Climate denial: literal, interpretive and implicatory

It is vital to consider the various types of climate denial when assessing and acting on the climate emergency.
The sociologist Stanley Cohen described three forms of denial
  • literal
  • interpretative
  • implicatory.
It seems that most people, including many climate campaigners, are suffering from at least one of these forms of climate denial.


The definition of denial in the Collins dictionary [1] is
1. a refusal to agree or comply with a statement; contradiction
2. the rejection of the truth of a proposition, doctrine, etc a denial of God's existence
3. a negative reply; rejection of a request
4. a refusal to acknowledge; renunciation; disavowal a denial of one's leader
5. a psychological process by which painful truths are not admitted into an individual's consciousness (See also defence mechanism)
6. abstinence; self-denial.
with defence mechanism defined by Collins [1] as
a way of behaving or thinking which is not conscious or deliberate and is an automatic reaction to unpleasant experiences or feelings such as anxiety and fear.

A definition of denial in the psychological sense from the American Psychological Association [2] is
A defense mechanism in which unpleasant thoughts, feelings, wishes, or events are ignored or excluded from conscious awareness. It may take such forms as refusal to acknowledge the reality of a terminal illness, a financial problem, an addiction, or a partner's infidelity. Denial is an unconscious process that functions to resolve emotional conflict or reduce anxiety.

The term denial will be used here in the general sense, to include all forms e.g. due to
since we generally do not know the extent to which these components are causing an individual's or group's beliefs or actions. This is in line with sociologist Stanley Cohen's States of denial [3].

Types of denial

Stanley Cohen described three forms of denial [3]. His framework was developed from a study of genocide and other atrocities, but it can also be applied to individual and collective inaction on climate change. The three forms are

Examples of climate denial

In the context of climate change, an example of literal denial is to say

In interpretive denial, people do not contest the facts, but interpret them in ways that distort their meaning or importance. For example, it might be said

In implicatory denial, the facts of climate change are not denied, nor are they interpreted to be something else. What is denied or minimized are the psychological, political, and moral implications of the facts for us. People fail to accept responsibility for responding; they fail to act when the information says they should [4] e.g.

It seems that literal and interpretive climate denial have declined, but implicatory climate denial is widespread in all sections of society.

Denial: a normal human response?

It seems that denial of unconfortable truths is to some extent a normal human response - a kind of misthinking like being misled by optical illusions or overconfidence bias - and so it might be argued that people should not be censured for it. But when a person is challenged, especially if the denial is potentially causing harm to others, there is a responsibility to ensure that denial is eliminated or at least minimised.


[1]Collins English Dictionary (accessed 27.1.23)
[2]APA Dictionary of Psychology (accessed 21.1.23)
[3]Stanley Cohen (2001) States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering ISBN: 978-0-745-62392-4
[4]Iain Walker and Zoe Leviston (2019) There are three types of climate change denier - and most of us are at least one The Conversation
[5]Wullenkord (2022) From denial of facts to rationalization and avoidance: Ideology, needs, and gender predict the spectrum of climate denial Personality and Individual Differences

First published: 21 Jan 2023
Last updated: 19 May 2023