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Preaching, Accusation, Guilt and Denial: Learning from Ignaz Semmelweis for Climate Communication

Climate preaching, calling on consumers to voluntarily and individually protect the climate, induces a feeling of guilt which elicits climate denial and the observed reluctance to communicate the problem —climate silence. It is argued that climate preaching is therefore overall detrimental. The implicit induction of guilt and its rejection is a major reason for the difficulties to communicate on climate change. The argument is exemplified by the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the pioneer of evidence based medicine who was born exactly two hundred years ago.

There is not much good but nothing wrong about living an ecological lifestyle to mitigate climate change. However, there is a lot bad about advertising it.


A personal account of denial

It was around 1978. I was busy spray-painting my kayak, when someone pointed out to me I was also busy destroying the ozone layer. It could be read in the newspapers, she said. I did not immediately believe her. For a moment I had fallen victim to what is defined below as the accusation rejection bias.

They won!

The government of the US, the world’s most powerful nation, both militarily and economically, has been taken over by climate (science) deniers. As if this alone were not terrible enough: They were elected democratically. This victory by science deniers is unprecedented.

The takeover happened over 150 years after the greenhouse effect of CO2 was first measured in a lab, and more than one hundred years after the effect of augmented atmospheric CO2 concentrations was first quantified and predicted on the geophysical level —by mere brainpower, paper and pen.

Caveats also occurred: CO2 will easily be taken up by the oceans; Absorption bands of water vapor and CO2 overlap; Clouds fully moderate greenhouse gas induced warming; Aerosols do; etc. These caveats indicate a psychological pattern, a desire to discover a bright side of the situation and communicate it. The caveats were nevertheless all dispelled.

We now experience the unequivocal confirmation of old, essentially undisputed science. 30 years ago James Hansen made precise predictions and testified before the same congress that is now dominated by outright deniers.

The global average temperature now ventures into a realm never experienced by human civilizations. Unless effective political action is taken, it will in the foreseeable future increase to degrees never ever experienced by any creature of the genus homo.

We are witnessing the first devastating irreversible effect of greenhouse gas induced warming and CO2 in the oceans: the destruction of coral reefs, the ecosystems on which much if not most of the diversity of life in the oceans depends.

The deniers won. Maybe they won even more than their original promotors wanted them to win. The sides are divided and continue to get polarized.

At least for now, the deniers go stronger than ever and the other side is largely paralyzed. While all this happened and happens, there is a strange silence. Politicians, neighbors and even scientists are reluctant to talk about climate change.

Why is that? What has gone wrong?

It is overdue for climate communicators to thoroughly analyze our difficulties, our approaches to communicate the problem, to rethink our acts —and readjust.

→ Jump to Part 2 – Impact of Guilt Induction and Guilt Avoidance on Climate Communication

Part 1 – Semmelweis‘ Challenge

Remembering Ignaz Semmelweis

August 13 should be highlighted in every climate communicator’s agenda. On August 13 in 1865, Ignaz Semmelweis died in the Landesirrenanstalt Döbling. He had been lured there only a fortnight earlier by Ferdinand Hebra who committed him to the asylum for the mentally deranged near Vienna. Hebra was a leading capacity in his field, dermatology, and one of Semmelweis‘ teachers in medicine. As the editor of the Viennese medical journal, Hebra had announced Semmelweis‘ breakthrough discovery in obstetrics (the branch of medicine that deals with childbirth) and had given it due acclaim. The document which, seventeen years later, attested Semmelweis a mental disease had been signed by János Balassa, Semmelweis‘ house doctor, an internationally recognized authority in plastic surgery and a pioneer of cardiac resuscitation.

Ignaz Semmelweis in 1860
Ignaz Semmelweis in 1860 | Copper engraving by Jenö Doby.

An autopsy of Semmelweis‘ body was carried out by Carl Braun, who succeeded Semmelweis at the maternity clinic of Vienna’s Allgemeines Krankenhaus only a few years after Semmelweis‘ landmark discovery. Braun was Semmelweis‘ nemesis, both in Vienna and later in Budapest. By then, Semmelweis had few friends among obstetricians. (Braun and Hebra were awarded the honor of knighthood in 1877, at a time when germ theory had proven Semmelweis right.)

Multiple bone fractures were inflicted upon Semmelweis, supposedly by his guards, when he was forcefully delivered to the asylum. The fractures were not reported by Braun nor anyone else of his time. They were revealed a century later, in 1963, following an exhumation of Semmelweis‘ bodily remains. The mistreatment was not responsible for Semmelweis‘ death, however.

Ironically —or perhaps perfidiously— he was killed by an infectious disease, similar or even essentially equal to puerperal sepsis, also known as childbed fever. It remains unknown whether the infection was accidental or deliberately inflicted. The prevalence of inconsistencies around his death supports the hypothesis that Semmelweis was murdered.

The degree, nature and cause of his mental illness also remains unclear. An advanced state of syphilis or Alzheimer’s disease are being hypothesized among other candidate illnesses. It also remains unclear to what extent Semmelweis had been made to lose his mind trough ignorance, indifference and rejection.

At the time, Vienna’s Allgemeines Krankenhaus was among the world’s leading hospitals for medical treatment and research. In an attempt to contain infanticide —or perhaps rather prostitution— women were urged to give birth in hospitals.

Admission to the obstetrics clinic was free of charge for the pregnant. Nevertheless, pretending to not have been making it to the hospital in time, many preferred to bear their children in the street. Their chances of survival were much higher if they stayed clear of hospitals, where often one in ten mothers died in their childbed. The death rate could be twice as high, during months.

From at least ancient Greece onwards, until Semmelweis‘ time, medical wisdom was dominated by the belief that an alleged equilibrium of four bodily fluids was key to the health (and temperament) of a patient. Failures of the theory were systematically excused by the pretense that every medical case was as individual as was the patient.

The advances by Louis Pasteur and others still lay a couple of decades in the future. However, in Semmelweis‘ time as a doctor in Vienna, medical practices and knowledge had already progressed beyond superstition and false excuses for shortcomings.

  • The existence of transmitting diseases was well accepted.
  • Vaccinations with cowpox against smallpox, invented in China in the 16th century, were applied widely.
  • Decades before Ignaz Semmelweis‘ discovery, the Italian Agostino Bassi had proven with experiments that a microscopic «vegetable parasite» —a fungus, really— caused a disease in silkworms which in turn devastated the French silk industry.
  • Semmelweis wrote about the similarity —and difference— of contracting diseases transmitted directly from one person to another and the indirect transmission he discovered. Albeit not yet declared, and far from explained, germ theory was in the making.

Three years before Semmelweis‘ discovery, US American physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes had already strongly proposed that puerperal fever was contagious, that it could be transmitted via doctors, their hands and instruments and that hygiene was key to the prevention of the disease. He did not focus on hand hygiene as much as Semmelweis. But he was also confronted with the dismissal and rejection of his findings, essentially for the same reason.

Charles Meigs, another US obstetrician, who objected Holmes —and Semmelweis— stated that doctors were gentlemen and gentlemen’s hands were clean. That was in 1854, 10 years after Holmes‘ and seven years after the initial publication of Semmelweis‘ findings. Meigs‘ book mentions Semmelweis (as «Semmelweiss»). It is a collection of examples to suggest doctors were not guilty of spreading puerperal fever. 1

Meigs explicitly rejects the implicit accusation of having himself been an agent of transmission of puerperal fever: «[…] I certainly was never the medium of its transmission.» 2

Unlike Semmelweis, Holmes did not let his adversaries take control of his life, made his point and moved on. Despite the opposition, his conclusions were known in Britain and, somewhat ironically, when Semmelweis stressed the importance of hand hygiene to prevent contagion with puerperal fever, his claims were rejected also under the pretense that they were not new.

Chloride of lime, which Semmelweis would advocate, was long believed to have disinfecting effect, including against puerperal fever, as is evidenced by an account from 1829 referenced by Meigs. 3

Autopsies were standard practice to search for clues to explain the occurrence of diseases or to instruct medical students, which, together with Semmelweis‘ systematic approach, indicates that in the mid 19th century medicine was busy moving towards scientific scrutiny.

And autopsies, Semmelweis revealed, were an essential part of the problem. After having tested and rejected at least two very different hypotheses he identified a deadly cycle that killed about one hundred thousand women per year in obstetrics clinics —and would keep killing them for at least two more decades, despite Semmelweis‘ discovery.

It was common practice for students or doctors of obstetrics to examine the body of deceased. Without properly washing their hands in between, they could dissect the body of a woman who had fallen victim to puerperal fever and go on to examine the vaginas of pregnant women. With their fingers they recycled the disease from the dead to the living, sometimes to the yet unborn too.

Several factors helped Semmelweis identify the problem. The Vienna maternity clinic had two branches, one operated by doctors and students, the other mostly by midwifes. The pregnant women who were directed at the doctor’s branch of the clinic suffered and died from childbed disease significantly more often than those who were looked after by midwifes —who also refrained from vaginal inspections.

The two branches‘ different reputation made many women solicit to be permitted to the safer branch of the maternity and they sometimes cried in desperation if their wish was disregarded. (They were not given the choice.) Also, the pregnant women who preferred to give birth in the street did not normally catch puerperal fever.

Another hint was the death of a pathologist, a dear colleague of Semmelweis. After having been wounded by a student’s scalpel during an autopsy, the pathologist contracted a fever and died. The symptoms of his disease and his dead body suspiciously resembled those of the women who all too regularly died in their childbed.

Last but not least, Semmelweis —unlike most of his colleagues— acknowledged that he himself was a major part of the problem.

A conflict with his superior, Johann Klein, helped him discover his own deadly effect. Semmelweis was not Klein’s protégé, to say the least. Perhaps, differences between the two sprang from Semmelweis‘ ambition as a scientist. Klein’s scientific ambitions flew low and he might have preferred to obstruct Semmelweis‘ career. Or, possibly, their opinions diverged over political issues. Whatever the reason was, in late 1846, Semmelweis‘ appointment was not prolonged and and he, who had done most of the autopsies, had to pause.

As a consequence, deaths from puerperal fever in the men-run branch of the maternity clinic dropped to a few percent, the level of the branch run by midwifes. When, soon afterwards, in March 1847, Semmelweis was allowed back to work, autopsies resumed and death rates sprang back up to near record heights.

Semmelweis concluded and imposed that hands needed to be washed thoroughly in a chlorine solution between autopsies and vaginal inspections. Consequently, death rates from childbed fever plummeted. That was in May 1847, 18 years before Semmelweis‘ death.

He believed that traces of decayed material from the dissected bodies stuck to the fingers of the doctors and students. (Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria then infected the unfortunate women. However, the discovery of the truly deadly agent was decades away.)

He opted for the solution because he had noticed the smell of death was sticking to his hands well after the autopsies, but could be removed by washing his hands in chlorine of lime.


To this point, it reads like an interesting account of an early and important scientific discovery. But Semmelweis‘ tale doesn’t stop here. From a psychological perspective, for climate communications, and as far as Semmelweis‘ personal fate is concerned, the interesting part of his story commences here.

Regardless of diligently compiled statistics and the many lives spared, Semmelweis‘ claims were soon disregarded. Moreover, he was accused of not living up to the medical standards of his days —standards which were about to become obsolete.

Only two years after his breakthrough at the hospital, his assignment was again not prolonged, definitely, this time. He was offered a minor position in academia but refrained from accepting it.

A German speaker from Buda, Semmelweis returned to Pest, disappointed. (The two parts of today’s Budapest were not yet united.) There he took an unpaid position as the honorary director of a minor maternity clinic. While the problem had been rampant before, under Semmelweis, puerperal fever was eliminated almost entirely in that clinic. But once again, he was disregarded, even vilified.

The story of success but disregard repeated itself once again, after he had been able to get a position at the university hospital in Pest.

He is now considered a pioneer of evidence-based medicine. However, several decades should pass between his achievements and the posthumous recognition of his work and his rehabilitation.

Why the rejection?

It is often claimed that he was ignored, treated with disrespect and even accused of wrongdoing because he attacked and offended his colleague doctors unnecessarily, the longer they ignored his view and recommendations. These claims are difficult to support, at least from his public communications. In his 102-page open letter to obstetricians throughout Europe which he wrote in 1861, the tone of his writings is not extraordinarily aggressive —if compared to, for example, how Karl Marx, a contemporary of Semmelweis, dealt with his competitors, adversaries and should-be friends.

Rather, there is indication that Semmelweis sought to minimize the faults of his colleagues and weaken the accusation.

While Semmelweis claimed that all puerperal fever infections «from outside» could be eliminated without exception, if strict hygiene were observed, he attributed residual cases of childbed fever not to transmission but to infection «from inside», as he called it. He claimed that a deadly material, essentially the same «decayed beastly-organic substance» («zersetzter thierisch-organischer Stoff») that he suspected were transferred from the sick or dead to the healthy and living, could also develop inside the victims rather than always having been brought about from the outside.

He suggested this way of «internal» infection even though there had been a long time at the Vienna hospital without any deaths from childbed fever, before autopsies were made. And there was an entire month without deaths from childbed fever, March 1848, when Semmelweis had temporarily succeeded to enforce a more rigorous hygiene policy: Doctors had to wash their hands not only after autopsies, but before any inspection, too.

These periods without deaths essentially disproved the hypothesis of spontaneous internal development of the infection. It is hardly conceivable that this conclusion escaped Semmelweis. He nevertheless excused his colleagues from residual fatalities, when he probably should have attributed them to a lack of strict observation of his policy or generally inadequate levels of hygiene —the latter of which he also correctly believed were another way of disease transmission (open wounds, transmission via instruments, bed sheets, etc.).

Semmelweis was rather trying to find a way to excuse his colleagues than to accuse them for all fatalities from puerperal disease among their patients. (Semmelweis was nevertheless right with his suspicion of internal infection insofar as the dangerous bacteria could be brought to the hospital by a pregnant woman herself with an infection of the respiratory organs, but he could not have known about it.)

