Shades of Green: The Psychology of Denial


The scientific community has been in a state of constrained panic during the last couple of years as the binding terms of the Kyoto Protocol approach expiry, as a replacement agreement to cut global greenhouse gases emission have foundered at international climate talks in Copenhagen and Cancun, and as the climate crisis continues to worsen. Because the doubts propagated by a few climate-change deniers seem to have been disproportionately effective in subverting corrective agreements and action, social scientists have been dissecting the dynamics of denial to understand what happened.

The inquiry has broadened from the refusal of a few people to accept evidence of climate change to the wider issue of how we humans confront new and disturbing information. The result could be called the psychology of denial. And, in the scientific tradition, the analysis is measured and rational, usually beginning with the distinction between skeptics and deniers.

Skeptics are inclined to examine claims one by one, weigh evidence carefully, attempt objectivity, and willingly follow where the facts lead. As personalities, they tend to be secure, open, adventurous and relatively immune to threat. Skepticism is normal and common, an essential attribute of adults, a guiding principle of science, and it tends to be the operating mechanism of people who are found on the “progressive” side of the political and ideological spectrum.

In contrast, deniers are inclined to weigh information with a “confirmation bias” that pre-judges on the basis of a tradition, intention or belief system. They change their minds more reluctantly than skeptics and tend to be closed, cautious and insecure outside the realm of the familiar. Deniers tends to be found on the more “conservative” side of the political and ideological spectrum. Generally, however, they are simply ordinary, well-intentioned people who are doing what they believe is right. But this is where the psychology gets more complicated.

Deniers tend to think of themselves “as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people” (New Scientist, May 15/10). They are most likely to be found in circumstances where “science must be taken on trust” (Ibid.). Thus deniers are usually associated with issues such as global climate change, evolution and tobacco use, and those issues in which the supportive evidence cannot be easily, immediately and tangibly demonstrated. For deniers, the trust issue gets entangled with their inclination to perceive scientists, doctors and technical experts as “arrogant and alien” (Ibid.). Perhaps this psychological dynamic is best illustrated by the 2009 comment of a Texan who was defending the teaching of creationism in schools because “…somebody’s got to stand up to the experts” (Ibid.).

Such a response is understandable in a world that is becoming more technical and complicated. People feel a loss of control. They want to reclaim the personal power that seems to be slipping away from them. A culture of individuality that has traditionally attempted to control the forces of nature can be expected to respond with frustration and anger when climate scientists argue that we are losing this struggle by unleashing forces beyond our abilities to manage. Deniers take this threat personally.

Deniers tend to be controllers. They also tend to have a larger than normal sense of their own importance and are inclined to be suspicious and intolerant of criticism and different opinions. While everyone needs some sense of control and self esteem in their lives, we all must concede to our limitations and dispensability. The world will not end with the loss of any one of us and we have no basis for believing that it should function according to our individual conception of it. Controllers don’t like to be controlled. Indeed, they may react perversely to any authoritative information.

Psychologists have also mentioned the “innumerate” problem, the inability of some people to grasp concepts such as probability. Not everyone who smokes gets cancer. Not every evolutionary change benefits the species. Although the average surface temperature on the planet is going up, climate change doesn’t mean that every place is going to get warmer. General trends cannot be deduced from isolated examples. Anecdotes and personal experience are coloured by subjectivity. The scientific method necessarily discredits such individual perception and helps to create the impression among deniers that scientists are elitists whose ideas diminish the importance of individuals and the validity of their awareness. So, in defense of their own experience, credibility and self-respect, deniers strike out against science, its theories and its practitioners. Regardless, denial is a common first response to things we didn’t want to happen.

Guilt is another important consideration that motivates deniers. Anthropogenic climate change means that we are all implicated in an unprecedented travesty against our planet’s ecology, the ultimate consequences of which are expected to be unimaginably disruptive and dire. The damage to our human reputation and dignity would be correspondingly disastrous. A squabbling, greedy, warring, destructive and irresponsible species is not the inescapable image we want to have of ourselves. Denial is a protective reflex against the discomfort of this censure and its ensuing guilt. If we can’t change the evidence inundating us, we can deny its validity by using complex and ingenious rationalizations.

So, what does the psychology of denial ultimately mean? Perhaps that we are a complex and ingenious species perfectly capable of undoing ourselves by our own complexity and ingenuity.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

13 thoughts on “Shades of Green: The Psychology of Denial

  1. Timoth Wirth, U.S./UN functionary, former elected Democrat Senator: “We’ve got to ride the global-warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.”

    Richard Benedik, former U.S./UN bureaucrat: “A global climate treaty must be implemented even if there is no scientific evidence to back the greenhouse effect.”

    Quote from the UN’s Own “Agenda 21”: “Effective execution of Agenda 21 will require a profound reorientation of all human society, unlike anything the world has ever experienced a major shift in the priorities of both governments and individuals and an unprecedented redeployment of human and financial resources. This shift will demand that a concern for the environmental consequences of every human action be integrated into individual and collective decision-making at every level.”

    Maurice Strong, a billionaire elitist, primary power behind UN throne, and large CO2 producer: “Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?”

    Are you sure you want to continue supporting such an anti-life scam?

