is split off from feeling. Disavowal can be induced by a wide variety of psychological processes including: the diffusion of responsibility, rationalisation, perceptual distortion, wishful thinking and projection.[49][50] These are all avoidant ways of coping.

Soft climate change denial[edit]

Soft climate change denial (also called implicit or implicatory climate change denial) is a state of mind acknowledging the existence of global warming in the abstract while remaining, to some extent, in partial psychological or intellectual denialism about its reality or impact. It is contrasted with conventional "hard" climate change denial, which refers to explicit disavowal of the consensus on global warming's existence, causes, or effects (including its effects on human society).

Soft denial is akin to cognitive dissonance: despite understanding and accepting the scientific consensus on climate change as substantially true, a person in "soft" climate denial may behave as though the existence or severity of global warming are not fully real. A person in soft denial about global warming may neglect its urgency, miscalculate its risks, overestimate the extent of scientific uncertainty, and underestimate the extent of social change required to effectively mitigate climate change. Additionally, one may prefer inaction, postponement of climate action, or maintaining the status quo to an unreasonable degree, or may simply fail to act on the issue whatsoever due to apathy or disengagement. Even some forms of unproductive activism could be considered soft denial. More generally, soft climate denial can refer to any mild or partial climate change denial.

Michael Hoexter is credited with formalizing the definition of soft climate denial in September 2016,[51] though the term was in use earlier. The closely related term "neoskepticism" originated a month earlier in Science Magazine. While soft climate denial generally connotes a state of mind or set of beliefs, neoskepticism describes a deliberate set of rhetorical strategies adopted by opponents of climate mitigation policy. Although neoskeptics do not deny the existence of global warming outright, they err toward the most optimistic, least disruptive projections and oppose mitigation policy as ineffective, costly, or both. Both soft climate denial and neoskepticism are relevant to the politics of global warming, the political (not scientific) global warming controversy, and the study of environmental communication. The term soft climate denial has been used to criticize political inaction on climate-related issues.

Development of the terms[edit]

Expanding the meaning of "denial"[edit]

The idea of "soft" or implicit climate change denial became prominent in the mid-2010s, but variations of the same concept originated earlier. An article published by National Center for Science Education referred to "implicit" denial:

Climate change denial is most conspicuous when it is explicit, as it is in controversies over climate education. The idea of implicit (or "implicatory") denial, however, is increasingly discussed among those who study the controversies over climate change. Implicit denial occurs when people who accept the scientific community's consensus on the answers to the central questions of climate change on the intellectual level fail to come to terms with it or to translate their acceptance into action. Such people are in denial, so to speak, about climate change.[52]

In May 2015, environmentalist Bill McKibben penned an op-ed criticizing Barack Obama's policies of approving petroleum exploration in the Arctic, expanding coal mining, and remaining indecisive on the Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben wrote:

This is not climate denial of the Republican sort, where people simply pretend the science isn't real. This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground.[53]

McKibben's use of the word "denial" was an early expansion of the term's meaning in environmental discourse to include "denial of the significance or logical consequences of a fact or problem; in this case, what advocates see as the necessary policies that flow from the dangers of global warming."[54] In April 2016, the environmentalist organization Friends of the Earth Action accused Hillary Clinton—who was, at the time, campaigning in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries—of "engaging in soft climate denial."[55]

Michael Hoexter's analysis of soft climate change denial[edit]

Michael Hoexter, a scholar and sustainability advocate, analyzed the phenomenon of "soft climate change denial" in a September 2016 article for the blog New Economic Perspectives and expanded on the idea in a follow-up article published the next month.[51] Despite the term's earlier, informal usage, Hoexter has been credited with formally defining the concept.[56] In Hoexter's terms, "soft" climate denial "means that one acknowledges in some parts of one's life that climate change is real, disastrous and happening now but in most other parts of one's life, one ignores that anthropogenic global warming is, in fact, a real existential emergency and catastrophic."[57] According to Hoexter, "soft climate denial and the thin gruel of climate action policies that accompany it may be functioning as a 'face-saving' device to mask fundamental inertia or a deep manifest preference for inaction while continuing fossil-fueled business as usual."[58]

He also applied the term to "more 'radical' groups" that pushed for more responsive measures, but "often either miss the mark in terms of the climate challenge facing us or wrap themselves in communication strategies and 'memes' that limit their potential influence on politics and policy."[59] In Hoexter's view, soft denial can only be escaped through collective action, not individual action or realization.[60]


"Neoskepticism" was coined in a policy paper published in 2016 issue.[61] The term has substantial overlap with "soft climate change denial".[62] The policy paper makes the case that opposition to climate policy was beginning to take a "rhetorical shift away from outright skepticism": rather than denying the existence of global warming, neoskeptics instead "question the magnitude of the risks and assert that reducing them has more costs than benefits." According to the authors, the emergence of neoskepticism "heightens the need for science to inform decision making under uncertainty and to improve communication and education."[63]

There are a range of projected changes that will result from global warming and a variety of possible mitigation policies. Disagreement over the sufficiency, viability, or desirability of a given policy is not necessarily neoskepticism. However, neoskepticism is marked by failure to appreciate the increased risks associated with delayed action.[64] Distinguishing "rational optimism" from neoskepticism, Gavin Schmidt described the latter as a form of confirmation bias and the tendency of "always taking as gospel the lowest estimate of a plausible range."[65] Neoskeptics err toward the least-disruptive projections and least-active policies and, as such, neglect or misapprehend the full spectrum of risks associated with global warming.[65] They also neglect the costs associated with delay and inaction.