Either way, whether Semmelweis unnecessarily accused —as mainstream historic opinion posits— or whether he, as I found, had rather been seeking to avoid accusations: It is safe to say that for him the truth was more important than friendship and his larger social environment. And, either way, whether explicit or implicit, his message war loaded with accusation.

Merely half a dozen authorities in his field supported Semmelweis. (One of them felt so deeply ashamed that he committed suicide after reckoning to have infected his pregnant cousin.) All other obstetricians ignored or rejected his findings, often vehemently. Yet, some of Semmelweis‘ most vocal critics, including his nemesis Carl Braun, discretely ruled out autopsies or vaginal inspections or strictly separated the two activities, with notable results, Semmelweis claimed. Many doctors knew Semmelweis was right, he pointed out in his open letter from 1861, but did not admit to it.

After having seen his achievements dismissed, Semmelweis remained rather silent. From 1858 onwards, however, he made another attempt to make his voice heard and published three books, including his main work, in 1861. It was also largely dismissed.

Naturally, it became gradually more difficult for Semmelweis not to appear being offensive towards his peers. At first the implicit message had been that they killed women inadvertently. As time went by and women kept dying, the implicit message inevitable became this: You keep on killing hundreds of thousands of women, knowingly. Semmelweis then also accused his colleagues explicitly, at least in closed letters.

Why is it so easy for the special interest groups working on behalf of the fossil fuel industry to make their voices heard and propagate denial, while climate communicators keep failing at their task?

Part 2 – Impact of Guilt Induction and Guilt Avoidance on Climate Communication

Reviewing the Semmelweis reflex

The «Semmelweis reflex» or «Semmelweis effect» is supposed to explain Semmelweis‘ failure to make his message heard. In Wikipedia it is «a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms».

However, this definition misses the main reason why Semmelweis failed to be persuasive. He had virtually had no choice but to accuse his colleagues. Even when he didn’t accuse them explicitly there was still an implicit but stark accusation, because the life of so many were obliterated.

Moreover, the accusation was linked to impurity, an accusation difficult for people to put up with psychologically. (It is almost a historical standard to vilify people by claiming them being impure; reticence towards hand hygiene in hospitals is still a big problem.)

There is a special element to Semmelweis‘ problem that goes beyond the biases that the current definition of the Semmelweis reflex suggests (belief perseverance, an endowment effect for including non-material goods, the confirmation bias, the tendency to cling to an existing theory or worldview —and to reject a new theory or worldview, groupthink and belief in authority).

This special element is the implicit accusation.

It would be sensible to redefine the Semmelweis reflex to incorporate the characteristic and probably determining aspect of Semmelweis‘ problem:

If a message, implicitly or explicitly, includes an accusation of the recipient, the latter is inclined to reject the message and has a tendency to accuse the messenger instead.

The rejection of the message and the tendency to raise a counter-accusation are two different elements of the suggested redefinition of the Semmelweis reflex. These two elements could be kept apart.

  • The rejection of a message with an underlying accusation could be called accusation rejection bias.
  • The tendency to accuse the messenger if the original message includes an implicit (or explicit) accusation could be called accusation reflection effect.

Semmelweis‘ problem was not so much the contradiction of «established norms», as the current definition of the Semmelweis reflex suggests. Much more, his problem was that, even though he did not say it like this at all, the message to his colleagues was inevitably heard like this: You kill women en masse by sticking your filthy fingers into their vaginas.

Who would want to perceive that? It is not surprising that Semmelweis‘ message was not well received.

The don’t kill the messenger saying proclaims the difficulties there are to convey an inconvenient truth. It should not be surprising that a message which is far more troublesome than inconvenient, but a severe accusation —even if implicit—, is even more difficult to get across.

Distorted communication

There is another reason, a different reason, why Semmelweis gained little support. Not only did his colleagues not want to hear what he had found out, they did not want to tell it either. There is yet another psychological factor that aggravated Semmelweis‘ challenge.

It could be called implicit accusation inhibition to describe the reluctance to communicate fully or communicate at all, a tendency to communicate mildly or the failure to communicate correctly if the message includes an accusation, even if the accusation is implicit.

Psychologists found out long ago that humans rarely tell things as they are or that we are astonishingly reluctant to say what would have to be told in order to be honest. This is because the undisguised message is often not appealing to the people we communicate with.

We must always be worried about making friends and allies and not losing them. We therefore almost always carefully navigate between being honest to ourselves and the facts and avoid being offensive towards who we communicate with.

Not only our perception is full of biases that serve to please ourselves. The active part of our communication is also biased. It is skewed to please the recipients of our messages —in order not to disappoint or upset them.

The Semmelweis reflex as posited above, which stresses the element of accusation, and the implicit accusation inhibition are key to understanding important biases in climate communication.

Biased climate communication

There are various degrees of the implicit accusation inhibition. In terms of climate change, they may be distinguished as follows:

  1. Climate silence (reluctance to communicate; not talk about global warming)
  2. Preference to downplay the importance of climate change, to discover and spread comforting, mild or positive climate information (lesser accusation messaging)
  3. Active climate denial (communicate incorrectly; actively question the existence of climate change, its causes or its effects)

These categories of the implicit accusation inhibition (A, B and C) are discussed separately in the following sections.

Climate silence (A)

Survey results for the United States should make us attentive. There is a strange silence on climate change. It is well documented for the US. Of course, it is not restricted to the US where people want to solve a problem which they don’t acknowledge and certainly don’t want to talk about (see video clip below).

«Americans believe they can solve a problem, even if they don’t believe we have a problem but they are not talking about it.» | Richard Alley in press meeting at AGU 2017 conference. Clip. Full video.

It has been tried to explain climate silence as the result of a spiral of silence, a mechanism related to groupthink, the tendency to align ones own opinion with mainstream opinion. To avoid isolation, those who do not adjust their opinion nevertheless keep quiet and thereby relatively strengthen the prevailing opinion, which causes a reinforcing feedback and elicits a spiral, the spiral of silence. The theory is backed by observations.

Groupthink, which is part of the spiral of silence theory, is a very important factor in climate communications and the perception of the problem, there can be not doubt about that. 4

The spiral of silence theory is compelling on its own. However, it falls short of explaining the silence among those who think climate change is real and should be addressed. And that is the majority, even in the US! Moreover, for the spiral of silence to start, there must be an initial inclination to reject the science of climate change, a widespread psychological inclination to not want to talk about it or an incentive not to talk about it.

There must be a different explanation for the observed silence, at least for its beginning. There is a psychological driver, a deeper cause for the silence. It is the implicit accusation inhibition.

We don’t want to talk about climate change with our neighbors, friends, relatives or peers —or voters (Germany, US 2012, US 2016)— because nobody wants to hear it, feel accused and guilty.

We neither want to accuse nor do we want to be accused. Even if there is no real accusation made, there is still fear that the climate message might be perceived as an accusation.

Science communicator Harald Lesch talks about the difficulty and reticence of communicating climate change because people just don’t want to hear about it. With his video answer a denier could hardly be more affirmative. «How should I start?», asks Harald Lesch at the beginning of a TV-broadcast to explain global warming. The climate denier who made this video intercepts (blue panes): «Not at all! You already made a fool of yourself too much with your climate blabber and outed yourself as criminal climate liar.» «I keep repeating it, climate change is not an easy topic», continues Harald Lesch. The denier intercepts: «True, it is by now a repulsive, boring topic which JUST AND ONLY gets on people’s nerves because they can no longer stand hearing the rubbish and the lies!» Harald Lesch concludes: «In this way I began the broadcast and I said: ‚for heavens sake he begins [I begin] with climate change again!‘, now here he also finishes his talk [I also finish my talk] with climate change.» «HOPEFULLY you finally finish with it and HOPEFULLY, you will be held responsible for your lying», intercepts the denier. | Compilation of beginning and end of a climate denier’s video based on a TV-broadcast by German ZDF.

The reluctance to talk to neighbors or friends about global warming is comprehensible. If we bring the topic up, we risk that their reply might be similar to this: «You also drive a car, fly, heat your home, use electricity or eat meat. Why do you talk to me about it?» People are unlikely to respond in this way. There is nevertheless much reason to believe they think in this way. And that is reason enough to keep quiet in the first place.

Science is the method designed to elaborate the truth. We can expect communications by scientists to be more correct than average and I dare to claim that they usually are considerably more correct than average. However, scientists are also people with psychological biases. And even scientists cannot be perfectly correct.

Are there cases of implicit accusation inhibition or lesser accusation messaging in communications by scientists? There is reason to believe so. This will be the topic of the next section.

Lesser accusation messaging, scientific reticence and the least drama (B)

Implicit accusation inhibition may be the key reason for many climate scientists to be reticent to present inconvenient truths. This was pointed out by James Hansen long ago. Climate scientists often err on the side of the least drama, other scientists explain in this paper.

A more recent case of lesser accusation messaging is the claim that we can allow for a lot more cumulative CO2 emissions than previously thought to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming.

To blame climate change on the sun is a classic of climate change denial. The rise of global temperature is clearly not due to the sun, as probably every climate scientist familiar with the topic would confirm. However, some scientists posit the sun might come to help in the future. It may be quality science, but —it remains to be seen—, it might be a case of lesser accusation messaging. Either way, of course, the deniers are happy to use the information to deceive the public (as is explained by Peter Hadfield). Earlier, but similarly, German denier Fritz Vahrenholt had received too much attention when he claimed the sun will help mitigate climate change.

An equally delusional as important case of lesser accusation messaging has even gone mainstream among climate scientists: Future generations, they assume or even suggest to rely on, will net remove massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere in the second half of this century (Joeri Rogelj here; UNEP there, page 50, tacitly cut-off at 2050 to hide the assumption of massive net carbon dioxide removal). As crazy as it may seem, this ill-fated assumption already serves to rate the compatibility (incompatibility) of the countries‘ mitigation pledges with the temperature targets set in the Paris Agreement.

Almost 10 years ago climate scientists started to finally, finally, but still cautiously, explain to the world what they should have been shouting out loud for decades: That CO2 emission must be eliminated altogether —completely. They should, finally, tell the (not) ‚policy makers‘ that CO2 emissions must be cut now, right now, not later. But only a few reputed climate scientist dare to clearly hold this position and question the feasibility of massive net CO2 removal, as Stefan Rahmstorf does here. (As yet, nobody —as far as I can see— denounces the real achilles heel of the belief in massive net CO2 removal, the missing political feasibility, the deficiency in global governance.)

The long reluctance to explain the need for a zero carbon economy and the claim that there will be significant net CO2 removal are both very consequential cases of implicit accusation inhibition — by omission or by misleading optimism, respectively.

Active climate denial as related to the implicit accusation inhibition (C)

There is an accepted taxonomy of global warming denial, established by John Cook and the team at Skeptical Science:

  • Level 1: It’s not happening
  • Level 2: It’s not us —or it isn’t CO2
  • Level 3: It’s not bad —or CO2 isn’t
  • Level 4: It’s too hard to solve

These levels differ in their degree of problem acknowledgement, but the avoidance of guilt induction is common to at least the first three levels of denial.

Consistent with the main argument of this article, among the very active deniers, the strongest rejection is on level 2: It’s not us —or it isn’t CO2! Climate denial often calls into question the effect of CO2, the greenhouse gas we all know we emit.

There is an extremely successful case of communication which removes guilt from the audience. A world religion is much built on this message: «You are not guilty!» Human receptivity to messages which claim «not guilty» on our behalf is not new. The receptivity to messages which assert we are not guilty of causing climate change is not surprising. The temptation to convey «not guilty!»-messages or, a more adequate position for a scientist, to succumb to lesser accusation messaging is huge.

Only very few true climate scientists reject the scientific evidence of human caused global warming. Typically, the opinion of the few deniers among the real climate scientists is that the human influence on the climate is much smaller than what the overwhelming majority of climate scientists says. (At least the overwhelming part of the observed warming is man made; our best assessments suggest that all observed warming is anthropogenic or even slightly more than the observed warming is man made.)

One of the few climate scientists who argues for a small human influence and a small rate of warming is John Christy. He is also a devout Christian. I dare to posit that climate scientists like John Christy, as well as other scientists who question the human influence or declare global warming a minor problem, are driven by a desire not to feel guilty and are driven by a desire not to accuse their audience of being responsible for climate change.

You are not guilty, me neither

The preceding sections dealt with how climate change is communicated in order to please the recipients of the messages and make the messaging psychologically palatable. However, by suggesting that the recipient is not guilty (or less guilty),  the communicator also suggests that he himself is not guilty (or less guilty). It is difficult to say which psychological motivation, guilt removal from oneself or from the audience, is more important in a specific case. To try to deflect guilt from oneself is certainly an important contributor to distorted climate communication. It is discussed in later sections.

After having briefly dealt with climate silence, lesser accusation messaging and active denial, we shall approach the receptive end of climate communication, the perception of the climate message and passive denial.

Induction of guilt and the perception of climate change

Almost everybody in the industrialized world drives a car, flies or buys stuff. Even if this were not being pointed out by many climate communicators (examples here and here): Virtually everybody contributes to CO2 emissions. The perception of the climate change message as an accusation is inevitable —at least to some extent—, even if no accusation is made explicitly.

«… running a bit hot!» Blatant accusation and self-centered impression management by nerdy activist. It rarely takes place between neighbors, and if climate preaching is not very subtle, it quickly gets comical. | Video excerpt from Modern Family. Original)

Countless species will be driven to extinction by global warming and CO2 in the oceans, and that will be forever. For those worried more about human welfare, there is plenty of material to spot a strong accusation in the climate message, too. There is much reason to feel guilty.

There can be no doubt about the effectiveness and motivation of the professional ‚denial machine‘ with its sponsors in the fossil energy industry. However, both, the professional ‚Merchants of Doubt‘ and their sponsors, might be driven not only by economic interest but a desire to avoid guilt by themselves and prevent accusations.

Despite the undeniable impact of deliberate deception by the fossil fuel special interests, this important question remains: Why is it so easy for the special interest groups working on behalf of the fossil fuel industry to make their voices heard and propagate denial, while climate communicators keep failing at their task?