  2. Who is Roy Green and it’s not a conspiracy, it’s an agenda.

    Ottmar Edenhoffer, high level UN-IPCC official: “We redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy…Basically it’s a big mistake to discuss climate policy separately from the major themes of globalization…One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore.”
    Club of Rome: “In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill….All these dangers are caused by human intervention….and thus the “real enemy, then, is humanity itself….believe humanity requires a common motivation, namely a common adversary in order to realize world government. It does not matter if this common enemy is “a real one or….one invented for the purpose.”
    Christine Stewart, former Canadian Environment Minister: “No matter if the science is all phoney, there are collateral environmental benefits…. climate change [provides] the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world.”

  3. Yes, Judy. It’s all a big conspiracy – including the “thumbs up” button. Just because carbon trading schemes are fraudulent doesn’t make the science of climate change the same. I think you’ve been listening too much to Roy Green.

  4. I tried to give Roger Kimble’s comment a “thumbs up” but it doesn’t register.
    Are the gremlins trying to prop up a false consensus on the twaddle?

    It’s not been scientists who are panicking over the collapse of the Global Warming Scam…it’s the bankers who hoped to enrich themselves by trading “carbon credits”. The World Bank and the IMF tried to get all countries to agree to giving them 2% of GDP at Copenhagen. That is why talks collapsed. Poor countries expected to get paid by rich countries at Kyoto, instead they too were to be taxed.
    Now, it seems the leeches will be temporarily satisfied by a tax on airplane and shipping fuel. They still want $100 Billion a year though.

  5. Fair enough Roger. We’ll have to agree to disagree on Mr. Grigg’s work, but you’re certainly entitled to your opinion. We appreciate your interest and active participation in our site and the discussions we try to foster. Please do keep coming back 🙂

  6. Damien thanqu for your good advice “If you disagree, then you’re under no obligation to read his columns”!

    Indeed, weird coming from a blog intent upon cutting edge truths. But if you prefer to go along with Hollyhock who am I to disagree!

    Accordingly, I will continue to log on especially for your work such as Spetifore and Rafe’s work on exposing the BIG LIE and supporting Alexandra’s quest against feedlots and much more . . .

    Your adult reads are able to discern reality without my commentary.

    You give space to many experts who are not dilettantes. As for those who are, I will keep well clear.

  7. Anyone with eyes and a memory for weather conditions knows the climate is changing. The real question is not if it is, but the cause. The rabid deniers will address the issue as “global warming” because there is plenty of evidence to show how cold it is someplace specific. Yippee! There are specific places Although not a denier, I am a cynic, because the reality is, the people deeply involved in this issue are NOT noted for their credibility. From Gore to Suzuki, and the political manipulations of UN climatologists, is it any wonder people are suspicious and open to denial, or at the very least, cynicism?

  8. Climate change is, more tornado’s. More hurricanes. Flooding, drought, earthquakes, volcano’s. It is weather in the extreme. And, we are getting lots of that.

    Man is the most destructive animal on earth. Our oceans are dying. We have oil tankers spilling oil into the seas. We dump toxic mine waste into lakes. We poison our wildlife. We string oil pipelines across thousands of rivers, streams and land. We poison our air. Man is even polluting space with our debris. We can’t drink oil. We can’t eat copper and gold. We can’t eat poisoned marine life. We can’t eat vegetables and fruit, from contaminated soil. You can’t eat poisoned wildlife, that they are finding more and more of them dying, from pollution.

    Well, I guess we will have to eat our money, and collect raindrops from our polluted air, for drinking water. Man is also the most stupid animal on earth.

  9. I have been shocked by the extent to which denial has become a pervasive tactic to discredit scientific evidence. The most recent example is the denial of damage to wild salmon caused by open net fish farms and the diseases they perpetuate. Denial clouds the issue and allows the status quo to continue. The tactic seems to be increasing. Denial is a primitive defense but it appeals to people who want simple answers to complex problems.

  10. I am wondering how long this conspiracy theory of global warming will keep going. I talk to people all over the world who are experiencing Record Cold.

    I suppose you gw believers love to pay the taxes that accompany this drivel as well.

  11. Roger, your continued tirade against Mr. Grigg is puzzling. He doesn’t claim to be an “expert on everything”, nor does he exhibit one iota of hubris. This article is based entirely on studies performed by others. If you take issue with their methods and data, then by all means, do so – but don’t shoot the messenger. We find Mr. Grigg’s columns interesting and well-written – and they consistently provide our readers with a different, more philosophical take on the core problems we deal with in this journal…If you disagree, then you’re under no obligation to read his columns – and yet, curiously, you seem to keep coming back.

  12. i just wish the “environmentalists” would walk the talk or bus it or car pool it or electrically convert
    and, I do ^NOT see a hybrid as a solution

  13. Where does Mr. Griggs, our resident expert on everything, get his hubris? Out of sheer boredom living on his rain soaked redoubt?

    “Deniers tend to think of themselves “as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged . . . ”

    Corrupt elite! Yup! But denier. Moi? Courageous. Moi?

    Whooo-ah, don’t roll me in with your “creationists” just because I do not accept your GW, AGW, CC, carbon tax blather.

    ” Such a response is understandable in a world that is becoming more technical and complicated.” Phew, what condescension!

    The climate is always changing Mr. G: always has. Hell, the world was once a boiling inferno of molten magma and gas . . .

    Check this out . . .

    “747 deaths – March 18, 1925 – The Tri-State Tornado” etc., etc., etc . . .

    ” . . . somebody’s got to stand up to the experts”.


    Especially “stand up to” such arrogant nabobs of bombast like you!

    Mr. Mair, Mr. Gillis do your readers really take this little man’s twaddle seriously?

Comments are closed.