Climate urgency denial

There has been a scientific consensus for years that urgent radical cuts in CO2 emissions are needed to tackle climate change in line with the Paris Agreement. But wider society is not acting on this consensus.
The problem is not simply a lack of awareness, but active promotion of an alternative view, i.e. that gradual decarbonisation is all that is needed.
This can be termed "climate urgency denial".
The problem usually seems to be denial of the implications of the facts of climate change, which sociologists term "implicatory denial".
The causes seem to include groupthink and other cognitive biases, and self-interest.
Climate urgency denial can be characterised in terms of a number of interlinked fallacies which are being widely repeated, even by people campaigning for action on climate change and in related areas.
To be effective, campaigners should ensure that their campaigns are consistent with the scientific consensus.

The scientific consensus on urgency

There has been a scientific consensus for years that urgent radical cuts in CO2 emissions are needed to tackle climate change in line with the Paris Agreement. This has been a consistent message from mainstream science that has not been seriously challenged. For example,

Society's failure to act urgently and radically

While there is a scientific consensus on three points:
  1. Climate change is largely caused by mankind's burning of fossil fuels
  2. Phasing out of fossil fuels is required
  3. Urgent radical action is needed
it is only the first two of these that seem to have been widely accepted throughout democratic societies. The third has not yet been generally accepted, with most people acting as if gradual change will be sufficient.

Climate urgency denial

The lack of acceptance that urgent radical change is needed has been identified as a problem by academics who are working in the field, e.g.

The problem seems to be due not to complete ignorance, but to a psychological state of denial, resulting in several interlinked fallacies about the speed of cuts in CO2 emissions needed to meet international commitments.

The problem has been referred to as "climate urgency denial" by Prof. Simon Richter [12]:
"It's not climate change denial, but it's climate urgency denial."

In a psychological sense, dictionary definitions of denial are
refusal to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion or to admit it into consciousness, used as a defence mechanism
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.

Since the problem seems to be not merely a lack of awareness but a strongly held alternative belief that gradual decarbonisation is sufficient, which resists efforts to correct it, use of the term "denial" seems to be appropriate.

So "climate urgency denial" seems to be a convenient term for "acting as if there is no need for urgent radical action on climate change".

It is denial of the implications of the facts and how we interpret them, i.e. it is a form of implicatory denial - see document 147.

Types of climate urgency fallacy

The most important fallacies are
Read more in document 142.

Climate urgency denial is widespread

Almost everyone is engaging in denial

Climate urgency denial in campaiging groups

It might be expected that groups campaigning for climate action would be at the forefont of publicising the scientific consensus on urgent radical change and the implications for policy decisions, but most groups are repeating the fallacies, and campaigning within their government's timescale of emission cuts, e.g. Friends of the Earth (UK) is endorsing the UK Government's timescale of emission cuts - see document 139.

Some exceptions are

Campaigning groups in related areas such as advocating for cycling, walking, and better air quality are also failing to convey the scientific consensus accurately.

This is an extraordinary situation as the climate urgency denial is holding up the change that is needed.

How might climate urgency denial be combatted?


[1]IPCC (Oct 2018) SR15 Summary for policymakers
[2]Tyndall Centre The Tyndall carbon budget tool (2019)
[3]IPCC (Aug 2021) AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis
[4]Abdalah Mokssit (Secretary of the IPCC) (Aug 2021) IPCC press conference
[5] Jackson T (2021) Zero Carbon Sooner: Revised case for an early zero carbon target for the UK. CUSP Working Paper No 29. Guildford: University of Surrey.
[6]Ian Campbell (Sep 2021) UK's share of the global carbon budget will be used up in 3.3 years (letter) British Medical Journal 2021;374:n2391
[9]Turning delusion into climate action - Prof Kevin Anderson, an interview (2020) Responsible Science
[10]Steinberger and Capstick (2020) or
[11]Scientists for Global Responsibility. A science oath for the climate: text and signing (2020)
[12]The quote was "It's not climate change denial, but it's climate urgency denial." Prof Simon Richter (2016) (accessed 18 Oct 2022)
[13]The New Oxford Dictionary of English* (1998) Clarendon Press, Oxford
[14]APA Dictionary of Psychology (accessed 21.1.23)
[15]Greta Thunberg (2021)
[16]Extinction Rebellion demands (accessed 16.7.22)

First published: 27 Jun 2022
Last updated: 11 Sep 2023