It is because the public wants to hear that it is not guilty.

One important type of climate change communication, perhaps the dominating type of climate communication, was so far left aside. Before focusing on the passive part, i.e. the reception and perception part of climate communication, there should be talk of this perhaps most prevalent type of climate communication: climate preaching, the stream of moral appeals to consume less or consume green, etc. To approach the problem with climate preaching, let us first look at some peculiar examples of how the climate message, including the climate scientists‘ message is received by the public.

A pattern in the rejection of climate science

There is a strange refusal to acknowledge the ‚human caused‘ part of the climate problem, but there is agreement to solve it. There is an easy explanation for this seeming paradox: We have plenty of reason to feel guilty about the cause of the problem. But nobody has a reason to feel guilty about its solutions.

Engineers should be particularly adept at understanding and appreciating science and physics. However, someone who did a lot to counter active contrarians once contemplated: «A typical denier is an engineer in his fifties.» Science now supports his observation. What engineers do in their professional lives almost always results in important CO2 emissions. Consequently, they have more reason than average to pretend not to be guilty. By denying the problem they avoid feeling guilty. By denying the problem they try not to be seen as guilty.

The United States is the country of gas guzzling cars and super-consumption; the country with rampant per capita CO2 emissions. It is also the country of individualism, where government is vilified and therefore marginalized, where individual responsibility is overstated and overrated. Climate denial is rampant in the US, too. The US consumer has exceptionally good reason to reject a feeling of guilt. Firstly, his personal emissions are particularly high. Secondly, American culture, like no other, posits individual responsibility, including for global warming. Consequently the individual feels the accusation and avoids it by denying the problem.

On the other side, people in countries that don’t much cause it, but rather suffer from global warming, are inclined to accept that climate change exists and that it is caused by human activity. Sometimes they even blame climate change to be at work where it isn’t. Their perception is no coincidence either. They have the least reason to feel accused and guilty.

If you are often in touch with people who are environmentally concerned and even engaged in environmental action, including climate action, you notice something strange: Many of these people disbelieve that global warming is happening or that it’s caused by human activity. How strange is that? Can it be explained? I believe it can. There are essentially two ways to deal with guilt: Act or deny. Many environmentalists, I dare to hypothesize, are particularly susceptible to experience guilt and use both methods to do away with the unwanted feeling. They commit little acts that are well suited to relief their feeling of guilt (but are inappropriate in the face of the problem) and they deny the problem at the same time! Both reactions are specifically targeted at not feeling guilty.

Because even the best possible voluntary responses to climate preaching cannot significantly mitigate climate change the overall effect of climate preaching is negative. Hence it should be omitted, argues this article.

Climate preaching

Calls for voluntary personal climate mitigation action, calls for individual lifestyle changes, typically consumer appeals, include an implicit accusation and induce guilt, rejection and denial —as Ignaz Semmelweis‘ findings induced guilt, rejection and denial. The resulting resistance hampers the conversation about climate change —in much the same way as the communication of Semmelweis‘ important findings was affected.

Titelbild von Das Magazin No. 26 – 2018. Wie konsumiere ich verantwortungsvoll. Es ist verdammt kompliziert. (Paula Scheidt)
«How can I consume responsibly? It is pretty darn complicated.» To find the answer is irrelevant because it is the wrong question. | Cover of Das Magazin No. 26 – 2018 with a piece by Paula Scheidt about the trickiness of green consumption —and its limits.

There is considerable evidence by science to support the hypothesis that appeals for voluntary personal acts to mitigate climate change cause denial because these appeals implicitly accuse and induce guilt. Before discussing some results of this scientific work, specific to the denial of climate change, let us have a look at some other cases of science denial —in addition to Ignaz Semmelweis and puerperal fever from part one. There are parallels to be drawn to the denial of climate science from other historical cases of denial.

The parallel (almost) too terrible to mention

The Holocaust may not normally be compared to anything else. Its outrageousness seems to demand exclusivity. In the Swiss parliament, Jonas Fricker recently compared the transportation of pigs to be killed in slaughterhouses with the death trains of the Nazis. He saw himself quickly politically lynched, including by members of his own party, the Greens, assisted by one popular newspaper (despite alleged regret, in the same bed), although Fricker has no affinity with those inclined to belittle or deny the severity of the crime that the industrial killing on Nazi territory was. Within days of his controversial statement, Fricker resigned from his post as a member of parliament.

Journalist Peter Hadfield, who, as Potholer54, debunks climate denial like no other, abstains from calling climate deniers what they are («deniers»), because he deems the term to be too close to holocaust deniers and doesn’t want the two kinds of deniers to be compared, associated or confused with one another.

It should not be necessary to state it. This section does not in any way aim at belittling the holocaust committed under Nazi rule.

While the severity of the holocaust should not be under debate, the severity of climate change lies mostly in the future and therefore remains to be experienced and judged about. To refrain from any comparison of elements of the holocaust with elements of what is being done now would be wrong. For example, Adolf Hitler never visited a concentration camp. How did and does Donald Trump deal with the people of Puerto Rico before and after hurricane Maria? There is a huge difference between what was done under Hitler and what is done, or rather, is omitted, in the US under the current administration. However, these differences should not forbid the drawing of parallels between aspects of the holocaust and aspects of other topics.

Another example: The complacency of high level politics and the general public in the face of global warming is reminiscent of the complacency by those who knew and should have known among the Nazi rulers and those under the Nazi regime —although, again, there are very important differences.

While climate change and the industrial killing in concentration camps are clearly not the same thing —that should go without saying—, there are parallels in the denial of climate change and the denial of the holocaust, respectively.

Both cases of denial are supposedly improbable. They are both extremely weird and surprising. Both cases of denial should very clearly not be there.

The peculiarity of the denial of the Nazi concentration camps and the mass killings should not require much explanation. There are preserved camps, victims, survivors, liberators and other witnesses, interrogation protocols, testimonies, files with names. There are films and photographs, to mention the probably most amazing pieces of proof.

The peculiarity of the denial of global warming takes slightly more space to explain. The greenhouse effect of atmospheric gases was first theorized by Joseph Fourier in 1824. 36 years later, in 1860, John Tyndall measured the capacity of some gases in the atmosphere to absorb and emit long wave electromagnetic radiation. Only during these 36 years, more than 150 years ago, the atmospheric greenhouse effect and its consequence for earth’s surface temperature was truly a theory. In the 19th century, however, only few specialists were interested in the issue and the public abstained from the debate. If there was any debate at all, it took place a long time ago. When the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere became an acknowledged fact and ceased to be a theory, it went unnoticed. The implicit accusation inhibition soon impacted the debate and temporary caveats against the warming effect of CO2-emissions appeared. However, they were rather quickly moved out of the way (for example by Guy Callendar or Charles Keeling). Because there is only scant public awareness of the early transition «global warming theory» made from hypothesis to acknowledged fact, the fossil fuel industry profited from the seeming void and succeeded in relegating it to the level of a «theory».

If the evidence for a scientific fact is as solid as it is for climate change (or the holocaust), there is not normally any denial anymore. This will become clear from the comparison with a historical, exemplary case of science denial.

Continental drift

For decades there was a fiercely fought scientific debate over the existence, or not, of continental drift. The public took notice and participated in the debate. Evidence accumulated to the extent that the theory could at some point virtually be considered proven. In the opposing camp, many scientists and much of the public nevertheless clung to their old conviction and rejected continental drift theory. However, when it was discovered that ocean crust is formed continually and new ocean crust displaces older ocean crust, which in turn shifts continental plates around, the debate over continental drift was terminated. Scientists now measure the amount of continental drift which confirms and quantifies the effect of the discovered mechanism at work. These days, you don’t notice many still insisting that continental plates are immobile.

When there is proof provided for a theory, when the physics are revealed and understood, there is no longer any debate and the theory becomes an acknowledged fact. At least, that is what could be expected. Unequivocal results from reproducible measurements that provide proof of a theory normally terminate any debate around a scientific issue.

Not so with the denial of the holocaust, though. Not so with global warming denial, either.

These days, many scientists measure the warming of planet earth which confirms the effect of the measured radiative properties and measured elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases. The denial of global warming is not just weird. It is excessively strange. Why was the debate settled in one case, plate tectonics, but not in the other two cases? In the one case, humans do not cause the observed fact, in the other cases, humans did or do cause it. The difference is the element of guilt.

If it is asserted that guilt rejection favors the denial of the holocaust, it may be objected that the holocaust deniers were not responsible for the wrongdoing themselves, which is of course true. Their parents were responsible or their grandparents, or the former’s or the latter’s friends, or compatriots, or someone else with the same or a similar political orientation —or just another human being did it or failed to counteract the crime. It doesn’t have to be precisely guilt, or felt shame for oneself, that causes denial. It may be anything that negatively impacts on one’s own self-esteem, human self-esteem.

How far back in time can the wrongdoing be or how much dispersed in a large group can the responsibility be to negatively affect self-esteem or induce a feeling of discomfort, guilt or shame —and denial?

Quaternary extinctions

Whenever the capable, well armed and cooperative hunters of the species homo sapiens found or conquered new land, they drove many animal species to extinction. Eurasia, the Americas, the many islands of the Pacific (every one of them), the islands of the Siberian arctic ocean, what are today New Zealand or Madagascar: Whichever scene you chose, same picture everywhere.

Homo sapiens arrived, animal species disappeared. The later the invasion, the more skilled and better armed the hunters, the more thorough were the extinctions. Most manifestly affected was the megafauna, i.e. animals about the size of humans or larger. The tragedy is sometimes referred to as the Quaternary extinctions.

True, nobody was there to photograph the slaughtering or count animals. Nobody was there to report numbers on snow cover, precipitation or sunspots, etc., either. The evidence for the Quaternary extinctions is nevertheless overwhelming. But not only the evidence is rampant. Still, there is widespread denial of the Quaternary extinctions, even among scientists, but certainly in the public sphere.

That at least two hominid species (Neanderthals and Denisovans) were among the victims of homo sapiens provides additional psychological reason to repress the facts on the Quaternary extinctions.

Not the extinctions themselves are still being questioned. The human cause of it is! (Does that sound familiar?) To explain the Quaternary extinctions, climate change is invented over and over again, no matter how little plausible that theory is. When it helps our self-esteem, climatic change was there. When it damages our self-esteem, climate change isn’t there. The human mind, its creativity and its capacity to be biased, is remarkably flexible. It is capable of making things up if it pleases its self-esteem. Not less impressive is the human mind’s capability to repress and distort facts if doing so comforts the mind and reassures the soul.

Models of Wooly mammoth and American mastodon.
Models of two of the best known of the many victims of the Late Quaternary Extinctions: A wooly mammoth (left) and an American mastodon.

There can be little doubt, that the denial of Darwinian evolution is dominated by religious concepts and early indoctrination. And ideology undoubtedly plays a big part in climate denial, too, as is succinctly explained by Eugenie Scott —but put in perspective by recent research. Additionally, both the denial of evolution and the denial of climate change might be reinforced because both contested pieces of science negatively impact human self-esteem.

It may be guessed that holocaust deniers are statistically inclined to belief in a just world. In view of the extreme injustice that the holocaust was, they might prefer to deny the facts rather than revise their view of the world as a just one. The human psyche is complicated. Several biases may be at work to distort a piece of cognition.

A special bias for denial

The bias called just-world belief describes the human tendency to view the world as fairer than it actually is. This bias makes us believe, disproportionately, that people deserve what happens to them. There is a test to assess the degree to which selected people (i.e. participants of a psychological experiment) believe in a just world. In 2010 scientists Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer reported on two studies they conducted to determine specifically the influence of just-world belief on the denial of climate change. In their first study, participants who were told that climate change is practically unresolvable showed increased levels of climate denial, but only if they were strongly inclined to believe in a just world. If told that climate change can be resolved easily, denial in that same group was reduced equally significantly. Those on the other side of the spectrum of just-world belief were less affected by the messaging. They responded on both types of messaging with slightly reduced (marginally significant) changes in their level of denial.

In the second study, one segment of the participants were primed with statements supporting or eliciting just-world belief. The complementary segment was primed with messages contrary to just-world belief. Subsequently both segments were confronted with dire statements about climate change, including one that elicited dramatically that innocent children would be hit. Finally, as in the first study, the participant’s level of denial of climate change was assessed. «Participants who were primed with just-world statements reported higher levels of global warming skepticism (…) than did those who were primed with unjust-world statements (…)», the scientists reported.

The combination of the studies lets the authors conclude that «dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire, paradoxically increasing skepticism about global warming by contradicting individual’s deeply held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just.» (Feinberg and Willer, 2010)

A byproduct of the second study also deserves to be acknowledged. As part of the assessment of the level of denial, seven questions were asked, e.g. «How solid is the evidence that the earth is warming?» One of the questions was considerably different from the others: «Overall, how willing are you to change your current lifestyle in order to reduce your carbon footprint?» It is problematic to qualify a refusal to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint as climate denial. Fortunately, the researchers also thought like that, at least to some extent, and specifically focused on the pattern of replies to this question with respect to the other questions probing denial. They found that those primed with just-world belief refused to (state to be ready to) reduce their carbon footprint and that this reaction was fully mediated for by the increased induced level of denial through the induction of just-world belief.

What, I dare to ask, if the overall negligible effect of climate preaching to achieve voluntary carbon footprint reductions could be explained by (fully mediated by, fully caused by, fully compensated by) the preachings‘ induction of guilt and the rejection of it? What if the small acts of voluntary reductions by a small segment of the population due to climate preaching were entirely compensated for by less voluntary action by the other segments of the population because the preaching induces guilt and enhances the refusal to voluntarily make greener choices?

I do not claim that appeals for self-centered voluntary climate action like personal carbon footprint reduction negatively impacts such self-centered voluntary action itself, on average over all segments of a population. However, in the light of Feinberg and Willers results, even that possibility should not a priory be discarded. (This article claims that climate preaching hampers rather than fosters progress on climate change overall, not just in the domain of voluntary consumer action.)

