By Sid Farrar
Volunteer with MN350’s Communications Team

This blog post examines a typical consumer we call Leslie to pinpoint reasons for her climate change denial and suggest ways she can embrace a more planet-friendly lifestyle.

*  *  *

What do we mean when we say that someone is “in denial”?

Betty is deep in debt, and yet she continues to max out credit cards with online gambling and trips to Vegas, where she consistently lost thousands of dollars at the tables before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Henry’s behavior caused by his daily drinking has started to affect his job performance and yet he refuses to quit or even try to cut down and has been drinking even more since the COVID-19 shutdown.

Before the pandemic, while Leslie read news articles about the negative consequences from climate change and professed to believe it was real, she bought large numbers of products cheaply online to have delivered to her house, drove her SUV around town for daily errands, kept her house’s heat turned up to 72 degrees all day in the winter, and ate meat and dairy products from factory farms at most meals. Now that COVID-19 dominates the news and her focus is her concern for her and her family’s health, any thoughts or fears about a climate crisis have vanished and, even though she is temporarily driving and shopping less due to staying at home to avoid contact with others, her fossil fuel-dependent behaviors are still a part of her identity.

Image: Billy Burton.

Most people would agree that Betty and Henry exhibit the common symptoms of addiction, which the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines as using substances or engaging in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences—the second part of the definition being a classic expression of denial.

But what about Leslie? Is it a stretch to say that her behaviors were indicative of an addiction? She was aware, from keeping up with the news before the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the media, that climate change is caused by the increased use of fossil fuels, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere to dangerous levels. She also was likely to have heard one of the many reports from thousands of reputable scientists that unless we stop using fossil fuels at the current rate, the destructive storms, floods from rising seas due to melting glaciers, and the annual heat records globally will, in the next 10 – 12 years, cause even more catastrophic damage across the earth than we’re already seeing. And yet she continued as a typical American consumer, engaging in the greenhouse gas-emitting behaviors collectively practiced by millions of people for decades that have brought the planet to its current state of climate crisis. While she recognized this on one level, she claimed that caring for two children and a dog, plus working a part-time job to supplement her husband’s modest salary, left her little time to think about making any significant changes. And now with prevention of her and her family from catching COVID-19 taking precedent over everything, climate change is the furthest thing from her mind.

Assuming that Leslie and the millions of people like her weren’t maliciously seeking to destroy the earth with their wasteful use of fossil fuels, a case can be made that their pre-pandemic dependence on the superfluous comforts of easy access to goods, large cars with all the conveniences, more-than-sufficient warmth in their homes, and commonly consumed protein-rich animal products, “despite the harmful consequences” of these behaviors, would be sufficient to meet the baseline criteria for some level of addiction. (Substance use disorders, generically referred to as addictions, are diagnosed as mild, moderate, or severe depending on the level of dysfunction.)

Another key factor common in the compulsive practice of mood-altering behaviors is that they are irrational and therefore have an unconscious element driving them, which make conscious decisions to change them unlikely without an intervention sufficient to break through the underlying denial. People like Leslie were as much as saying: “I know there’s evidence that these practices contribute to global warming, but that fact doesn’t rise to the level of personal importance or awareness to motivate me to stop doing them.”

So, given that presenting to Leslie the undeniable facts failed to motivate her, what type of intervention would be successful in changing her typical American consumer behaviors?

First, Leslie would need to feel comfortable admitting that, up to now, she has been powerless to change these behaviors on her own, despite rational demonstrations of her role in contributing to the negative consequences of consumer excess that are already happening and getting worse. Like many consumers, she had probably made several attempts to cut back on her shopping and buy locally, lower her thermostat at night, use public transportation more often (or purchase a hybrid vehicle for her second car), and eat less meat—only to slip back into her usual patterns of behavior when these changes became too difficult or inconvenient.

Caring for her family while working a part-time job gave her a ready-made excuse for avoiding the challenges that she assumed she would face by adopting more climate-friendly behaviors. “Besides,” she said, “what can one person do in the face of a catastrophe so big and inevitable?” Now with the pandemic overriding all other concerns, she hasn’t made the connection between what she’s been forced to do to mitigate the current threat to her and her family’s health (driving and shopping less), and what she needs to do to address the threat of the looming climate crisis (lessen her use of fossil fuels).

If someone from a community like MN350 can help her confront the fact that up till now she hasn’t been able to make these changes on her own, Leslie is likely to be more open to seeing the pandemic as a wakeup call and be willing to accept the need to adopt some of her new behaviors beyond the current state of emergency. But first she must come to terms with her fear of making such long-term, fundamental life changes.

All people have a basic need for a sense of belonging to a community that affirms their beliefs and behaviors. Until now, Leslie has mostly identified with the majority of Americans, who respond to the endless advertising and competition for status that promote their destructive consumer behaviors. She has enjoyed the rewards of security, comfort, and self-importance that meeting the standards of acceptance in the dominant community provides. The pandemic has changed all that: She learned to make the necessary sacrifices to survive the spread of the virus.

