December 12th, 2016


Climate Engagement Strategist and Author

Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science, Penn State University

Freelance Science Journalist

Editorial Cartoonist, The Washington Post


A recent Climate One discussion on the many levels of climate denial began with a video clip in which a San Leandro electrician vehemently denies the human causes of global warming.  David Erlich maintains that climate change is a “natural progression” from the Ice Age, all the while at work installing LED lights to ward off what he calls “a financial disaster that will do us in quicker than any global warming.”

It would be easy to vilify the speaker for his opinions, says meteorology professor Michael Mann. But, he continues, “I think it's important to understand that in the end, this person comes out on the right side of the issue…it's ideologically inappropriate to concede that climate change is real, but in his heart he sort of knows that it is.  And he knows the right thing is to move in the direction of clean energy, and he's actually helping in that effort.”

“As humans we’re capable of tolerating and managing a lot of contradictions in ourselves and in one another,” agrees Renee Lertzman, a climate engagement strategist. “When we're confronted with information that brings up conflict with our beliefs, our worldview, our, ideology, our mind will actually generate incredible strategies to deny, repress and basically avoid our engagement with the situation and with the reality.”  

In this polarized election year, have the media helped or hurt in making it acceptable for people to expand their worldview?  “I think the news media has lost a certain amount of trust,” admits science journalist Cristine Russell.  “And people are blaming the media; certainly in this election campaign, particularly on the Republican side, the media is as much a target as everybody else.  

“And so we, I think in the news media, in mainstream journalism really have a challenge to try to reach out in a bigger pond and reach other people than just preaching to the converted.”

Along with Mann, Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles co-authored The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics and Driving Us Crazy. “Cartoonists think in visual terms,” Toles told the crowd.  “The analogy is, this is an asteroid coming at Earth and, you know, everybody says, ‘oh what if an asteroid hits us someday?’  

“This is essentially the same thing.  The science of the matter is very clear now. 

“We can see that asteroid growing in the sky every day and we’re confronted with the news media that, for some reason, doesn't care to cover the story of the asteroid that's going to hit us particularly.”

The influence of children on their parents when it comes to climate change is starting to be recognized, says Lertzman. “One organization, the Alliance for Climate Education, that I've been working with, actually is focusing on supporting young people to have more effective conversations with their parents.

“And this also relates to the point around conversation,” she continues.  “That when we’re in social interactions with people we trust and care about, that is absolutely where we can start to see openings.”

Russell compares the effort to the tobacco wars; during that era, studies showed that “kids who had learned in school about smoking came home and did have an impact on their parents” to convince them to stop smoking.

“So I think this anecdotal approach, it’s also used in journalism quite a bit,” says Russell. “And perhaps one of the stronger ways to get public interest in the issue of the seriousness of the issue is to have more stories coming from places where people are being impacted.”

Toles views the lack of progress in climate awareness as more than just a psychological problem.  “You've got to solve the psychological problem to solve the political problem,” he says. “But the political problem has just leapt way ahead of the psychology here, and we are now in a horrible place...all our politics, our government institutions, our economy, they're all floating like an institution on thin ice that's melting from under us.  You can see what refugees do to politics in Europe, how it can help undermine all the democratic institutions.

“These are not just abstract questions and they’re not in the future anymore.  We are right up against it now.  Just remember that we are right at the edge of the precipice right now, and we’re teetering.”

Related Links:

The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics and Driving Us Crazy

Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement

National Geographic: The Years of Living Dangerously

Alliance for Climate Education