Feinberg and Willer studied the combination of dire messaging, just-world belief and denial, which is not the same combination as climate preaching, guilt induction and denial. However, it would be difficult to overlook the similarities. Belief in a just world and a desire not to feel guilty are connected via desirability or the respective bias. There are at least three more parallels between the studies by Feinberg and Willer and arguments made in this piece.

First, the results produced by Feinberg and Willer demonstrate that climate messaging may negatively affect climate denial, but may have a very different effect depending on the recipients of the message.

Second, the design of the two studies permitted to target the influence of specifically the just-world belief bias. However, the bias might, like so many other biases, be related to self-esteem because a just world, or an unjust world, is made what it is mostly by human activity —as a different climate is now made by human activity.

Third, one departure point of Feinberg and Willer’s enquiry was this question: «But what if these [dire] appeals are in fact counterproductive?» The readiness to question the usefulness of habitual guilt inducing climate communications was a precondition for the studies and their success.

Figure 1 from Feinberg and Willer: Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer (2010), with original description.
Figure 1 from Feinberg and Willer (2010), with original description.

Fourth but not last, dire messaging induces guilt. It augmented denial in one group but not in the other. Climate preaching induces guilt too. It augments denial in one group but not in the other, so it is argued in this article. Exposure to a climate message that portrayed global warming as a solvable problem —thus, less guilt induction or rather the opposite or guilt induction— decreased the level of denial regardless of the participants‘ belief in a just world («Positive Message» in the above diagram).

Biases affecting self-esteem

If there is distortion of cognition, one or more cognitive biases are at work. Many biases have in common that they play out if perception negatively impacts self-esteem. For this and other reasons, it is often difficult to keep the influence of various biases apart.

Moreover feelings interplay with cognition. For example it is difficult to imagine a message that evokes fear on climate change but does not also elicit guilt. And it would be difficult to distinguish or even quantify whether denial induced by such a message serves to avoid guilt or to repress fear.

The double bladed sword of fear induction

There can be little doubt that feeling fear has a superb potential to induce action. And it was discovered that fear makes us open minded insofar as it increases our readiness to consider a variety of pieces of information. That is on one hand. On the other hand it is almost ancient wisdom that fear can induce near total repression of the danger in an individual if the cost of action is high or if the problem is believed to be bigger than the individuals capacity to resolve it. Not surprisingly, current wisdom on fear messaging on climate change can superficially be summarized like this: Its impact is rather negative, unless there is also hope as well as proximity, i.e. perception of a risk of being immediately and personally affected. There is continued research on the various impacts of fear-messaging and, at least from the perspective of an interested lay-person, there seems to be growing consensus on the topic in academia. Practically, to induce fear and at the same time elicit hope is not a self-evident thing to do. Fear-inducing messages tend to be dire and dire messaging discards hope, almost by definition.

Fear inducing messages on climate change are likely to induce guilt, too.

Fear also increases social attitudes associated with the political right —or rather: security increases social attitudes associated with the political left. This was recently discovered by Jaime Napier and colleagues (Napier et al. 2018). And the political left rather accepts the science on climate change, while the political right rather denies it —albeit only very much so in western countries, according to another study.

Despite the complexity of emotional climate communications, and specifically fear induction, the debate over its up- and downsides progresses in the scientific domain. But there remains much confusion about it in the public and the media, as can be seen in an article by Lucia Graves about the fear-piece by David Wallace-Wells in the New York Magazine, which «soon was the best-read story in the magazine’s history». Fear messaging about global warming, even if it is between implausible and absurd, is about as eagerly welcomed as is climate preaching. At least that is certain.

The study gap on guilt induction

One aim and hope of this article is that the two sided sword of guilt induction in the context of climate change and appeals also gains the attention it deserves. But that would require putting aside the widespread or even a priory fixed belief that climate preaching is a good thing to do and should be well received.

My personal guess would be that people who are statistically much inclined to feel guilty about something (or people subjected to guilt induction), are either more likely than average to deny climate change (one segment of the population) or are more likely than average to respond positively to appeals for voluntary individual climate action (another segment) —or do both: deny and respond positively to climate preaching. In contrast, I would expect those who are only weakly inclined to feel guilty (or were not made feel guilty through deliberate induction) to be only moderately inclined to deny climate change and moderately inclined to respond positively to climate preaching. In other words, I would expect climate preaching to cause denial and positive response, but more so among those who are inclined to feel guilty (or are made feel guilty as part of a study). There may be other psychological factors or psychological predispositions which impact on denial as a consequence of climate preaching. Obvious candidates are: inclination to accept moral appeals; inclination to see them as an accusation; inclination to reject accusations; tendency to project one’s own guilt onto others.

Unlike guilt induction, accusation rejection and the related psychological predispositions, several known biases are often discussed in the context of climate denial. How do they relate to the hypotheses raised in this article?

Confirmation and desirability biases

Confirmation bias makes people seek and readily accept information that supports their preexisting views. There can be no doubt that this bias is very important in the field of climate change perception and denial. It explains the information bubble that the deniers have created and source from. It explains the ongoing polarization with a camp opposing the deniers, the climate doomers, who are also driven by the confirmation bias and have created their own bubble.

The closeness and even personal overlap of the doomers and those who appreciate climate preaching (they are very often the same people), would deserve an entire article or study. In any case, this closeness is another reason to see climate preaching critically.

Like all biases, the confirmation bias serves a purpose. Without it, Albert Einstein would not have figured out relativity. It seems to be awkward, but, giving it some thought, it is not surprising, that relatively intelligent people are particularly susceptible to the confirmation bias, as is explained in a short talk by Tali Sharot.

It is important to acknowledge, though, that the confirmation bias is not possibly the source bias that causes climate denial. There must be a desire to deny the facts on climate change in the first place. Only subsequently will the confirmation bias do its work. In the same talk Tali Sharot also explains that desired, mind-comforting information is more easily accepted than discomforting information —an observation perfectly in line with the arguments of this article. This distortion of cognition is called desirability bias.

After looking at several seemingly improbable but real cases of denial, several biases favoring denial and a first piece of scientific work that supports the claims made in this article, I suggest to look at a single case of a seemingly improbable denier.

A science loving improbable denier and his protesting Conscience

It it is not the objective of this article to expose someone personally. I make this exception to demonstrate the general arguments made in this article.

The «improbable denier» is the notable zoologist, science communicator, journalist and author Matt Ridley. His biography and credentials speak for themselves —and speak for him. I recommend his early books on science (The Red Queen; The Origins of Virtue) rather than his later books that are leaning towards opinion. In his probably best known and most controversial book (The Rational Optimist) he argues that humanity was and will be able to solve its challenges, essentially alone by human ingenuity, trade and technological progress. (However, in one interview, Matt Ridley was asked if there were any issues that could let him doubt about the Rational Optimist’s conclusions. Matt Ridley included climate change in his answer.)

While he essentially accepts the core fundamental facts on climate change, Matt Ridley’s arguments and his approach are habitual for climate denial: Sourcing from and referring to other deniers, cherry picking, rejecting established climate science and refuting climate scientists, i.e. the specialists who do know better, as is explained here.

Like other climate deniers, Matt Ridley does not appreciate being graded a denier, but I am not the only one to do it. However, Matt Ridley cannot be placed in any of two important categories of deniers. He is neither one of those driven by a combination of psychological biases and an inclination towards scientific ignorance, nor would I locate him among the well informed driven by money from the fossil fuel industry.

Someone who has devoted most of his life to study science and is prized for reporting on it, is a very unlikely denier of climate change. Compare Matt Ridley’s denial with the position of other science communicators like Bill Nye (for example here and here) or Neil deGrasse Tyson (for example here and here) or Harald Lesch.

A biologist is also an unlikely denier, given the threat to the natural living world that climate change poses. Furthermore, Matt Ridley embraces sociobiology which —my appreciation— is among the branches of science least compatible with cognitive biases. Biologist Edward O. Wilson’s view of climate change is opposed to Matt Ridley’s. E.O. Wilson is the «father» of sociobiology.

«Dear Matt, we need to talk!»

Why, against all odds, is Matt Ridley a climate denier? On Viscount Ridley’s property there is Britain’s largest open cast coal mine. «From time to time, I stand accused of letting the fact that I have a commercial interest in coal, which I have declared many times and hereby do again, influence my assessment of climate science», Ridley states in this presentation in which he rejects being a denier while demonstrating (Dana Nuticelli) he is a kind of denier.

If Matt Ridley’s position on climate change is not primarily driven by material interest (which can reasonably be asserted), it makes perfect sense that the coal mining protesters referring to themselves as Matt Ridley’s Conscience suggest a bad conscience, i.e. a subtle feeling of guilt —or the avoidance of it—, being at the heart of his denial.

The two convenient untruths

Matt Ridley claims that climate change is no big deal, that not much must be done about it and, if anything were needed to be done, it will happen essentially all by itself because markets and progress will take care of it. That is convenient and desirable, very good news, indeed. If I accept it, I may go on with business as usual: No policy change is needed and no need for hard work towards policy change is required. No consequences of policy change must be put up with either.

It may be a bit less desirable but it is still very convenient: Essentially, climate preaching is good news too. All I have to do is see myself as a good doer for not flying to Bali, but only to, say, the Maldive Islands, or taking trains, not planes —at least occasionally; for not driving a Porsche Cayenne but, say, a mid-sized Citroën, or a Prius, or a bicycle —at least occasionally; for not eating beef, only chicken, or fish, but trout, not tuna, or no meat at all —at least occasionally, etc., etc. If I go for it, I may also go on with essentially business as usual: No policy change is needed and no need for hard work towards policy change is required. All that is required is a bit of green consumption, ideally paired with self-righteousness, with pretending to myself and, as a welcome side-effect, also pretending to those around me.

Both, active climate denial and climate preaching, fall on fertile ground because both profit from the desirability bias. Actually, from the perspective of the individual, both a response to climate preaching and a response to active denial are desirable responses insofar as they provide a benefit for the individual who believes the message (denial) or follows the advice and commits little superficial acts of greener living. Both positions serve as excuses for not taking societally more relevant action. They don’t stand alone. In the next sections, we shall have a closer look at excuses for political apathy on climate change.

Despair as another convenient untruth

Prized climate scientist and communicator Stefan Rahmstorf recently commented on social media: «Desperation is the new denial.»

In his movie The Inconvenient Truth from 2006, Al Gore pointed out that people often go straight from denial to desperation, without pausing in the middle to take action. I have seen people making the transition from denial to alleged inevitable doom within less than one minute, which reveals to what degree their desperation, the claim that we can’t do anything about climate change, is just a comfortable assertion.

To assert or believe that nothing can be done to stop climate change is yet another comfortable position with essentially the same purpose as the habitual superficial personal consumer action or passive denial: political passivity, political apathy. (Paradoxically, Al Gore’s The Inconvenient Truth concludes with [as usual, guess what?] … climate preaching. It would be interesting to know whether climate preaching also contributes to —alleged— desperation.)

Although the two positions are seemingly opposed, there is an interesting similarity between alleging doom (or desperation) and denial (or alleged denial): Both positions serve as an excuse for apathy. Both serve to discard responsibility. The implicit, if not explicit, assertion that goes with these positions is this: It is not necessary to act because the problem is inexistent or negligible (denial) or because, allegedly, it is already too late to act (doomism).

The climate doomists err on the side of the most drama —examples one, two. They are not usually climate scientists and —like many deniers— they are attention-grabbers. Their communication unnecessarily induces guilt and should be condemned.

While both doomism and denial serve to justify climate apathy and self-centered lifestyle adaption might serve to justify political apathy on climate change, there is outright activism among both climate doomists and, even more so, among deniers to communicate their position.

This activism is the topic of the next section.

The (largely missing) economic case for active climate denial

Make no mistake, those who spearhead climate denial are often funded by the fossil energy industry, including even some scientists. However, first, even the professional deniers may be driven by the implicit accusation inhibition. Second, undoubtedly, most climate deniers, including many extremely zealous and active deniers, are not getting any money from big coal, oil or gas.

These deniers see themselves as Robin Hoods of truth fighting against the «conspiracy», the «hoax» and «deception» which the deniers believe to be purported by what they consider «climate alarmists». «Cui bono», (who profits) the deniers ask (compilation, German) and give the answer themselves: The scientists and «alarmists» are supported by massive amounts of government and private money, while they (the deniers) act selflessly, based solely on their imagined moral obligation to communicate what they consider the truth.

Before making a precipitated judgement, let’s pause for a moment and try hard to put ourselves in the average active denier’s shoes. What, for example, drove this doubtlessly self-motivated young German to make a half hour video? He does not seek to propagate his name. I refuse to believe that he is seeking joy in deceiving the public —much the opposite. He seems even not to be closely associated with the various deniers who act more professionally. What is in for him? Nothing at all, except for this: He does not have to feel guilty about causing climate change. He hopes not to be accused for causing CO2 emissions and works towards that goal.

The young denier’s video gets particularly interesting near the end (jump to 28:49 minutes here). He is worried about social justice —hates to see families having to pay for the energy transition—, disapproves of the induction of «fear» by climate alarmists, suggests a solution (why would he want to do that if there is no problem?) and, best of all, he sympathizes with voluntarily renouncing to the consumption of products which had a detrimental effect on the environment upon production.

The peculiar zeal and often peculiar anger (not in this example, but there are many) alone should raise suspicion about the causes of very active climate denial. The deniers, I dare to posit, feel challenged or even offended.

What if the young denier had not been flooded with guilt inducing climate preachings, and «hysteria» including in school, but with the message that there is an effective, efficient (low cost) and socially fair solution to the problem? What if he had been told that climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels but that it is, nevertheless, not his own fault? What if he had been told that he is not guilty of climate change, but that he should please make a video to join the effort to solve the problem?

Retributions in anger

Few want to communicate the problem there is with global warming in the first place (implicit accusation inhibition). To reject the implicit accusation that underlies the climate change message, many deny the facts altogether (accusation rejection bias). Instead, they accuse the messenger of being part of a conspiracy or to be acting out of greed.

