Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Greenhouse 2011 – communication and offensive denial

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Day 2 of the Greenhouse 2011 conference featured a forum hosted by ‘Red Kerry’ O’Brien, of ABC 7:30 Report fame titled Converting Climate Science into Policy. The topic of denialism was raised straight off. How can scientists get their message across when widespread counterclaims are constantly competing with that message? Panellist Dr Graeme Pearman in his earlier plenary presentation had outlined the role of psychology as to how scientific conclusions are believed, outlining denial as a defence against uncertain futures. Such stances, he said, should be addressed supportively. This evolved into a discussion as to how climate scientists should communicate with those in denial.

This discussion didn’t really distinguish between defensive denial – the denial genuinely held when one’s own behaviour is under threat because the weight of evidence suggests that behaviour leads to even greater risk – and offensive denial, where denial is promoted to protect self interest at the expense of others. The result was another vague discussion where science beats itself up for not being able to communicate the science well enough to influence policy. First off, it needs to be said that denial is a common aspect of wicked problems where what is at risk competes with measures to manage that risk according to a range of value and cultural settings. Offensive denial is distinguished from defensive denial by the unethical stance of engaging in misleading and deceptive behaviour.

Defensive denial is a well-known aspect of psychological theory, first proposed by Schwartz in 1977, although the identification of denial as goes back to Freud. From a 1982 paper in experimental psychology on energy conservation: holding pro-social norms will not increase pro-social behaviour in situations where that behaviour has high personal costs (Tyler et al., Basic and Applied Social Psychology 3(4) 267-281). Those holding pro-social norms will redefine the situation so they don’t need to activate those norms. That is, they displace the penalty associated with behavioural change by disputing the causal factors behind a risk or discounting the benefit of altered behaviour. Their norms stay intact while their framing of the risk has altered.

If there is a price to pay for a future benefit that comes at a personal cost, defensive denial becomes a prominent behaviour. This is tantamount to saying if it comes down to changing my behaviour or denying the odds, I will deny the odds.

For climate change denial can either mean disbelieving the science or the potential for dangerous climate change. For example, “The science is wrong” and “It’s not as bad as the warmists say it will be.” Denial can also involve displacement – “they are just saying that to get their way on big government/environmental control.”

For others whose livelihoods are directly threatened by climate impacts, the perceived cost of belief is too high a price to pay. This has been identified as a strong part of farmers’ belief in climate change – if the recent drought is accepted as part of climate change the psychological burden may become too high for some landholders (Thwaites et al., 2008 Understanding rural landholder responses to climate change. Charles Sturt University Institute for Land Water and Society Report No. 48). Others are threatened by climate change policy; for example, those who see a personal cost from a carbon price.

The response to this type of defensive denial needs to be supportive rather than combative. When climate extension experts from the Department of Primary Industry in Victoria communicate with farmers, for instance, they don’t mention climate change – they talk about variations within climate and refer to an individual’s experience with those variations. If the farmer brings up climate change, well and good, but if not, that works too. The aim is to encourage innovation in the form of adaptation to a varying climate and in emerging markets for carbon and other ecosystem services where appropriate. When the term climate change is heard, often the listener will stop listening because it has set off a defensive trigger. The main strategy is to keep the discussion on familiar ground and move the conversation to potential opportunities without triggering the off switch.

Offensive denial is a different kettle of fish. This is the type of denial that Oreskes and Conway document in their book Merchants of Doubt. Offensive denial is a deliberate strategy to displace a known risk, placing limited self interest against wider interests. It is a deliberate strategy to gain advantage at the expense of others where there is strong evidence that widespread harm will occur.

In contrast to defensive denial, offensive denial needs to be confronted head on. Coordinated offensive denial promoted by the tobacco industry, AIDS denial and climate denialists, for example, needs to be countered by a coordinated approach. The aim of organised denial is to expand the reach of defensive denial in the population and maintain it in key players, thus changing the political economy within which decisions are made. This diverts legitimate attempts at research and policy, where researchers need to counter the same misinformation over and over again, and policy is diluted and delayed.

However, strategies to confront offensive denial also need to be co-ordinated with supportive strategies countering defensive denial, because the two interact. At the individual level both defensive and offensive denial begins with defensive denial. The choice to become an advocate for denial will appear unethical to the outside observer but an individual may interpret their denial as an ethical obligation to warn others of the consequences of believing in a specific risk. The individual denialist is often a true believer in their cause but employs faulty reasoning. For example, Ian Plimer, author of Heaven and Earth is trained in Earth Science, and has become a professor of mining geology but does not employ the scientific method in his opposition to the science of climatology. Ian Enting, who does employ the scientific method, has taken his book apart.

The scientific method is too complex for its nuances to translate to the mass media, so scientific communication will be socially mediated and is subject to the norms of all other communication. Small-world networks of influence nodes; credibility, relevance and legitimacy; fluency; visual cues in televised sound-bites and interviews; how explanations mesh with existing narratives and how they trigger a range of cognitive heuristics (simple psychological rules) will all influence the dissemination of a message or set of messages.

A saying on lies often attributed to Mark Twain that is probably from the preacher Spurgeon some years earlier cites an old proverb: A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on. Given the significant resources given to offensive denial documented by people like Sharon Beder, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway and by Haydn Washington and John Cook in a forthcoming book Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (Earthscan and New South Books, May release), the response needs to be much stronger than it has been in recent times. It’s time to get those boots on.

However, given the role of defensive denial, complementary strategies of walking softly and kicking back are both needed. This will test the abilities of communicators to cut through the bullshit, but also to have supportive conversations with those who initially may not be that inclined to listen.


Written by Roger Jones

April 10, 2011 at 10:31 am

One Response

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  1. Hi Roger,

    Thanks for an interesting post. The distinction between defensive and offensive denial is a useful one I think.

    Regarding offensive denial; there was a post from a couple of guys from the ANU on The Conversation about advocacy in science which you might find interesting: http://theconversation.edu.au/articles/gentlemens-rules-are-out-scientists-its-time-to-unleash-the-beast-799

    Also you might like to think about writing an article for them – I was asked to write a piece on Ruapehu recently, and it was an interesting experience to have your work edited to reach a wider audience!


    April 10, 2011 at 11:17 am

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