• Ian Sutton

Cognitive Dissonance

Who are you going to believe — me, or your own lyin’ eyes?

When talking about climate change the term 'Cognitive Dissonance' is usually used when talking about ‘Deniers’ — those people who do not believe that the climate is changing, or who accept the change is happening but do not accept that human actions are the cause. The dissonance that these people suffer from comes from the fact that almost daily we hear or read about some new climate catastrophe. There is a gap between what they believe and what they observe.

In response to cognitive dissonance, a person can either rationalize the difficulty away, by cherry-picking factoids that reduce the dissonance, or he can simply ignore evidence that creates the dissonance. In the case of climate change, deniers can rationalize by highlighting apparent anomalies in the climate change story. This response is sometimes referred to as confirmation bias. For example, unusually cold weather for a few days can be used to challenge the idea of global warming. Deniers can also rationalize their opinions by picking holes in climate change reports and analyses.

The other option — ignoring the evidence — is achieved by not venturing outside the belief bubble in which they reside. The denier will only talk to people or visit social media sites that confirm his or her way of thinking.

Those who deny that the climate is changing are having a harder and harder time maintaining their stance given the evidence that the climate is obviously less stable than it used to be. Maybe some of the change is indeed caused by natural phenomena such as variations in the sun’s activity. But the link between climate change and human activity is very strong, and getting increasingly hard to deny.

However, there is another group of people that can exhibit symptoms of cognitive dissonance — those who believe that we are headed toward climate catastrophe within the near-term future, i.e., within the lifetimes of people living now, or at least, the lifetimes of their children. The difference between people in this group and the traditional deniers is that they are not just people living on the fringes of social media — they are in positions of high authority and influence. For example, the following words are taken from a speech given by Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, at the conclusion of the recent GOP26 conference in Glasgow.

Antonio Guterres Secretary General United Nations COP26 cognitive dissonance

Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode — or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero.
Boris Johnson COP26 and cognitive dissonance

And here is what Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Britain, said in his speech that opened that conference.

. . . humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock and we need to act now. If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.

This is extraordinary rhetoric from both of these men. If they really meant what they were saying they would be totally dedicated to climate change responses — no other topic or political program would take up even a minute of their time. But that is not what happened. They and other world leaders effectively treat climate change as being just one problem among many.

President Biden at COP26. Cognitive dissonance.

For example, at COP26 President Biden said,

It’s simple: Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us? Or will we condemn future generations to suffer?

On his return to the United States, Joe Biden’s administration authorized extensive drilling programs in the Gulf of Mexico and urged Saudi Arabia increase their oil production.

It is one thing for individuals — usually people with little authority or influence — to deny that the climate is changing. Their cognitive dissonance pales in comparison to that of many world leaders.