Deniers try to decry the science on climate change by asserting that scientists exaggerate global warming because they want more funding. Politicians, they claim, make up climate change because they want more tax. As implausible and ridiculous as these assertions are, they are widespread (accusation reflection effect). There were also recriminations against Ignaz Semmelweis and his findings.

The recriminations by climate deniers are not dealt with further in this article. However, the peculiar abundance of recriminations against climate scientists, and the degree of anger that often goes with it, is one of many indicators that, consciously or subconsciously, though inadvertently, as a whole, the climate communicator’s message comes across as an accusation.

Like the peculiar zeal discussed in the previous section, the peculiar anger of some deniers hints at their feeling hard-pressed to reprimand climate scientists and communicators, or even retaliate against them. However, if it is retaliation, what is the original offense? The original offense is the assertion (and the deniers‘ subconscious perception) that climate change is their fault.

Climate preaching’s negative impact on climate action

Unless one wants to strengthen climate denial, it doesn’t make sense to (implicitly!) accuse average citizens of wrongdoing because they happen to also be consumers and direct emitters of CO2. They are the least responsible of the problem because individual consumers have the smallest capacity to make a difference.

Average citizens should be treated cautiously, because they are needed as political actors, in which role they could make a difference. They should be won over and secured as allies in the real, the political fight against climate change, not blamed and shamed in their role as consumers an driven in the camp of those who oppose all action on climate change —except, notably, individual, voluntary consumer action.

But, with their climate preaching, NGOs and well intended activists keep accusing the least responsible, the least powerful, indirectly. Corporations, utilities and governments happily join the choir, some scientists too.

Schmutz im Heizkeller beeinträchtigt die Verbrennung. Deshalb zu Beginn der Heizsaison Heizraum säubern. Eine Anleitung für des Schweizer Bundesamt für Energie.
«Clean your heating room at the start of the heating season.» A government’s response to the climate crisis. The interpretation of the message as: «Your basement is filthy and you’re guilty», is unlikely to contribute to solving the climate crises. | Advice by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy.

Incessantly, green shopping, ecological consumption and voluntary renunciation is advocated and we are told to calculate our personal carbon footprint or take shorter showers. While some pieces of advice about investing in a heat pump or solar panels rather than another oil boiler or cutting air travel may at least be marginally meaningful, some governments even dare to give ridiculously meaningless recommendations (picture above). A call to have fewer children tops the many well meant appeals.

Honest climate communication almost inevitably induces a notion of guilt or shame. This article focuses on denial induced through calls to voluntarily change individual behavior because, unlike some other elements of climate communication, these appeals could be avoided.

Social norms and polarization

One known psychological problem with these appeals is that they, quite unwillingly but effectively, postulate a social norm. The appeal: «We should not do this!», contains the message that we are actually doing it. To emit CO2 is a normal thing to do and people prefer to adhere to social norms, rather than breaking them, regardless of how destructive the continuation of a social standard may be.

However, those who already engage in voluntary acts or sympathize with such action appreciate the preaching, are reinforced in their view by the appeals which aim at establishing a new norm —for them it is a wanted new norm. But the others, the unconvinced, reinforce their adherence to the existing social standard and reject the appeals, including, I dare to posit, by denying the problem. Climate preaching, I also dare to posit, leads to a polarization. Conflicting norms induce a polarization on environmental action or even the rejection of environmental action.

This polarization effect was discovered by Rachel McDonald and colleagues (McDonald et al. 2014). Unfortunately, while the calls for changing their behavior positively affected the already convinced, the effect of conflicting norms on what should be the target audience was negative, as is explained in this TED-talk by Winnifred Louis.

The other, presumably bigger problem with climate preaching is the implicit accusation and its consequence: denial of the facts around climate change.

True, there is no open accusation in climate preachings, at least not in most of the many instances. But climate preaching always contains an implicit accusation and we should expect it to elicit rejection and denial, at least in one segment of the population.

The unwanted consequences of climate preaching

To summarize to this point, the effects of putting the blame on individuals by calling for voluntary lifestyle changes and ecological consumer habits are:

  • Insignificant action by consumers (at best, if at all)
  • Compensation (psychological or mental rebound), (normally)
  • Rejection or even outright denial (at worst)
  • Potentially recriminations, counter-accusations (in addition)
  • Climate silence, reluctance to talk about climate change (also)

Nobody wants to feel guilty. One way to avoid a feeling of guilt is to deny the problem altogether. If global warming is acknowledged, it should not be CO2 (because that would mean me).

Instead, the greenhouse gas problem with methane is often overstated compared to CO2. For most city dwellers it appears to be an attractive proposition because, if methane is a main source of the problem, cows or farmers are to blame. Or all those are at fault who eat meat. Have you ever wondered why vegetarians and vegans like the methane argument so much? To blow up their personal contribution made by voluntarily renouncing to meat-eating they distort the facts exactly like the sleekest and most stubborn of the climate deniers. The parallels between those who blow up their personal contribution (including with climate preaching) and the deniers are puzzling. At least to some extent, the same psychology seems to be at work with both groups and —one argument of this article—, the same emotion seems to be at work: guilt or the avoidance of it. 5

Overt expression of guilt avoidance

Some almost openly admit they reject(ed) the science on climate change to fend off the underlying accusation, as did one convert (Yale Climate Connections‘ Karin Kirk reported here):

«I believed the ‘climate change is happening but humans aren’t the main cause’ bull. No idea why I thought it, guess it was just said enough and sounded good [because] it removed any blame from us (as a species).»

Denial didn’t just remove the blame from «the species». It removed it right from the quoted former denier.

Even though —for obvious reasons— no denier should have any reason to openly write about his avoiding guilt or shame, such statements can often be found, particularly in online-comments.

Searching in a denier’s blog or video, often quickly reveals rather clear statements that demonstrate how much perceived accusations contribute to their position. One active denier devotes a whole post to it and writes: «We are being accused to be guilty. To cause an event, that allegedly will only happen in the future. The climate catastrophe.» («Man klagt uns an, wir wären schuldig. An einem Ereignis, das erst in der Zukunft stattfinden soll. An der Klimakatastrophe.»)

On the same site, I could find within minutes someone who made the link to climate preaching. He wrote in a comment (no. 15) criticizing climate Scientists like Stefan Rahmstorf: «And what do you personally contribute to protecting the climate through personal voluntary renunciation[?]» («Und was tragt Ihr persönlich zum Klimaschutz an Verzicht bei[?]») —as if voluntary renunciation were the best option for a climate scientist to counteract the warming of the planet —and climate denial. He should not have to do it (and I think he should not do it), but Stephan Rahmstorf is actually not reluctant to declare his acts of renunciation —perhaps because he would be even more of a target for the deniers if he didn’t. (Rahmstorf’s ecological lifestyle is a topic at the beginning of a compilation of TV broadcasts which question the science on climate change; German.)

Framing of the problem — accusation or blame, guilt or shame

In the following sections, different ways to frame the problem of moral climate appeals are discussed.

This first bit is rather about terminology than psychological framing: This article refers to accusation rather than blame. Similarly, it mentions guilt when the feeling could be called shame. Although there is a difference between guilt and shame, for simplicity, the distinction is not made in this article. 6

Negative response to preaching as resistance to manipulation

Readers who want to see climate preaching as positive and beneficial should consider this: To follow a typical appeal for voluntary individual action is not beneficial for the recipients of the message. There may be an indirect, psychological benefit, but, certainly, it is not materially beneficial to respond to the preaching. A positive response to appeals helps the rest of the community, including the preacher, but it disadvantages the positive respondent who renounces to certain things without direct gain to himself.

Climate preaching may be and probably rather should therefore be interpreted as manipulation. Consequently, resistance to climate preaching may be interpreted as resistance to manipulation.

Climate preachers often try hard to make their audience believe that to follow their appeals is materially and directly beneficial for their audience —and probably the preachers often believe it, too, perhaps to mask from themselves that they are manipulators.

Unsurprisingly, the preachers and those who appreciate the preaching want to see it differently —often they are the same people as is explained in a subsequent section (The self enhancing cycle). Some of them probably really think they will save the planet with what they consider respectable acts of altruism. At the same time as they reckon their acts as reputable, if not extraordinary, some probably really believe that their example will be followed quickly, universally and that a new behavioral societal standard will be established and followed thoroughly, in the same way as in some societies religious credence may be followed with remarkable zeal, sometimes as if it were law.

If this ideal scenario happened, the appeals might end up being beneficial societally, i.e. including for those who follow the appeals, indeed. Such a path and achievement would be possible if the appeals served to solve a problem in a small community or if other factors favored social control. Or it could be successful under very favorable other circumstances, e.g. if an innate human disposition came to help. But unfortunately, there is no instinct to counteract industrial pollution (and we certainly don’t want to envisage Darwinian evolution —specifically not the selection part of it). A favorable development of societal scale following climate preaching is too far off to hope for in the case of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

To «frame» reluctance to respond positively to climate preaching as negative behavior is far too simple. To resist manipulation is an extremely important human capacity and it is an underlying factor for several important psychological biases.

Whether you, dear reader, see climate preaching is manipulation (or not) is irrelevant for the argument of this section. What counts is this: Do the deniers see climate preaching as manipulation and do they react to it? They do.

Put somewhat nonchalantly, a reaction —or reactance— to appeals could be described like this: «The climate preachers (and their followers) want me to go back to living in caves, but this time without fur, without yoghurt, without meat anyway, without even leather! I am not in for that!»

Via resistance to be manipulated, the preaching is a root cause for the somewhat diffuse but widespread aversion against anything ecological, against everything uttered by anybody identified as one of those with a pro-environmental mentality. Without the preaching, there would be far less reason for this kind of reactance.

There is definitely a lot wrong with environmental preaching. Eco-preaching and our healthy capacity to identify and to reject manipulation —and to despise manipulators— plays a big part in the debate on climate change. Ecological preaching and resistance to manipulation combine in a predictable and effective way with loss aversion. And there you have it: A rather general aversion against everything and everybody «ecological». Combine it with groupthink, too, let confirmation bias do its job and the political polarization on climate change can be explained.

If our capacity to resist manipulation is given due merit, the aversion —particularly among deniers— against climate preachers (seen as manipulators or deceivers) becomes rather comprehensible. Assume somebody asked you to voluntarily change to a vegan lifestyle, but the promotor of veganism were admittedly (or reportedly) not a vegan himself. Wouldn’t you see the meat eating promotor of veganism as a manipulator or even as an outright deceiver?

In a modern society, it is impossible to live a lifestyle that is fully compatible with the requirements to mitigate climate change. Therefore, nobody can ask anybody else to live a climate compatible lifestyle, without being seen very critically for good reason. In this offensive video (German), with deplorable style but some justification, a denier accuses Al Gore of preaching but not walking his talk.

Because climate preaching is so abundant, it negatively impacts on everybody who wants to communicate the climate challenge, even those who don’t support the moral climate appeals. For one example, there is a blog post (German) by a denier who accuses climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of living a high carbon lifestyle by referring to an interview with the scientist. The denier accuses Schellnhuber even though the scientist makes a clear statement against climate preaching in the very same interview. (On other occasions, Schellnhuber is also among the preachers, though, as is explained in this article; German.)

Moral climate appeals very generally undermine any climate communicators‘ message.

The paradox of dire messaging and inadequate proposals

To launch dire messages but propose a completely inappropriate response is not suitable to increase trust in the climate communicators‘ message, either. Yet exactly this is done over and over again by climate preachers ringing the alarm. For one example, see the video below.

«12 years to save the planet from catastrophic climate change … What more will you do to save the planet?» Those who see themselves as world leaders, who meet annually in Davos, send an alarming message to the minor world citizens («Once the world goes beyond [1.5 degrees of warming], much or our planet won’t be fit for humans»). To conclude, the «world leaders» suggest recycling trash. | WEF Video from October 2018.

It is not very difficult to imagine how people skeptical of the climate message frame the behavior of climate preachers who sound the alarm but propose a totally inappropriate solution: voluntary individual acts on the consumer level.

Framing of positive response to preaching

A possible framing of the desire to positively respond to climate preaching should also be stated. To be aware of a severe problem and respond to it with acts that —reasonably judged— primarily serve to relief one’s bad conscience is a very egocentric reaction to the problem. If the reaction also serves to be well seen by peers, it is clearly an egoistic response.

Avoidance of cognitive dissonance

Social psychologists may prefer another framing and consider denial due to climate preaching as a case of avoiding cognitive dissonance.

One study by Susanne Stoll-Kleemann and colleagues working with focus groups in Switzerland looked at denial as a consequence of avoiding cognitive dissonance and made this observation (Stoll-Kleemann et al. 2001):

One area of consistency analysed here lies in the possible disjunction between a personal preference for a particular lifestyle, consumption habit, or behavioral choice and the need to respond effectively to climate change mitigation strategies. In short, people may profess anxiety over climate change, but be faced with internal resentment or even denial over what they cannot accept as a justifyable change in behaviour (e.g. to travel by public transport, ride a bike in the rain or invest in high cost domestic insulation). The research […] suggests nine ways in which this denial may occur:

¤ … metaphor of displaced commitment — I protect the environment in other ways
¤ … to condemn the accuser — You have no right to challenge me
¤ … denial of responsibility — I am not the main cause of this problem
¤ … rejection of blame — I have done nothing so wrong as to be destructive
¤ … ignorance — I simply don’t know the consequences of my actions
¤ … powerlessness— I am only an infinitesimal being in the order of things
¤ … fabricated constraints — There are too many impediments
¤ … „After the flood“ — What is the future doing for me?
¤ … comfort — It is too difficult for me to change my behaviour

These statements are telling alone. Yet, to this list could be added:

¤ … denial of the evidence — It’s not a problem or not as big a problem as you claim

In many studies that explore the psychology of climate denial, denial is seen as refusal to acknowledge a fact —the observation of the warming or the physical basis. Sometimes it is seen as a refusal to act. In that case, it is almost always seen as a refusal to respond with individual, voluntary acts, rarely as a refusal to act societally and pursue a political goal. This is also the case in a meta-study of psychological causes of denial (Stoknes 2014). However, Stoknes recognizes the implicit accusation, omnipresent in climate communications, as a problem and mentions guilt:

The affects and emotions that have become dominant in attitudes toward this issue [climate change] are a mixture of underlying unease, fear and guilt created by a climate message that constantly repeats that we should drive and fly less, eat less meat and generally not consume so much to avoid disaster. (Stoknes 2014)

He mentions science denial as one form of reaction to dissonance in his TED-talk (at 10:54 minutes before the end). Interestingly the statement «changing my diet doesn’t amount to anything, if I am the only one to do it» is portrayed as a form of denial. (If denial is defined as a failure to acknowledge a fact, it is objectively not denial because the statement is —overwhelmingly— correct. The effect of one person alone changing his or her diet is in fact negligible.) In a written summary Stoknes lists barriers for climate communication and action. Number 4 barrier is Denial. Stoknes writes:

Denial. When we negate, ignore, or otherwise avoid acknowledging the unsettling facts about climate change, we find refuge from fear and guilt. By joining outspoken denialism and mockery, we can get back at those whom we feel criticize our lifestyles, think they know better, and try to tell us how to live. Denial is based in self-defense, not ignorance, intelligence, or lack of information.

