Denial is a psychological process. According to neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), denial is the method by which the human brain protects the ego. In the words of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, it is “a defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or reality is avoided by avoiding the existence of the problem or reality.” Oftentimes, when individuals are told something that is too shocking or heavy to bear, such as the passing of a loved one, a person’s initial reaction may be to deny it until they can come to grips, in their own time. What happens when, instead of a loved one’s passing, an individual is confronted with the belief that humans are on the fast track to extinction?
It’s easier to deny the possibility altogether than to seriously examine consumption habits, actively hold politicians accountable for environmental initiatives, or to challenge big corporations to take responsibility of their staggering contributions to deforestation and pollution. No one wants to stare down their own mortality, nevertheless the death of everyone and everything they’ve ever known. In addition, the transference of denial emboldens politicians to ignore scientists and the initiatives they determine are imperative to the survival of the human race.
Denial distorts a person’s ability to identify and process facts. Physicist John Cook who runs SkepticalScience.com, a website that explains peer-reviewed science about climate, outlines the five characteristics of denial as conspiracy theories, fake experts, cherry picking, impossible expectations, and misrepresentation and logical fallacy. People are more likely to take the words of someone they agree with and attribute it to expertise, whether or not the expert’s findings are based in established scientific knowledge. For example, the tobacco industry employed fake experts to dispute evidence of the health hazards of second-hand smoke exposure. Furthermore, the tobacco industry attempted to introduce a new standard of epidemiology that would conveniently invalidate almost all the research done on the health hazards of cigarettes, thus creating impossible expectations in the field. Misrepresentation and logical fallacies in 1992 allowed the tobacco industry to accuse the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of threatening democracy when the EPA determined that tobacco smoke causes cancer.
Actual experts and their work are often sought out and attacked. Cherry-picking, the act of neglecting broad research in favor of a few theories that challenge the majority, is a tactic used by anti-vaxxers to prove that immunizations cause autism, even though research proves otherwise. Additionally, because climate change is complicated and not easily discernible by laymen, news surrounding the topic is easy to fabricate. However, this doesn’t mean that the real information isn’t available at our fingertips.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), publishing on NASA.gov, believes that there is a 95 percent or greater probability that humans are responsible for Earth’s current warming trend, starting at the mid-1900s. From 1950 to today, atmospheric carbon dioxide has been at the highest level recorded in the last 400,000 years. According to New Scientist, the last time Earth was this hot, 55 million years ago, the planet experienced mass extinctions. The difference is that humans weren’t around at that time, seeing as though human civilization didn’t begin until around 7,000 years ago, according to NASA. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) lists five mass extinctions the planet has endured throughout several eras of its history. These extinctions were caused by mega-volcano eruptions that released excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and other particles, according to the Scientific American. It’s important to consider that these extinctions didn’t happen instantly, as dramatized in the movies, but over a period of time. It’s also important to remember that Earth itself has always survived climate change – many lifeforms across the planet are what died.
Although humans are resourceful and able to adapt, we must take into consideration the depleted quality of life we will face should Earth confront us with another round of extinction. What will happen to our forests, oceans and the animals that we love? Will our children and grandchildren survive? Furthermore, should we face environmental catastrophe, the most vulnerable will be those with little to no money or mobility compared to the wealthy 1 percent. There is no doubt that survival will come with a cost. As of today, many indigenous communities across the Americas and people in the Caribbean already pay this price. Deforestation of native land, islands ravaged by hurricanes and pipelines that poison sacred water supply are all derivatives of the contempt we’ve developed for protecting the planet. Additionally, global warming increases flooding in wet climates while it dries out the air and expands the threat of wildfires in other areas. According to Dr. Dim Coumou from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), weather patterns, due to global warming, tend to get stuck in a region and cause extremes. This is a direct threat to homes, the natural environment and our ability to grow food.
The purpose of discourse surrounding the planet isn’t to frighten or spark alarm. The point, simply put, is that no one can fix a problem they don’t know – or deny – exists. The good news is that clean energy resources continue to drop in price, in both the United States and around the world. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the prices of wind, solar, batteries and LED light bulbs have fallen by 41 to 94 percent from 2008 to 2015. Additionally, wind energy is on the rise in the U.S. with the nation being number one in global wind energy production in 2016. Solar energy is also gaining popularity among farmers as prices decrease. Global initiatives, such as the Paris Agreement, brings nations across the world in a consensus to combat climate change, resist its existing effects, and help developing countries to do the same. Efforts such as these prove that humans are aware of what’s happening, and are willing to do what’s needed to protect the lives – human, animal and plant alike – that we love.
Asking questions and doing research is never a bad thing, especially in today’s era of Fake News. However, with any topic, it is important to remain skeptical of non-reputable sources and our own biases that might encourage us to embrace misinformation. Knowledge and open-mindedness are keys to empowerment. With these keys, we can make our planet and our a society a more harmonious place to live.