Sandra White maps a route through denial and towards action on climate change.

Despite growing evidence of climate change, only a few years ago I regularly heard people deny that it was happening. Temperatures are getting colder not hotter was one common view. And if global warming was happening it’s all part of Earth’s natural cycles, was another.

Since then, Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and David Attenborough have moved the matter onto the mainstream agenda, and the media regularly links extreme weather events with climate change.  Most people accept it’s real and more and more people are getting engaged. The prevalent view today is that in industrialised countries denial is no longer the challenge it was. But change to address global warming remains stubbornly slow to emerge, leaving commentators to look for other valid and relevant explanations as Naomi Klein and Ed Milliband have recently done.

So is it actually the case that we’re beyond denial? 

Denial is a necessary and valid unconscious, psychological defence.

The answer to this question needs to guide our strategies for engaging all sectors across the globe with the practical steps of mitigation and adaptation. If we are beyond denial, then the only considerations need to be technological, logistical, geopolitical, and financial. In truth, the picture is much more complicated.

Denial is a necessary and valid unconscious, psychological defence. It kicks in whenever we are confronted with a situation that demands of us capacities and resources that we don’t have. I understand it as the psychological equivalent of white corpuscles in the blood, which are the first line of defence at the site of a new wound and seem to provide a holding capacity, ensuring that the wound does not worsen during the time it takes for the necessary treatment to arrive.  Even though it cannot always succeed, we can see how much this function is needed and that it is designed as a temporary measure.  

In life-threatening situations, when one is overpowered, it can be essential to buy time.  Buying time enables potential remedies, new resources or different strategies to enter the scene, or simply for the circumstance to shift.  This is a useful way to think about what denial achieves for us and to recognise, even honour it as a faithful servant. It will hold itself in place until no longer required. Yet, while we are held in its grip, denial prevents us from engaging creatively and realistically with the actual threat. Despite its necessary and valid function, it is disabling.  I focus therefore on how to enable the mechanisms of denial to relax rather than present ever-better information about climate change.

The ability to release the grip of denial is dependent on meeting a pair of intertwined conditions: a return to safety and the alleviation of shame. While the safety issue must be the primary concern, relieving shame is critical in moving towards it.

Shame arises when our sense of ourselves as valid, valuable, and valued is overwhelmingly threatened. .  Effectively, it is the shadow of self-worth. When consciously or unconsciously identified with it, we believe we are invalid, valueless, and unvalued, and self-sabotage and self-destruction often result.  In this context, denial makes more sense as our primary defence against intolerable shame. 

Most of us need the protection denial affords because the realisation that our modern, ordinary needs and desires are proving so destructive is genuinely un-faceable.

What we most need to grasp is that our human capacity for shame is one of our most important signals that we are social creatures, innately wanting to be of value to the group as well as to ourselves. Our sense of value is inextricably bound to notions of contributing well to those around us, and shame arises when that sense is profoundly threatened.    

Climate change presents the kind of overwhelming threat that triggers denial. Most of us need the protection denial affords because the realisation that our modern, ordinary needs and desires are proving so destructive is genuinely un-faceable. On top of that, our prevailing, neoliberal economic model is accelerating the dismantling of the fabric of life on Earth alongside our social fabric. But the few at the helm of the economy profit from that model, believe in it, and depend on it for their sense of self-worth. Consequently, denial disables them even more when they contemplate the kind of far-reaching economic transformation needed. 

And when the rest of us grasp the scale of global cooperation required across disciplines, sectors and nations to address climate change, the threat intensifies and strengthens our denial in order to defend us from the shame of feeling helpless.  

What does this mean for us today, given that we are a long way from manifesting conditions that generate safety and alleviate shame?

I propose that we prioritise relieving shame to generate psychological safety to move us towards physical safety. It relies on each of us taking on a lifelong practice of listening and relating authentically to each other. And it demands that, counter-intuitively, we consciously take on the task that denial is unconsciously performing, to try to release the need for it.  It is a combination of psychological insight, philosophy, and strategy (see box: Upholding innocence).

Upholding innocence
I am listening partly to discover what people are identified with and what external elements unconsciously uphold their sense of self-worth. In our consumerist culture, self-worth has generally become extremely bound up with material expressions of wealth. This is particularly strong among people who have done well within our economic system and whose lifestyles emit the highest levels of carbon dioxide. When I can gain a sense of the specifics of where their self-worth is lodged (say) frequent flights to exotic places or large cars, I avoid linking those things to climate change or criticising or casting doubt upon them in any way, mindful that to do so is likely to evoke their shame. The destructiveness of modern life is none of our individual fault and it is normal to pursue what it means to live a good life in our culture that has evolved over aeons. This recognition of innocence enables me to begin to establish rapport and relationship with people I am also seeking to influence.

When sufficient trust and warmth exists between us, taking my cues from them or from events in the outside world, I begin to talk about my own dilemmas and limits in relation to climate change, taking them into my confidence about my own struggles to change. This enables them to share theirs and deepens the quality of relationship between us. Discussing real change then becomes possible, in time.

