The Many Faces Of Climate Denial

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Those of us who study in the field of “Religion and Ecology” often experience befuddled looks when strangers find out what we do. “I didn’t know that was a field,” goes one response. “I didn’t realize those two things go together,” is another. One of the most common is, “Oh, so you study evangelicals who deny climate change?” The whole field is reduced to a single topic: climate denial.

It’s not surprising that this response is so common. The religio-political voice denying the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is loud, holds important political office in the United States, and is perceived to be a very powerful force though it often sputters with self-importance. And certain politicians often deploy biblical passages (poorly, might I add) to refute the science of climate change.

But to reduce climate denial or skepticism to one specific kind of religious imagination or worldview, or to think that such a worldview only occurs in religious populations is to misconstrue religion and climate denial. Such arguments actually deflect attention from the pervasiveness of global warming as it touches every single dimension of our lives, imaginations, politics, and practice. As a structural problem, or a “hyperobject,” as Timothy Morton calls it, global warming is something that is so encapsulating in time and space that it challenges our perceptions of what an object is in the first place. No simple solutions or diagnoses can be made.

Because of that entangling vastness, I think it a sleight of hand to reduce the problem to a particular kind of religiosity. Denial of global warming manifests itself in massive varieties of naturecultures, and in diagnosing a situation such as this it is vital (actually resilience-cultivating) to slow down and interrogate the complexities of the ways climate denial imposes and emerges.

I would clarify at the beginning and at the end of the day, climate denial is fundamentally about the multiple complexities of privilege and injustice. Climate change is disproportionately caused by the “Global North,” especially in histories of colonial Euro-American, Christian, neoliberal capitalist, and white privilege and violence. Most emissions of carbon and use of carbon emerge in such places and the global warming wrought in the aftermath impacts the daily lives, ecologies, and communities least responsible. Denial curls itself inside those global privileges and injustices and distributes itself across the planet as modes of self-preservation. To question climate denial is to interrogate at privilege.

Sexism is a form of climate denial. Racism is a form of climate denial. Heterosexism is a form of climate denial. Classism is a form of climate denial.

In my hunch, climate denial is actually a multi-distributed set of political affects across the earth. And I do mean “affects”—the energy, emotion, and bodied feel of climate denial is multiple and swirls into political consequence. If I were to pull strands apart for recognition I might highlight a few very different ways such denial manifests itself in time and space. Again, untangling such strands would begin to unmask the feelings and powers of certain privilege. Most of what I’m about to say is deeply defined by and implicated in such unjust distribution of power.

Perhaps as a conceit, we might think about different “spacetimes” of climate denial, and I might organize them in general senses of time:

The first category of climate denial could be described as the “past-inflected” world views that haunt our contemporary living. In this category, of course, is one popular species of religiously motivated denial: a deep-seated feeling that God or divinity gives the planet to human kind to have free reign over its abundant resources and unending life. This kind of worldview is the worldview most often critiqued by ecotheologians—the idea often read out of the Priestly narrative in Genesis that human beings are specially created in the “image of God” to have dominion and subdue the earth. Biblical scholars might tell you this kind of exegesis is dubious at best. Still, the truth is that such world views do spin out into the world. If a good and omnipotent God “gives” the planet to human beings, of course human beings couldn’t wreck it fully, right?

Another species of “past-inflected” and haunting worldview is based somewhat in the scientific revolution itself. In her excellent and recent “Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World” (Duke University Press, 2017), Kath Weston makes the argument that certain forms of climate denial might be residual effects of the quick transition to modern scientific measurement of atmosphere. At the risk of oversimplifying her argument you might think about human bodies, for a long time, serving as instruments of measurement (think of the “foot,” for example, or “arms length”). Farmers and locals would observe nature and “sense” the weather changing with their bodies in order to anticipate how to live their day to day lives. In a broad outline of the thesis, the transition to modern scientific measurement meant that we have greater sense of the complexities of global climatological change and atmospheric science. But we’re often still haunted by our local feelings of the weather. Such an experience is why people will experience a snowstorm or make an observation about how cold it might be outside and then deny climate change because of the locality of their experience. They’re not necessarily being ignorant or stubborn. There’s a much older sense of how we understand our bodies in the world at play here. It’s a compelling thesis, I think.

