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Who are you going to believe — me, or your own lyin’ eyes?
Cognitive dissonance occurs when new facts or information challenge previously held beliefs. In such a situation, people will often choose to ignore the information, rather than change their beliefs.
When talking about those who deny the reality of climate change, the term 'Cognitive Dissonance' is often used. ‘Deniers’ are those who do not believe that the climate is changing, or who recognize change is happening but do not accept that human actions are the cause. The dissonance that these people experience comes from the fact that we hear or read about some new climate catastrophe almost every day. For example, at the time of writing record heat waves are taking place in northern India and in Texas. It is hard to reconcile such facts with beliefs that climate change is not happening.
Deniers will also ignore scientific statements to do with climate change on the grounds that “nothing is certain”.
Once more, such denial is becoming harder to sustain. For example, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) — the United Nations authoritative body on climate issues — said in its 2021 Sixth Assessment report,
It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land . . . Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.
That statement is accompanied by the following chart.
The lower (green) line shows that, without human activities, global temperatures would have hardly changed. However, we humans have caused temperatures to 1.3 °C above the pre-industrial baseline.
Response to Cognitive Dissonance
In response to cognitive dissonance, a person can either rationalize the difficulty away by cherry-picking factoids that reduce that dissonance. For example, unusually cold weather for a few days can be used to challenge the whole concept of global warming.
Another option for the denier is to avoid venturing outside the belief bubble in which they reside. The denier will only talk to people or visit social media sites that confirm his or her way of thinking.
Just Two Degrees
There is one argument that climate change deniers make that has, on its surface, a good deal of credibility.
The temperature increase of just one or two degrees in the above chart seems too small to matter. After all, temperatures change by much more than that on a daily basis. However, these small increases are important, as can be seen by analogy with the human body. If our body temperature increases by as little as 1.0°C (2°F) we start to feel unwell. A temperature increase of 2°C / 4°F indicates that we are ill. Anything higher than that is a symptom of serious fever and may lead to death. So it is with the planet; it can cope with small temperature increases, but if temperatures continue to rise the planet will exhibit symptoms of increasingly severe fever.
It is one thing to deny that the climate is changing, it is another to understand the reality of what is happening and then to avoid taking action. This criticism applies particularly to many national and international leaders. Many of these leaders are fully aware of the changes that are taking place, and they often talk a good game. But, all too often, their actions do not align with their statements. For example, the following words are taken from a speech given by Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, at the conclusion of the recent GOP26 conference in Glasgow.
Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode — or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero.
COP26 took place in November 2021. There are few signs that the world in moving into “emergency mode” since Mr. Guterres gave that speech.
Here is what Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Britain, said in his speech that opened that conference.
. . . humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock and we need to act now. If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.
This is extraordinary rhetoric from both of these men. If they really meant what they were saying they would be totally dedicated to climate change responses — no other topic or political program would take up even a minute of their time. But that is not what happened. They and other world leaders effectively treat climate change as being just one problem among many.
For example, at COP26 President Biden said,
It’s simple: Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us? Or will we condemn future generations to suffer?
As they say, “fine words butter no parsnips”. On his return to the United States, the Biden administration proceeded to authorize extensive drilling programs in the Gulf of Mexico, and he urged Saudi Arabia increase their oil production.
It is one thing for individuals — usually people with little authority or influence — to deny that the climate is changing. Their cognitive dissonance pales in comparison to that of many world leaders.
Blah, Blah, Blah
In the post Blah, Blah, Blah we critiqued activists such as Greta Thunberg for simply criticizing the world leaders, but not taking action. Nevertheless, she was correct with her indictment of so many political leaders. They talk a good game, but their actions do not match their words.