Intrinsic to this approach, however, is the recognition that individual behaviour change is not going to resolve our collective problem; we need systemic solutions. I bring this into my conversations but there is a spider-web-thin tightrope to be walked: talking about systemic solutions too soon can produce a “phew! I’m off the hook,” reaction and remove the potential I’ve described above. But leaving it too late can create too much and inappropriate pressure on the individual and trigger denial protections. Good timing requires attuned sensitivity to the other person/group and to the quality of relationship between us. When I describe life-long practice I’m really referring to my need for ongoing practice, to develop calm, presence, and respectful receptivity as the foundation for authentic relating, without which none of this is viable.

My perspective is that this approach enables us to assume the kind of moral courage and responsibility needed today. To insist that we take moral responsibility when there is not the psychological capacity for it is shaming and triggers us to deny it is needed. It is counterproductive. A colleague once offered the metaphor: “How can people move forward if they are not let off the hook?” My experience so far has been that upholding innocence expands the space for psychological capacity-building, which provides a necessary foundation for people to discover that they do want to, and can act with moral responsibility. It is as if the hook that they were evading becomes something that they turn towards, and voluntarily attach themselves to, out of a new perception of their place in the world.

The next question is how such propositions can contribute towards systemic change beyond individual relationships. The answer lies in understanding the critical link between denial and shame. That understanding can help us to create a culture that builds the kind of psychological capacity needed to tackle the three main, interconnected risks that denial creates by distorting our behaviour, while it performs its essential task (see box: The three risks of denial).

These psychological considerations emphasise how much we need to move away from our competitive and materialistic assumptions about what creates a good life and towards collective psychological and material safety.

The three risks of denial
My metaphor for how denial works is that it triggers a shutter that splits our psychological resources. Huge emotional, cognitive, and motivational energy is applied In front of the shutter in order to hold onto and increase what is precious. Behind it, an equal amount of energy is needed to ward off intolerable shame, as well as guilt, fear and anguish.

This internal conflict produces the first risk of denial – significantly more undesired behaviours like driving bigger cars and taking more exotic holidays – because our sense of self-worth is unconsciously identified with them. The shutter produces a constant effort to keep proving our self-worth and innocence to ourselves and the world, because the shame, guilt, fear and anguish keep knocking at it, trying to elicit the attention they need, including behaviour changes that would alleviate them.

The second risk is that, while we are caught in this critical internal conflict, we disable our psychological capacity to respond creatively and practically to the actual problem.

And the third risk is that in the battle to keep hold of our threatened sense of self-worth, we are compelled to invalidate whatever threatens it. In invalidating others, we are effectively projecting onto them our own shame – our sense of being invalid, valueless, and unvalued. Polarisation results at the precise moment we need to cooperate.

The 21st-century pandemic, financial crash and intensifying climate breakdown all show us that none of us is actually safe if only a few of us are safe. Living in service to the safety and thriving of human societies as much as our own individual lives, within the safety and thriving of all life on Earth, is the route to, and the outcome of, building our psychological capacity. 

We all have a part to play. Understanding denial’s key role and its associated risks is, I think, an important ingredient in developing the kind of sophisticated psychological literacy we need.  

And as more and more of us navigate the route to improving the future quality of life better, it may turn out that honouring our nature as social creatures and, thereby, taking more care not to generate conditions for shame, becomes our North star.

An example
Before the pandemic, when climate change was gaining greater public attention, I noticed an increasing tendency to label oil executives as evil, while not acknowledging how oil in all its forms has enabled modern lives and careers, or how we remain dependent on it.

Yes, the oil industry has actively delayed the shift away from fossil fuels for decades ; yet our situation is paradoxical and far more complex than labels of evil can possibly describe. Many of the scientific and technological tools at our disposal today, which enable us to understand our predicament and begin to address it, are founded on our increased exploitation of oil with all its damaging effects. Arguably, we have needed the perpetuation of oil for our species’ evolution to this point and it makes a valid contribution to our ability to make different choices now.

Forcing oil executives to carry our collective shame risks increasing their pursuit of oil in inhospitable and habitat-destroying new locations and slows down their investment in renewables because they need to uphold their sense of self-worth alongside all the economic and geopolitical factors involved. The psychological costs to them and, thereby, the risks to us all of how this denial functions are very grave. I would rather find collective ways to own and appreciate just how much oil has contributed to our modern lives and express gratitude. That may help us all to engage more creatively, actively, and quickly with what needs to change.

The sooner we recognise that modern societies’ current inability to make adequate choices is not moral failure, but rather an expression of real psychological needs, the sooner we will develop ways to resource ourselves psychologically, to a degree commensurate with addressing the physical crises we face.

Sandra White

Sandra is a psychologist, ecopsychologist and sustainability consultant.  Alongside consultancy, she facilitates workshops, gives talks and writes.  She was one of the original co-founders of the Climate Psychology Alliance and her chapter “Denial, Sacrifice …

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