A perfect analyses, I think. However, totally strange, I think, too, to overcome these barriers, Stoknes, among other things, clearly recommends climate preaching.

In another presentation, near the beginning, Stoknes mentions that people in Norway are among the least concerned about climate change and that people in the US, Australia and Great Britain (Norwegians not in the study) least acknowledge that global warming is anthropogenic. Though he accidentally talks of «oil countries» (at 5:27), it seems not to appear to Stoknes that the inhabitants of these countries have objectively more reason to feel guilty about climate change or at least he doesn’t mention the obvious connection.

Yet, very strange, I think, too, to my knowledge, there is no study that specifically explores or tests whether calls for voluntary behavioral change cause or reinforce climate denial —through their implicit accusation. (If you are aware of any research in the field, I would be interested to know.)

When presented with the hypothesis, an expert social psychologist pointed out that there is little incentive to test it, because the result could be anticipated. To deny a problem (that climate change is real, man-made and important) as a consequence of climate preaching would not be a spectacular case of avoidance of cognitive dissonance.

While there might not be significant research on the consequences of (the induction of) guilt on denial, there is research on how feeling guilty affects individual action and intentions to mitigate climate change.

The backfire effect of guilt induction

A variety of studies aimed at finding out whether inducing guilt motivates environmental action. Results are mixed and seem to depend on the type of environmental problem and the type of action. At least two studies conclude: Feeling guilty can discourage climate action.

One group of scientists, Megan Bissing and colleagues, reports in their abstract: «Results showed that pro-environmental behavior […] was positively related to pride, and negatively related to guilt […].» (Bissing-Olsen et al. 2016)


The influence of anticipated pride or guilt. (Schneider et al. 2017)
If made feel proud about making environmentally beneficial choices, they were significantly more inclined towards making green choices (black dotted-dashed line) as compared to a reference (solid grey). However, respondents were significantly less inclined towards green choices when previously made feel guilty (dark grey dotted line). A: preference of a green product over one with other advantages; B: readiness to choose a lower or higher number of green extras at a cost; C: likelihood of “buying a green product in the next month”; D: intention to perform a series of sustainable actions over the next month. The effect of induced guilt (or pride) vs. the control group („reference“) is noticeable in all 4 cases, but did not reach statistical significance. (Schneider et al 2017, full text available)

In another study, Claudia Schneider and colleagues tested green intentions and found basically the same result. If guilt was induced for having made (imaginary) non-ecological choices, respondents were more likely to reject —not accept— another (also imaginary but different) set of hypothetical green choices. (Schneider et al. 2017; graphs above and below)

Although the observed trends did not reach statistical significance, these results should make us think. Could the respondents‘ refusal to (intend to) make greener choices when feeling guilty be a case of accusation rejection bias?

The results are qualitatively the same for all choices but one: If made feel guilty (or proud), respondents were more inclined to send cash.

Graph from Schneider et al. 2017. The influence of anticipated pride or guilt. E-donation.
Induction of a feeling of guilt (grey dotted line) enhances the readiness to donate, as does the induction of pride (black dotted-dashed), albeit both without statistical significance. (Source)

Now, at last, we may make an educated guess about why environmental NGOs make their supporters feel guilty by telling them about all the things they should do to save the environment —but these supporters don’t follow the advice. Instead, they donate. However, even if all were just about NGO income optimization, there might be a better way to communicate the climate issue:

The effect of making climate change your problem or our problem

Nick Obradovich and Scott Guenther studied how the framing of climate change as a personal (your) problem vs. the framing as a collective, common problem (all of us, transportation, etc.) affects green intentions (Obradovich and Guenther 2016). A rare occurrence, the scientist’s acknowledged from the start that climate preaching might be problematic. In their introduction they write:

Many climate messages appeal directly to the individual’s role in emission reductions. For example, a Sierra Club newsletter touts “Five Simple Things You Can Do About Global Warming This Year.” Subsequent newsletters ask “How Green is your Laundry?”, “How Green is your PC?”, and “How Green is Your Vacation?”. This style of messaging, aimed at evoking feelings of personal responsibility, is common in advocacy organizations’ climate outreach. However, eliciting behavioral change is tricky. Along with the practical linking of climate cause, effect, and ameliorative action, personal responsibility messages may produce other, less helpful responses. Guilt, denial, sadness, and cognitive dissonance are all associated with recognizing one’s own role in the climate problem. (The authors cite references omitted in this quote.)

Study subjects were given tasks to internalize one or the other framing of climate change:

(Personal:) In what ways do you cause climate change? You personally produce climate-change-causing emissions in a variety of ways. You may drive your car, fly on airplanes, and/or use fossil-fuel energy for heating or cooling, as examples. In the space below, please write a short paragraph about the ways you as an individual produce climate-change-causing emissions. How commonly do you engage in these behaviors? This paragraph should take you approximately 3–4 minutes to complete.

(Collective: ) In what ways is climate change caused? Climate-change-causing emissions are collectively produced in a variety of ways. Transportation – in the form of cars and airplanes – and the use of fossil-fuel energy for heating or cooling are examples. In the space below, please write a short paragraph about the sources of climate-change-causing emissions. How common are these sources? This paragraph should take you approximately 3–4 minutes to complete.

Surprisingly —or not— Obradovich and Guenther found that the treatment of climate change as a collective problem resulted in higher intentions to donate, both with environmentalists as with the general public (2 tests + 1 follow up) as well as to change behavior («How likely are you to reduce your own climate-change-causing behaviors in the future?», general public, 1 test).

Portraying climate change as a personal problem didn't increase donations, as "collective" did. (Obradovich and Guenther 2016
Portraying climate change as a personal problem (your fault, your challenge) did not increase willingness to donate. Portrayal as a societal and physical („collective“) problem (greenhouse gas emissions, transportation, etc.) did. (Obradovich and Guenther 2016)

A first and easy expectation would certainly have been that the framing as a personal problem would have considerable guilt inducing effect, which would increase the willingness to donate compared to the control group. The results contradict this simple expectation. In one out of four tests (donations, general public, chart above), the scientists also assessed how the treatments increased negative emotions. «Neither condition created differential feelings of guilt», the scientists report. Induced denial might have dampened that group’s willingness to donate (my speculation). If this (my) theory is correct it would indicate that guilt is not displayed but immediately overcome by denial. The framing as a collective problem significantly induced negative feelings compared to a control group and moderately compared to the group treated with the personal framing, the scientists report. Perhaps, (also my speculation) the treatment as a collective problem suggested a cooperative solution via a donation. An essay writing task might also have given the personal treatment group an opportunity to remind to themselves of their personal action and thus to overcome negative feelings —if such feeling were not displaced by denial anyway (my speculation, still).

The studies also evaluated respondent’s belief in the existence of climate change: «Around 85 % reported believing that climate change was occurring and a slightly lower percentage reported believing that climate change was primarily anthropogenically driven.» It would be interesting to know whether the believers or non-believers were affected differently by the different treatment.

Without much speculation, the study result strongly suggests that the portrayal of climate change as a collective problem induces a desire to act and to act collectively —but the portrayal as a personal problem does not, at least not in the general public (US).

Repetition as a way to overcome guilt

There are several ways to overcome a feeling of guilt, other than to deny the problem or engage in more or less meaningful action. One way to cope with the undesired feeling is to repeat the wrongdoing —it would be a form of repetition compulsion. Modern psychologists would more likely analyze the behavior as a form of reactance to climate preaching. Paradoxically, if I feel guilty about flying, flying again is a way to overcome feeling guilty about it. Doing something is a way of asserting that it is okay to do it.

More reasons to feel guilty about climate change

Other pieces of climate communication than calls for voluntary action can induce guilt and potentially have a negative effect: Exaggerating the problem by portraying the effects of greenhouse gas emissions as excessively harmful is one such way, portraying it as especially unjust another (issue of climate justice). The idea of climate debt should be seen critically, too, as well as the idea of degrowth, particularly when it is promoted as an end in itself.

However, climate communicators are much in the same situation as was Ignaz Semmelweis: If their communication is honest, it almost inevitably suggests a notion of previous wrongdoing, i.e. guilt.

Humans have a phenomenal capacity to foresee and avoid own wrongdoing or evaluate past behavior. Ethics almost inevitably provides a ground to feel guilty about our personal contribution to the changing climate. But, first, it may reasonably be doubted that internal ethics alone may cause denial. Second, it should be explained that a personal contribution to the warming climate is inevitable, unless there is political change with new policy. Guilt induction can and should be counteracted where possible. Climate preaching could and should be avoided.

More reasons to view climate preaching critically

This article focuses on climate preaching, guilt and denial as well as climate silence induced through calls to voluntarily change individual behavior because the appeals could be avoided. However, there are several more reasons to dismiss appeals for voluntary action on climate change and particularly on fossil energy use:

  • They are a deception or self-deception because they would have to be complied with universally which won’t happen. According to my experience, those who think that the climate crises must be overcome by personal voluntary change, and that they themselves have to lead by example, least believe that the problem can be solved. And, no coincidence: They are the most likely to get depressed about the problem.
  • Appeals for individual change put the blame on the wrong people, on the least responsible, because the private consumer is the least powerful actor on climate change. Consequently, calling for voluntary individual behavior change shifts guilt away from the truly responsible, the powerful.
  • Calls to voluntarily change our behavior belittle the political challenge associated with global warming. In a way, climate preaching is a peculiar kind of climate denial.
  • By giving self-centered voluntary action prime status, calls for voluntary personal behavior change are a distraction and may preclude more meaningful societal action. Guilt can be a strong motivator. If at all, it should be employed to motivate effective, societally relevant action.
  • The appeal’s usual emphasis on voluntariness undermines the legitimacy of policy work. Voluntary compliance of the demander of policy change is often deemed a precondition to demand mandatory compliance by all to that policy change. To cite one example (Philippe Thalmann, May 14, 2018; French), the line of thought is: It is not legitimate for politicians with mistresses to praise family values; In analogy, it is legitimate to call for divestment from fossil energy finance only if fossil energy use is reduced in concordance. The implications of this line of thought are severe: Whoever emits CO2 is not legitimized to call for regulation to end fossil energy use. If this line of thought were adopted we are stuck because this habitual —but ill-fated— moral reasoning factually denies anyone any legitimacy to demand indispensable policy change. Unfortunately most people do think like this. Climate preaching contributes to this ill-belief.
  • Appeals for voluntary action hamper political progress. In the age of liberalism, voluntary change is generally preferred to mandatory change. If the (ill-)belief that voluntary change might do away with climate change (or be an essential «improvement» as is often claimed), policy change might be considered unnecessary or less necessary.
  • Moreover, the habitual climate appeals are a waste of time and money on the side of the climate campaigns. It would be strategically wise and efficient to concentrate climate campaigning efforts on the production side of fossil energy.

It is not a problem if someone quietly lives a green lifestyle and refrains from purchasing particularly problematic products to ease the pressure on the environment. But to advertise it is a problem.

Few objections against preaching and personal greenwashing

Jennifer Jacquet (Is shame necessary?) received some attention when she wrote about the power of shaming the politically strong and that personal action on the consumer level is overrated. There have recently been some pieces that view individual, self-centered climate action critically in German.

  • Yesterday, Paula Scheidt wrote on six pages about the difficulties to try and be a green consumer and concludes that she will henceforth not only consider to be a responsible consumer, but also a politically responsible citizen.
  • In his recent book (Ökoroutine) Michael Kopatz also approaches from the side of voluntary action and points out that a complementary political framework would help those who are inclined to believe in voluntary action, too, and that policy should be strengthened.
  • Silvia Liebrich recently advocated «limits» and wrote in the same vein: «To rely on voluntary renunciation would be naive and careless».
  • One notch up, frontline critic of eco-hypocrisy and corporate greenwashing Kathrin Hartmann (recent: Die grüne Lüge, The Green Lie) keeps writing about corporate greenwashing and how eco-aware individuals fall for it. She goes as far as to deplore personal greenwashing, too, albeit without using this term.
  • In a recent column, Nina Kunz wrote that our self-centered view on consumption distracts from the real problem on the production side and denounces the recent trend of «minimalism» as just another «narcissistic lifestyle» —an exceptional act of directness.

However, the criticism of the egocentric approach to the environmental crisis remains remarkably timid. It should be called what it is: Personal greenwashing. There is a joke going around: «How can you tell a vegan?»; «No need for you to tell because, sure, he will tell you!»

The trend is even going the wrong way. Greenpeace, the one very important environmental NGO, so far neither reluctant to address the politically powerful, nor shy to denounce corporate greenwashing, launches campaigns that address the least powerful and help them with their personal greenwashing.

Should NGOs and state sponsored campaigns really help individuals clear their bad conscience about climate change? And should they help these individuals to self-aggrandize? Should individual consumers be assisted with their egocentric acts and their personal greenwashing? I don’t think so.