Factors that contribute to soft climate denial[edit]

In his second article on the topic, Hoexter listed several beliefs or thought patterns that, in his observation, tend to contribute to soft climate denial:[59]

  1. Psychological isolation and compartmentalization – Events of everyday life usually lack an obvious connection to global warming. As such, people compartmentalize their awareness of global warming as abstract knowledge without taking any practical action. Hoexter identifies isolation/compartmentalization as the most common facet of soft denial.
  2. "Climate providentialism" – In post-industrial society, modern comforts and disconnection from nature lead to an assumption that the climate "will provide" for humans, regardless of drastic changes. Though named for a belief found in some forms of Christianity, Hoexter uses the term in a secular context and relates it to anthropocentrism.
  3. "Carbon gradualism" – An assumption that global warming can be addressed though minor "tweaks" conducted over extended periods of time. Proposals for more drastic change may be more realistic, but appear "radical" by comparison.
  4. Substitutionism – A tendency among politically engaged people to "substitute a high-minded pre-existing activist cause" in place of the more immediate challenge of fossil fuel phase-out. Hoexter associates substitutionism with eco-socialism, green anarchism, and the climate justice movement, which he said tends to prioritize "laudable and important concerns about environmental justice and inequality" at the expense of "the future-looking fight to stabilize the climate."
  5. Intellectualization – Engaging with climate change in a primarily academic context makes the issue an abstraction, lacking the visceral stimuli that prompt people to take concrete action.
  6. Localism – Emphasis on "small" changes to improve one's local environment is a well-intentioned but limited response to a problem on the scale of global warming.
  7. "Moral or intellectual narcissism" – Deriving a misplaced sense of superiority over "hard" climate deniers, soft deniers may come to believe that simply acknowledging the existence of climate change or expressing concern is sufficient by itself.
  8. "Confirmation of pre-existing worldview" – Because of cognitive inertia, people may fail to integrate the significance or scale of climate change the framework of their existing beliefs, knowledge, and priorities.
  9. Millenarianism – Activists become transfixed with a grand vision of an eventual, fundamental transformation of society, supplanting meaningful concrete action at the day-to-day level.
  10. Sectarianism – Activists may become preoccupied with a particular vision of climate policy and become caught up in the narcissism of small differences, tedious debates, and far-flung hypotheticals to the detriment of more productive activity.
  11. "Commitment to Hedonism" – The looming dread of climate change can emotionally overwhelm a person and may prompt a retreat into pleasure for its own sake.[25] Alternately, people may indulge in pleasurable activities that they worry may not be readily accessible in a future society adapted to climate change.
  12. "Entente with nihilism, defeatism, and depression" – In Hoexter's view, genuine nihilism remains a tendency within "hard" denialism; however, people who feel disempowered or overwhelmed about climate change may come to accept an uneasy coexistence with such nihilism.[26]

According to Anne Pasek, the difficulty of comprehending the sheer scale of global warming and its effects can result in sincere (albeit ill-founded) belief that individual changes in behavior will suffice to address the problem without requiring more fundamental structural changes.[66] In political terms, soft climate denial can stem from concerns about the economics and economic impacts of climate change, particularly the concern that strong measures to combat global warming or mitigate its impacts will seriously inhibit economic growth.[67]


Soft climate denial has been ascribed to both liberals and conservatives, as well as proponents of market-based environmental policy instruments. It has also been used in self-criticism against tendencies toward complacency and inaction.[68] Depending on perspective, sources may differ on whether a person engages in "soft" or "hard" denial (or neither). For example, the environmental policy of the Trump administration has been described as both "soft" and "hard" climate denial.[69]

In Scientific American, Robert N. Proctor and Steve Lyons described Bret Stephens, a conservative New York Times opinion columnist and self-described "climate agnostic", as a soft denialist:[70]

The irony is that Stephens himself seems to presume that climate science must be understood in political terms—as part of a larger struggle between liberals and conservatives. But the reality of climate change has nothing to do with politics: it's an atmospheric fact, not a political fact. And the whole idea of needing to keep 'an open mind' to a legitimate 'controversy' is the very essence of modern 'soft' denialism.[70]

It was pointed out in 2017 that all the other current opinion columnists at the New York Times expressed varying degrees of soft denial in their work: "Like many liberals, every current liberal NYT columnist remains stuck in various states of 'soft' climate denial",[71] This applied to the writing of Stephens's fellow conservatives (Ross Douthat and David Brooks) as well as his liberal colleagues (Maureen Dowd, David Leonhardt, Frank Bruni, Gail Collins, Charles Blow, Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, and Roger Cohen).[71]


Critics have argued that labels like soft denial are overly broad and counterproductive. Brian Schatz, a US Senator from Hawaii who has focused on climate change as an issue, said that the term "denial" should be reserved for those who dispute the reality, human causation, and urgency of climate change. According to Schatz, expanding the definition further would mean "throwing around the term without any precision" at a time when "actual climate denial is on the wane."[54] Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center affiliated with ecomodernism, said the label "denier" can be unhelpful and alienating regardless of its intended target, but is especially polarizing when used to label someone who accepts the scientific consensus and expresses support for environmentalist ideas.[54]

See also[edit]


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