A second category of climate denial could be considered “presently-inflected.” We could consider the mechanisms of daily institutional power and privilege organize the present moment here. In their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010), historians Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes make the case that certain political power and science worked hard, not unlike the tobacco industry, to cast the science of climate change into question. Such questions kept various fossil fuel industry and political machinery in control, and is one of the reasons why politicians and talking heads who deny global warming call scholarly consensus of climate change into question over and over again. Such a move consolidates fossil fuel’s grip on society and makes people of good will who would otherwise involve themselves in ecological justice question their work.

Other forms of the “present-inflected” climate denial might in fact acknowledge the reality of environmental destruction and global warming but be unable to cope with how horrifying of a reality we find ourselves living in. Pope Francis argues that what he calls “practical relativism” is just as dangerous as other forms of climate denial. Practical relativism give priority to the present, makes human beings the center of their own lives, and only addresses problems out of immediate impact or convenience on one’s own life. You might know global warming is a reality or that pollution is dangerous, but you might trick yourself into not doing anything about these realities until your own river is polluted. This view is an everyday sort of consumer ease or just a practical kind of white NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard) that often textures environmental racism. We’re fine getting lost in the everyday fantasies of video distractions and fantasies than hearing the cries of the present.

Or, you might feel climate denial in the present as a kind of grief. Scholar of Buddhism and poet Joanna Macy argues that denial might be a symptom of how we’re working through environmental despair for our pasts, presents, and futures. One lives daily and acts out of a deep desire that things aren’t as bad as they really are. And the only way to work out of this denial is by, well, grieving the reality.

Finally, we might talk about a category of “future-inflected” kinds of climate denial. One of these critters might be considered theological, indeed often Christian in form, that God or divinity or some kind of eschatological or apocalyptic future will end up making things all right, so one can live into the future with a naïve hope that doesn’t matter whether global warming is real or not. God will fix the planet one way or another and human beings in comfort or privilege suddenly gain permission to treat the world however they want.

One could also invest such belief in systems of planetary resiliency themselves. Some may say, “The earth can deal without human beings” and argue that biological life will find ways to outlive human beings. Such a future may be so, but this view exercises a climate denial of a more sinister form—the denial of human responsibility for environmental destruction in the first place. Hoping the earth will correct itself denies the suffering inflicted in real time in precarious communities and ecosystems around and in the planet.

Or, you could gain that future permission through hopeful belief in technologies. I encounter this kind of climate denial in a pervasive way, even among ecologically concerned friends or students. Human beings, the argument goes, are so technologically proficient that there will be a “solution” to global warming through some kind of invention, geoengineering of the planet, or even some newly discovered planet that will allow human beings to migrate someday. We live on, in a kind of unconscious denial, as we always have, with hope in progress.

I write about these many faces of climate denial in terms of past, present, and future. The reality is that denial doesn’t work in linear kinds of ways. Some people will mix these categories, and the ones I mention above are by no means exhaustive. In fact, the most important categories might not even be present here. But by naming different species of climate denial, linked as they are, entangled in privilege as they are, I think we begin to process the multifaceted and complicated ways public conversation gets stuck trying to talk about addressing global warming.

These affects, worldviews, religiosities and feelings manifest themselves in daily conversations, popular politics, religious communities, popular television and movies, and even in scientific-academic understandings of how to think about climate denial. Untangling these views, religious or not, begins to strip them of their ability to reinforce each other. Untangling these views might make one feel less helpless in dismantling them. Untangling them is a practice of ecological justice. Most importantly, naming them opens up imaginative spaces for thinking constructively about what kinds of imaginative environmental ethics or ecotheology will confront and face the powers that degrade our common life together.