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Confessions of a Climate Denier: I'm One, and You Are Too

05/11/2015 11:28 GMT | Updated 04/11/2016 09:12 GMT

In the lead up to the Paris climate conference (COP21) it seems like the right time to confess that I'm a climate denier, just like you, your neighbour, the postman, and practically every other person on this planet. The reasoning for this is complex but boils down to the terrifying enormity of climate change and the fact that our human brains simply haven't evolved to be able to fathom, let alone accept, something as large and looming as what we're dealing with. Many of us have superficially accepted that human-induced climate change is happening, but we have simultaneously become skilled climate avoiders, which isn't all that different to being a denier, and which is why I'm admitting to being one. As science communicator George Marshall says, we don't want to talk about it, and Marshall would know, as he's one of the few experts who look at climate avoidance and denial in depth. There are myriad reasons for our collective denial, and too many to summarise here, but understanding them may be key to overcoming them. For example, Marshall explains that we're wired to be frightened of spiders, wolves, and things that go bump in the night, but climate change is too big, too abstract, to comprehend in this way. It's also too big to challenge, because how can anyone make a difference, or feel that any personal action is not futile, in the face of such a mentally-insurmountable thing?

Yet at the same time, accepting the reality of climate change can be frightening, causing some of us to embrace full denial as a defence mechanism. Other issues that prevent us from tackling the elephant in the room that is climate change include poor communication, confusion about the science, and the habit of 'offsetting' the reality of climate change onto our children and the following generations. In fact, climate change is not a future issue - it's happening here and now: Dr James Hansen of NASA declared that climate change had begun as far back as 1988. The recent Syrian refugee crisis was exacerbated by internal displacement caused by a several-year drought that has been linked to climate change. The elephant is here and it's making itself felt.

Our collective avoidance and denial is understandable. As Marshall says in his book Don't Even Think About It: How Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change 'in my darker moments I feel a deep sense of dread'. Fear leads us to become skilled ninjas at changing the topic whenever the elephant looms large in a discussion, or to discuss it without looking too closely at it, so that it remains a safely distant, abstract thing. It's easier to believe that climate change is far away, in time and geographically, despite the continuous record-breaking temperature increases that are plaguing our time. It's easier to blame a lack of dredging for the Somerset Levels flooding of 2013 than to look at the root of the problem. We'd also rather focus on life returning to normality after natural disasters because the alternative leads us to (the highly exaggerated/unlikely) Age of Stupid/Day After Tomorrow scenarios, and we don't want to think about those things either. We want to live safe and normal, happy lives. Marshall also suggests that we're trapped by the bystander effect, waiting for social cues to tell us that we need to act, and feeling content with the lack of action as our peers and loved ones ignore the issue of climate change altogether. Accepting what's to come - which is largely unknown, besides the general consensus that it will be bad - is a frightening prospect. Or perhaps we do come around to accepting what's happening but feel the need to maintain a façade of climate denial to avoid looking - as the aforementioned documentary reinforces - 'stupid'.

But there is hope for us yet: the upcoming Paris talks, to name a pressing example. After the Kyoto Protocol agreement and the Copenhagen climate change conference, much is being pinned on the Paris Climate Summit, where 190 nations will need to make a solid commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) play an important role in this, as they frame solutions as a coherent plan rather than a series of largely unrelated individual campaigns. The SDGs also outline the issues as social justice and human rights concerns, not just environmental ones, which is another point Marshall makes in his book: that identity politics are a barrier to action on climate change, as the issue has been relegated to the 'green' or environmental campaigns when in fact it impacts more than just these areas and requires a worldwide response, not one from fringe campaigns alone.

So yes, I'm a denier, and so are you, because if we truly saw the reality of climate change for what it is, we'd be doing everything in our power to stop it.

However, it's not too late to out the elephant in the room. Marshall argues that communication and conviction are key in changing the way we respond to climate change (and that means that images of polar bears won't cut it - they're only preaching to the converted). Sharing the facts and figures is important to a degree but it isn't enough: too many factors play a significant role in the information that people trust, such as confirmation bias, availability bias, and the position of the person citing the facts. What instead needs to happen is for people to create a balance between the way our rational brains understand and communicate climate change, and the way our emotional brains react to it too - like the scientists who aren't afraid to cry about climate change on public radio, perhaps, or as Marshall says, 'Every piece of climate change communication from the National Academy of Sciences to a direct-action protest outside a power station is an experiment in the alchemy of turning base data into emotional gold.' We need to accept that our brains react badly to climate change and that we may need strong support networks to get through the mental anguish that the acceptance of it brings. We also need to speak out and ensure that the world's governments reach a strong consensus on cutting carbon emissions, because the stakes are simply too high, not just for our children and future generations but for us, here and now. After all, we only have so much time left - and that's not something even I can avoid thinking about.

The Paris climate conference will take place from 30 November to 11 December 2015. Visit Climate Games to get involved.