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
It seems that most people, including many climate campaigners, are suffering from at least one of these forms of climate denial.
TerminologyAccording to the New Oxford Dictionary of English , the meaning of denial is
- the action of declaring something to be untrue
- the refusal of something requested or desired
- a statement that something is not true
- [and in a psychological sense] refusal to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion or to admit it into consciousness, used as a defence mechanism.
The term denial will be used here in the general sense, to include all forms e.g. due to
- lack of knowledge
- being misled by others
- deliberate and malicious
- deliberate and well-intentioned (self-censoring)
- an unconscious process
Types of denialStanley Cohen described three forms of denial . 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
- literal denial: denial of the facts
- interpretative denial: people do not contest the facts, but interpret them in ways that distort their meaning or importance
- implicatory denial: people do not contest the facts, or how they are interpreted - what is denied or minimized are the psychological, political, and moral implications of the facts.
Examples of climate denialIn the context of climate change, an example of literal denial is to say
- the climate is not changing .
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
- climate change is just a natural fluctuation 
- greenhouse gas accumulation is a consequence, not a cause, of rising temperatures 
- denial of severity .
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  e.g.
- avoidance 
- denial of guilt 
- rationalisation of own involvement .
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 uncomfortable 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.
Implicatory denial in climate campaignersOne extraordinary feature of the inaction on climate change is the implicatory denial in those advocating climate action i.e. they advocate weak and inadequate actions and continue to do so even when alerted to the actions being inadequate. Some UK examples are
|||The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) Clarendon Press, Oxford|
|||Stanley Cohen (2001) States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering ISBN: 978-0-745-62392-4|
|||Iain Walker and Zoe Leviston (2019) There are three types of climate change denier - and most of us are at least one The Conversation https://theconversation.com/there-are-three-types-of-climate-change-denier-and-most-of-us-are-at-least-one-124574|
|||Wullenkord (2022) From denial of facts to rationalization and avoidance: Ideology, needs, and gender predict the spectrum of climate denial Personality and Individual Differences https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886922001209|
First published: 21 Jan 2023
Last updated: 2 Oct 2023