Climate communicators are to some degree on a similar ‚mission impossible‘ as was Ignaz Semmelweis because the climate message almost inevitably induces a feeling of guilt. However, most guilt induction is unnecessary and could be avoided or counteracted. There are important lessons to be learned for climate communication:

  • First and foremost, at the very beginning, clearly explain that the average citizen and normal consumer is not guilty of causing climate change. (Try it and you will find out just how much easier the climate conversation becomes, particularly if you address the not yet convinced.)
    • Global warming doesn’t have to be explained as an embarrassing moral failure, continued ignorance and human wrongdoing. It can be explained as being due to a lack of global organization, rather than a lack of human capacity or even human mischievousness.
    • It may be presented as a global tragedy of the commons (the atmosphere) and excessive freedom in the commons, not the result of a failure of „all of us“, i.e. everyone of us, to act morally correctly.
    • It may be portrayed as a societal and technological challenge.
    • It should be presented as a societal, collective problem not a personal one.
  • Never call for voluntary non-concerted consumer action, voluntary individual lifestyle changes, etc. And abstain from making appeals in this respect.
  • Instead, honestly say and confirm the view that the effects of individual consumer action and similar voluntary responses to climate change are limited and that appeals are problematic!
  • Never ask anyone to calculate his or her carbon footprint!
  • Explain that CO2 emissions need to go to zero —fast! This should make clear that individual action on the consumer level or voluntary green choices can’t get us there. (Perhaps, if climate scientists had told us long ago that CO2 emissions from fossil energy must be eliminated entirely, quickly —which they should have done—, climate preaching would not have become the infestation it is.)
  • Talk about global warming and say who is really responsible for the changing climate! (The contrarians, including the fossil fuel industry, the deniers and the free riders who remain politically inactive or complacent.)
  • Recommend political action only! (Call it societally relevant action, rather than political action, if you prefer or if your audience prefers. Political action can well take place detached from party politics — a notable example is here.) Call for action to ultimately change «laws not light bulbs», as Al Gore used to say, before going on to please his audience with climate preaching.
  • Appeal to individual responsibility as political citizens only! Point out that political action is effective and necessary.
  • Neither exaggerate the severity of the climate problem, nor the difficulties to solve the problem —because the exaggeration also unnecessarily induces a feeling of guilt. Abstain from dire messaging, catastrophism, doomism and only-so-many years left assertions.
  • Be prudent with messaging that might induce fear.
  • Focus on pride to avoid harm, to save lives and species, not on guilt for causing disaster and a catastrophe in the making.

To subsume the points of the above list: Avoid to induce guilt or blame on climate change.

While the above recommendations are certainly unusual, one recommendation, generally accepted by climate communicators, remains and deserves to be restated: Focus on real solutions and mention how technically easy and inexpensive the resolution of the climate crisis would be. (Already very low and falling cost of power from the winds and the sun; Very low and falling cost of carbon dioxide removal from the air by purely technological means.) It would certainly be beneficial to also point out how just, fair and equitable the political solution could be. Concentrate on solving the problem. Counteract despair.

Experts in the field of climate communications, who also study ways to overcome denial, have more recommendations to make. How these recommendations align with the arguments of this article is discussed in the next sections.

Inoculation against manipulation

It has recently been stressed that pre-emptive inoculation or «prebunking» is helpful to counter climate denial, particularly to overcome pre-existing misconceptions or an unfavorable ideological worldview. Inoculation means to get the deniers to understand that their belief is a consequence of misinformation. It is then explained in which way the misinformation is conveyed. The recommendation to use inoculation is supported by evidence.

Moreover, there is a logic to it. Many deniers believe that global warming messages are part of an organized deception, a conspiracy —by governments, NGOs, corporations, activists and scientists, by Jews and Freemasons (Switzerland), the CIA, bankers or any combination of it.

Deniers can be expected to be susceptible to the message and realization that they were (are being) manipulated indeed, but by the other side than they thought. They are being manipulated by the fossil fuel industry with their professional merchants of doubt (Germany).

Unfortunately, to tell the deniers they are being manipulated works on both sides and the contrarians have so far been better able to put it to use. As explained above, the deniers have at least one objective reason to spot a manipulation and develop their ill-belief to be victims of a conspiracy, that manipulation is climate preaching.

Could it be that we climate communicators give the deniers too much reason to have faith in the wrong side?

Another reason to distrust climate communicators is their habitual dire messaging and end-time messaging. «The end of civilization is near!» (There is little reason to believe that, but the prospect for non-civilization animals is dire); «We are about to hit a wall!» (Perhaps, but it is going to be an awfully soft wall, at least for homo sapiens); «We are running out of resources!» (When quite obviously there is more than plenty, again, as far as humans are concerned); «Peak oil, peak gas, peak coal!» (When the problem quite obviously is overabundance of that stuff, the opposite of scarcity); «Only so many years left to solve the problem!» (How many years will it be next time that this claim is made, but what about the Puerto Ricans it was too late for in 2017?) and, my personal favorite: «We are using so many planets!» (The result of a calculation set up to produce a wanted result and mislead the public, but an understatement of the problem of accumulating CO2).

Dire climate messaging and climate preaching, the proposal of a solution of which almost every ten-year old knows it won’t do anything, often emanate from the same source. Combine the perception of preaching and dire messaging and the interpretation as manipulation becomes practically inevitable. Why should anyone be trusted who is so obviously a manipulator? Why believe someone who claims that a certain problem is nearly unresolvable but proposes a ridiculous solution to the same problem?

Potential for improvement or pride

The framing of global warming as a crisis, an opportunity for societal improvement, not just a need to cope with difficulties, would certainly be beneficial. Strangely, I am aware of only one person who probably clearly sees global warming as a crises, i.e. as also an opportunity for positive change.

Ignaz Semmelweis could have presented his hand hygiene policy as an opportunity to save lives, rather than a means to avoid the endemic levels of killing. (I ignore whether he tried.) A positive framing and a positive prospect could have helped as it would have been better at avoiding the suggestion of guilt.

While guilt induction can hardly be avoided entirely, there are certainly better or worse ways to communicate mankind’s climate challenge.

Which points in the above list (recommendations) should be stressed, and which should rather be left aside or reformulated, depends on the audience addressed. The guiding rule should be: Guilt induction should be avoided. The easiest avoidance and most straightforward advice is: Don’t preach. And ask your audience to abstain from climate preaching too.

Is preaching just useless?

It should not be claimed that preaching is useless in every case or domain. Its effect seems to depend on the degree of social control there is to exert the wanted change of behavior. Furthermore, it helps if the wanted change conforms to already established ethics. The current efforts to get people to shift away from eating meat in some societies —under heavy preaching and social pressure— is an obvious and remarkable example. But even if conditions are favorable, progress is difficult. Although the number of vegans seems to be on the rise, since 2013 per capita meat consumption is yet again on the rise, too.

Particularly if social control is weak —as is normally the case in any modern large anonymous society— or if the personal benefits of prevailing behavior are strong, we should not expect appeals to accomplish much change. Or maybe this:

I have seen many climate activists and campaigners shift from strenuous political, sometimes confrontational activities or even direct action towards self-centered action. But I do not know a single person who has moved in the opposite direction. Perhaps the social environment of climate activists induces them to adopt their peer group’s mainstream opinion that self-centered action counts. Then they settle with just this approach, as it is a much more comfortable, non-controversial option.

I have adopted peculiar tactics to personally deal with pressure towards voluntary individual acts. An example:

My neighbor: «You know, I also think it’s a good move [to no longer have a car] because of what you do [be a climate activist and campaigner].»

My answer: «One more word like this and I won’t sell you that damn car!»

Whoever emits CO2 is not legitimized to call for policy change to end all CO2 emissions from fossil energy use. This habitual —but ill-fated— moral reasoning is congruent with appeals for voluntary behavior change. It undermines the legitimacy to demand indispensable policy change.

Preaching is often useless, yet it abounds

The UNFCCC is the key institution supposed to resolve the greatest global tragedy of the commons of all times —which is to be done by restricting freedom in the commons. As if it had to disguise its weakness the UNFCCC calls for voluntary consumer action and modern indulgences —dubbed compensation.

The IPCC is the central scientific body on climate change. Unless it changes the text before publication, it will declare a need for a «large scale behavior and lifestyle change (very high confidence)» in its upcoming report on the 1.5° target. (Note in retrospect: It did change the draft. In the final version of its Summary for Policymakers the IPCC states: «Strengthened multi–level governance, institutional capacity, policy instruments, technological innovation and transfer and mobilization of finance, and changes in human behaviour and lifestyles are enabling conditions that enhance the feasibility of mitigation and adaptation options for 1.5°C consistent systems transitions. (high confidence)»)

«Everybody saves energy together.» Pamphlet of a state supported energy savings campaign 1981
«Everybody saves energy together.» It’s been hanging there for decades, doing nothing. Or was its overall effect negative? | Pamphlet of a state supported energy savings campaign following the oil crises of the 70s, Switzerland. Appeals were remarkably successful to overcome the acute energy crises of the mid 70s. But they failed as the acuteness waned. Today it is attempted to solve the climate crises with appeals again, even though the persistent and systematic oversupply of fossil fuels is fundamentally a different problem than was the acute scarcity of fossil transportation fuels, artificially caused by OPEC. Climate change is very much the opposite problem of the past oil crises.

In his groundbreaking book Don’t even Think about it! George Marshall, a former campaigner with Greenpeace, writes about the psychology of climate denial. One notable chapter is called How Climate Change Became your Fault. In it he describes how governments regularly tried and succeeded to shift blame and responsibility from politicians —i.e. themselves— to consumers.

Marshall writes how their campaigns to raise consumer awareness failed systematically or turned out to be counter-productive and that they supported the neo-liberal ideology which promotes private property rights, free markets —and free choices. «Worse still», Marshall writes on the direct effects of the appeals, «these campaigns did not actually work.»

«In Australia», Marshall reports, «people became even less climate clever and a third fewer people considered climate change to be their most important issue after the campaign than they had before.» He writes: «Behind their [government’s] uplifting slogans, and their appeals to national unity, what they were really saying was: „Climate change is your fault.“» And:

And here lies the problem. As soon as one creates responsibility, one creates blame. Blame creates resentment, and talk of responsibility in the home makes that resentment very personal indeed. What none of us fully appreciated at the time was how readily these anodyne messages would be mobilized to fuel people’s sectarian prejudices. (p. 195)

It is almost as if Marshall had been tasked with writing in his own words a summary of this article, in just one paragraph. Or in two concise paragraphs:

Somehow, this was all the wrong way around. Those campaigns urging people to take personal responsibility and work together to „save the planet“ were saying the wrong things to the right audience and the right things to the wrong audience. So much for the hope that small personal lifestyle changes might shift people’s attitudes and bring people together; if anything, they seem to reinforce peoples prejudices and drive them apart. (p. 195/196)

Marshall criticizes himself for having been a climate preacher, too:

Books proliferated telling people to Measure their Carbon Footprint, get Low-Carbon, become Eco-Friendly, Save the Earth for a Fiver, Tread Lightly on the Earth, Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit, go on a Climate Diet. Or go on a Carbon Detox—the title of my own contribution to this short-lived and rapidly remaindered eco-tastic subgenre.

«Remaindered», perhaps, but a «short-lived» subgenre, certainly not. Marshall goes on to write:

Maybe we all went to far and, in our eagerness to find homey messages that would engage people, we fell into the wicked trap of limiting climate change through the solutions we proposed. (p. 193)

Marshall concludes the chapter with a paragraph that could be a perfect conclusion of this article, with one important exception: He just cannot detach from the seemingly irresistible notion of moral correctness —which is so wrongly referred to as political correctness. The adherence to «voluntary measures» indicates that Marshall’s wish for individual moral behavior to play an important role is stronger than his rational assessment.

What is missing, and what is urgently required is a coherent policy framework that provides a contract for shared participation—whether through voluntary measures or, as many campaigners now demand, some form of tax, ration, or dividend—within which personal actions are recognized and rewarded alongside equally important contributions from government, business, and fossil fuel companies. Not the power of one, but the power of all. (p. 197)

«Voluntary measures» and «equally important contributions from governments, business, and fossil fuel companies» hint at an amazing incoherence to come. Indeed, in his very next chapter, Marshall turns around swiftly and completely —or rather falls in the same «wicked trap» again. He devotes his whole next chapter to blaming the least responsible for global warming, the individual consumer, including climate scientists who don’t abstain from flying! Marshall also again criticizes himself, this time for being a frequent flyer!

The shortcomings of moral preaching in its stronghold

That moral preaching often fails to have a positive effect, even on an in-group audience, particularly when social control is weak (sexual practices) or absent (video), is known from where it is most pervasive: religion (study on children). Preaching is nevertheless abundant, including outside religious institutions or sects. And it is often appreciated by those preached upon. Appeals are appealing. Why is that?

«You control climate change. Turn down, switch off, recycle, walk, change.» Strangely, those who could and should solve the climate crisis delegate its solution to those who cannot. Even more peculiar, those who cannot solve the problem don’t object. | Climate preaching by the European Commission.
Appeals are welcome

When governments or corporations preach —or NGOs—, they are diverting responsibility away from themselves. One should therefore expect the public to reject climate preaching overtly and strongly. It could be seen and denounced as an inappropriate or even embarrassing act, as a deception or even as outright manipulation. But, the opposite is the case. With the exception of some deniers and a few (very few) on the other side of the climate frontline, appeals are welcome. This begs an explanation.

To a certain extent, climate appeals might be a legacy of the oil crises of the 1970s. When OPEC throttled the supply and there was shortage at the pump, shortage of even plastic bags, a soaring price of transportation fuels and consequently an economic crises, many governments imposed rationing. Furthermore, scarcity and the market mechanism —higher prices— regulated demand. However, appeals to save energy also helped —at least a little bit— to prevent the worst. Japan resorted to appeals and social control with very notable success to keep its economy going after the 2011 Fukushima disaster and the shutdown of its nuclear reactors.