By being encouraged to tell her personal story, without judgment, about how she identified with the consumer culture and continued the behaviors they promoted out of habit and convenience, she will bring these practices into consciousness, where her denial of the harm they cause will be harder to sustain. This can be the first step of an intervention by someone from a community like MN350. They can demonstrate how she contributed to healing the planet during COVID-19 and can continue to do so afterward as well.

As she is invited to form relationships in this new community and hear members’ stories of overcoming their own previous denial, she is likely to recognize that these are people essentially no different from her, people whose beliefs and values provide a genuine sense of well-being grounded in their identity as citizens of the natural world. By contrast, as she is led to explore without shame or blame how her previous spending, household uses of fossil fuels, driving habits, and dietary practices have been contributing factors to the climate crisis, she can open herself to understanding the alternatives to the superficial, temporary pleasures gained from the consumption taken for granted before the pandemic.

She will find compassion from this new community’s members as she accepts that the goal is not perfection. For example, after things return to some normalcy, she may find herself taking the easy way out (e.g., ordering a plastic toy from Amazon for a last-minute gift, serving an easily available factory farmed steak for a dinner for a meat-eating relative). But rather than berating herself, she can now look for support in exploring how she has handled these situations differently during COVID-19 (e.g., finding the nearest children’s toy shop, traveling there using public transportation, and purchasing a toy made of recyclable materials; researching free-range, grass-fed meat products—or better yet, trying one of the new plant-based burgers that taste like meat).

Thanks to education, and support from a caring community, Leslie can learn that real solutions are being found to the climate crisis and that it’s possible to see tangible results from her actions. She can begin to directly experience how belonging to a community whose goal is to live in harmony with nature can offer a more meaningful and satisfying life than her previous consumer lifestyle was able to provide. She can cook meals with vegetarian members and try new recipes that will satisfy her family’s tastes. By continuing to walk more, buying a bike, asking for rides, and learning the public transportation routes and schedules from others in the community, she can minimize driving and even trade her gas-powered SUV for a hybrid or electric vehicle big enough for her family. She can seek advice on energy-saving practices at home and explore how her energy company offers an in-home energy assessment to minimize energy usage and finding alternatives (e.g., solar and wind cooperatives) to oil and gas.

Feeling more secure in her ability to make and sustain these changes after COVID-19 will make it possible for Leslie to enthusiastically engage friends and family in supporting her—and even joining her in her new lifestyle. With success and a growing supportive community, Leslie will be able to live a life that aligns with her highest values and contributes to the health of the planet.

*  *  *

Assuming the possibility that climate change denial can fall within the criteria for an addiction model, a successful intervention might employ one of the most historically successful intervention approaches in use since its inception in 1939, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The key 12 Step principles evident in Leslie’s story are her

  • powerlessness to change on her own until the pandemic intervened,
  • belief that, with help, ongoing change would be possible even after the impact of COVID-19 no longer was as much of a factor,
  • willingness to take an honest look at her life and identify her harmful behaviors,
  • decision to try something different with the example and support from the new community helping her,
  • openness to accept her imperfections while embracing new behaviors that give her life new meaning, and
  • desire to share what she has learned with others.

Leslie’s story also represents an ideal intervention that incorporates the key principles described by Maria Virginia Olano of effectively communicating the climate crisis posted on the ClimateXChange website.

These include:

  • Let people speak for themselves without criticism or judgment to identify their knowledge gaps and fears, as well as what motivates them
  • Emphasize building trusting reciprocal relationships between equals with similar goals
  • Show that while there are many challenges being faced, there is a vision for the future with real solutions
  • Tell and share stories—don’t just convey facts and data.

While it was beyond the scope of this presentation, when you are talking to someone who is still a climate skeptic and is subject to any of the many climate change myths, a helpful source of typical objections and effective responses can be found on the Skeptical Science website.

Finally, another good source for learning about talking to people about the climate crisis is the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, whose mission is “to conduct scientific research on public climate change knowledge, attitudes, policy preferences, and behavior, and the underlying psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence them.”

Depending on their family and cultural history and personality, everyone is unique in how they process the reality of our climate crisis, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping a person come to terms with their role in the crisis and change their behaviors. Leslie’s case study is presented to show common features of how many people deny their role and ways that have proven effective to intervene and invite them into a community like MN350 that supports a lifestyle of Earth-friendly behaviors. The radical lifestyle changes brought about by the devastating pandemic—including causing even greater hardships for the world’s poor and disenfranchised—can offer some motivation for all of us to re-examine our values and find ways to work together to share the Earth’s limited resources more equitably.

Sid Farrar is a writer, editor, and volunteer with MN350’s Communications Team