However these were acute crises. Climate change is not and — unfortunately— won’t ever be an acute crises. Moreover, an overabundance and systematic oversupply of fossil fuels is the opposite of what was the temporary, acute and artificially provoked scarcity of fossil transportation fuels in the 70s or the acute power shortage in Japan provoked by natural disaster and technology failure. Furthermore, there is a human instinct to address shortages and scarcity, including with appeals and social control, but there is no instinct to address pollution caused by abundance and oversupply.

The nature of the oil crises of the 1970s and the nature of climate change could hardly be more different. The only common denominator of the two problems are the words fossil and energy. Governments and the population are nevertheless seeking to address both problems with the same method: appeals for voluntary behavior change, even though they could have learned from the past: As the acuteness of the oil crises waned, so did the effect of consumer appeals.

If I were Shell or Exxon I would welcome climate preaching, knowing that the incessant stream of appeals won’t ever change my business case. And I would keep pointing out that people just keep demanding fossil fuels. Climate preaching legitimizes the business case and societal status of the fossil energy industry, while it undermines the legitimacy of policy-relevant climate campaigning. It is no surprise that appeals are appealing in the camp that despises policy change to mitigate global warming. But, strangely —unfortunately— climate preaching is appealing in the opposite camp by at least the same measure. Obviously, there is an innate tendency not only to launch but also to welcome appeals. 7

Those who engage in individual action view themselves as exemplary benefactors. Consequently, they are pleased by the appeals which confirm their highly questionable belief that their self-centered little acts are important.

The self enhancing cycle

There is a self-reinforcing cycle. Let us start with appeals:

  • Step 1: Appeals for moral acts, in our case: climate preaching.
  • Step 2: A positive response, e.g. an act of green consumption.
  • Step 3: To confirm the validity of his act, to himself as well as to others, the positive respondent advertises it.

The advertisement primarily serves his reputation or to make a positive impression. With advantage, the impression management is done indirectly, by nonverbal communication, e.g. by driving a hybrid car, installing solar panels, wearing a shirt or otherwise indirectly as a leader by example. Or it is done even less directly, but more actively, by proposing the act itself to others —by preaching. The respondent, perhaps a new convert, so takes the role of a (climate) preacher and we are back in step 1, preaching.

This cycle was certainly essential for establishing informal rules in pre-civilization societies (see also note 7).

(It can now be observed at work with appeals for not eating meat, the spread of vegetarianism and veganism. The success is helped by the fact that eating is a very social act, among several other supporting factors not present in the case of CO2 from fossil fuels. The spread of the meatless diets should not be taken as a role model for the much more difficult case of fossil energy and CO2. Or maybe it should be taken as a benchmark. Since 2013, despite the campaigning, the trend to lower meat consumption stagnates or is even reversed. Even the consumption of beef is on the rise again. It is also interesting with vegetarianism and veganism to observe the terrible distortions the advertisement and impression management entail: The sustained diffusion of blatantly false information to elevate the voluntary act; See note 5 on «Cowspiracy».)

The cycle is also reinforced because to preach is to make a pledge, albeit implicitly. The preacher’s audience has an interest to hear the pledge and therefore welcomes the preaching.

The cycle enhances the esteem and the self(-esteem) of those who participate in it. And the cycle enhances itself.

It is not restricted to the existing eco-lifestyle faction. It may be supported by the acquisition of ever new converts and new preachers. Alas, the cycle goes on and, whether it is desirable in a particular case (i.e. to address global warming) or not, it may spread like a Ponzi scheme, a self-nourishing carousel.

In the case of environmental action and climate change, the effect of the eco-lifestyle advertisement remains slim but the stream of calls for green consumption is inevitably perceived beyond the eco-lifestyle faction, with no small impact.

Should we care about the potentially negative effects of climate preaching and personal greenwashing?

It is easy not to worry about the cycle of climate preaching and impression management. I used to maintain a position of indifference about the cycle, too. It does little good, but no harm —so I thought and: Let them be happy with it! However, this indifference is wrong because of the cycle’s terrible effects, above all climate denial and climate silence.

It is wrong to remain indifferent about the cycle of climate preaching and impression management through more climate preaching —and more induction of guilt.

If it is posited and accepted that voluntary acts and personal greenwashing won’t solve the climate crises; if it is accepted that societal-level action counts («political» action, if you prefer); if we want to know whether climate preaching is justified or should be rejected, then we must discuss —or investigate further— the interaction of climate preaching and political action. This interaction will be the topic of the following sections.

Climate communicators, we need to talk!

Out there are probably millions of calls to go vegan or refrain from air travel, but there are few calls to get organized globally or otherwise address climate change properly.

Yet, so far, there is neither any critical research nor an educated debate about climate preaching and its negative effects.

Also entirely missing is an educated debate about who is really at fault, who really is responsible for global warming. At last, at least somebody, Genevieve Guenther, approached this important topic. She wrote: «The we [are] responsible for climate change is a fictional construct, one that’s distorting and dangerous. By hiding who’s really responsible for our current, terrifying predicament, we provides political cover for the people who are happy to let hundreds of millions of other people die for their own profit and pleasure.» How true. However, the fact that climate change is not the consumers‘ fault fails to be acknowledged in this piece as well, which also states: «But constrained choices are not akin to the unthinking complicity of the 10 percent who produce 50 percent of global emissions every year by taking multiple long-haul flights for pleasure travel, heating their homes instead of putting on a sweater, and driving swollen SUVs that they replace every few years.» Our appreciation of the problem and our allocation of responsibility is terribly distorted by the ever present climate preachings.

Responsible is not the consumer, the weakest and the most dispersed actor in this global tragedy of the commons. But he gets most of the blame. Thank you, climate priests.

The prevailing lack of orientation or even outright confusion on the matter is (for example) demonstrated in a Spiegel article by Lena Puttfarcken. She and some consulted experts realize that our self-centered little eco-acts fail to do the job and that they might just serve to avoid feeling guilty. So, what do the journalist and most of her experts recommend? Keep doing it anyway! Keep calculating your carbon footprints and let us get better at our personal greenwashing, our beloved Ersatzhandlungen (displacement activities)!

Instead of acknowledging that there is a problem with climate preaching and addressing it, almost everybody concerned about climate change keeps preaching, including the media and experts from academia. So far, the problem with climate preaching remains almost totally ignored.

Some preach, others follow the preaching, most people remain seemingly unaffected but too silent. Meanwhile, the deniers go stronger than ever.

«Thank you!» think the professional deniers

The professional merchants of doubt, the professional «disinformers» (Joe Romm), profit from the cycle of preaching, self-centered acts and more preaching. Their many misled followers are guilt-driven. Particularly the followers and parrots within the system of climate denial are also little consumers.

But, unlike the eco-lifestyle faction, they refuse to pick up the blame. They reject the implicit accusation which is inevitably conveyed through climate preaching. To avoid feeling guilty—or to avoid cognitive dissonance—, they employ their own psychological mechanism and deny the problem. Driven by guilt-avoidance and confirmation bias, supported by the deniers‘ disinformation bubble of alternative climate facts, they become active disinformers, too. An army of non-professional climate disinformers floods the comments sections and social media content of the internet, thereby mutually reinforcing one another.

Hence, the supposedly harmless cycle of climate preaching and personal greenwashing feeds another self-enhancing cycle, the very important and destructive cycle of non-professional active climate denial.

Collection of titles with eco-appeals and climate preaching
There is an abundance of recommendations to solve, with an egocentric approach, what may be the most difficult problem in human existence. There is often a component of self-aggrandizement: «My Heart Beats Green!», «I Buy Nothing!», «We Are the Change», «My Path to Zero Waste», «And now WE will save the world!» and there is often a remarkably broad claim: «Simply change the world», «50 simple things to save the world and save money». | Covers of selected publications. German publications only.

If the global problem of fossil fuels could be resolved by appeals, voluntary personal acts, informal rules and social control, all these measures should strongly and universally be welcomed.

But —unfortunately— climate change cannot be resolved by the many billions we are, with virtually no exception, all changing our behavior thoroughly, voluntarily. Certainly, this is not going to happen in due time. The professional deniers know it all too well. They, the primary profiteers from climate preaching, appreciate the preaching. Awfully, we in the opposite camp keep appreciating it, too, and we keep on preaching, regardless of the damage it causes, regardless of whether we play straight into the hands of the most repugnant of our adversaries.

Driven by an innate desire to act morally correctly, to avoid guilt, to preach and to impress our social environment, we nevertheless keep on believing in the validity of self-centered acts on climate change. And the problem of climate preaching with its intolerable side-effects keeps being ignored by politics. It keeps being ignored by millions of potential political citizens —or even billions.

Concerted or concentrated consumer action, boycott, would of course be a different measure and should not be confused with a segment of the population voluntarily renouncing certain products occasionally. It is a segment of the population that has become bored and repelled by over-saturation of supply and overconsumption, a segment of the population that has become disgusted by the fact that people shop as a hobby, shop out of boredom for stuff they know they don’t need.

It may be claimed that broad appeals for consumer action may lead up to powerful and effective boycotts. Proof for that has yet to be delivered. (Palm oil is a candidate case. But so far, calls for consumer boycott show little to no effect. The temporary boycott of Shell due to Greenpeace’s action on Brent Spar in 1995 is a different case. Shell was not boycotted for selling gasoline and gasoline’s detrimental environmental effects.)

Consumer action incentivized by policy (carbon pricing) is yet another approach. It is policy-driven, very effective and therefore all different from a response to climate preaching. However, unlike climate preaching, carbon pricing would deliver on the consumption side of the equation, too.

It would be wrong to posit that there is no justification for appeals at all and generally no reason to make or accept appeals and this article should not be interpreted as a general objection to appeals. The central argument of this article is that appeals for voluntary personal behavior change are more detrimental than beneficial in the case of fossil energies and climate change, a global problem. Essentially this is because we live in large anonymous civilizations in a global economy, not in small groups of territorial hunter-gatherers.


Here could (and probably should) be added a section with problems of similar type and scope as CO2 and different types of problems. There should be examples of success as well as cases of failure with appeals. Candidate topics are:

  • Meatless diet: Innate inclination towards food taboos (a human universal) as an another factor for success; Social control; Animal suffering. Yet despite heavy preaching and campaigning, there is rebound or even a reversal of the trend.
  • Failure to implement at least somewhat decent sanitation behavior in some areas of some developing countries: Large difficulties despite strong efforts; The smell of human excrements and an instinct against open defecation close by.
  • Fur production and animal suffering: Favorable conditions for preaching —social control and animal suffering; Nevertheless difficult to solve on consumer side; Backlash after temporary success with appeals despite seemingly excellent conditions for appeals.
  • Ozone depletion: There was also much —probably largely guilt induced— science denial (including, in this case, among scientists: it was a new theory), boosted by corporate interests; Attempts but failure to solve by means of preaching; Ridicule of appeals for voluntary action (Quote here: «Interior Secretary Donald Hodel urged President Reagan to reject an international ozone treaty in favor of asking people to wear hats and sunglasses. […] Hodel became a laughingstock, and consensus for decisive international action continued to build.»); Solution with focus on production side and international treaty, set in place including with bribing («financial incentives») and coercion («diplomacy») of unwilling nations; Technical alternatives at overall negligible extra cost; Problem still only marginally solved, despite generally favorable framework conditions and American leadership —by the Reagan administration.
  • Whaling: Technological alternative (fossil fuels); Treaty on production side; Cause never debated as a consumer issue; Late success but not one species of whales lost; Still not resolved for good.
  • Poor hand hygiene in hospitals, still: Enforcement with measures that go beyond appeals are difficult to justify in this case; But progress with appeals is slow despite the Semmelweis story and indirect germ transmittance discovered and accepted long ago.

The section would make clear that CO2 is not the type of problem that can be hoped for to be solved with voluntary action on the consumer side.

A Stone Age solution for a modern problem?

Under normal circumstances cognitive biases that distort our perception and communication are beneficial —at least for the individuals who exhibit these biases. This is not only true for the confirmation bias or the whole set of biases that help us to resist manipulation, but for any psychological distortion. In a way, the problem with climate preaching can be diagnosed like this:

  • With climate preachings, we try to address a problem of a modern global anonymous civilization with a method that would be well suited to solve problems of small, naturally living groups as they existed in the early Stone Age.
  • To address the climate crisis is not about giving in to our moral instinct not to feel guilty and our instincts to preach for the benefit of selected individuals, i.e. ourselves, in the short term —which is the purpose of our innate psychological distortions, including our moral instinct. To properly address the climate crisis is to prevent very severe problems for all life on earth in the somewhat distant future and far future.
The scientific case for climate preaching

Environmental psychologists and marketing specialists have investigated the potential of environmental preaching and continue to seek to optimize results. And results keep being mixed. One problem with these studies is that the measurement of the results may impact the results themselves. Another severe measurement problem is that long term effects are practically impossible to assess. Regardless of whether and under what circumstances environmental preaching may have a positive effect on individual behavior, there is —apart form an innate tendency— a scientific case for the approach with preaching.

Self-perception theory posits that a person committing an environmental act sees itself as an environmentalist and will continue to act accordingly. However, unless the act is self-motivated or perceived to be self-motivated it will not contribute to self-perception. Climate preaching undermines the perception of green acts as self-motivated, which is necessary for the self-perception effect to deploy.

It is easy to spot more possible flaws with the validity of a simplistic appreciation of self-perception theory for climate mitigation. All perception is relative and the theory works in both directions. What if people are told that flying is no good and that they should not do it, but everybody does it anyway? Are people likely to identify as environmentalists? There is little reason to expect so, rather the opposite.

Self-perception theory may rather be a subterfuge than a justification for preaching. In any case, after decades of streaming appeals to the public, the appeals‘ failure to deliver, the backfiring and outright backlash against environmentalism, it is time for a critical review of the theory or its abandonment for climate communication. The minimum to do now is to seriously consider possible downsides of climate preaching.

The non-political case of climate preaching

Adherents of self-perception theory might claim as an achievement that there is fundamentally a certain degree of public support for protecting the environment. (To what extent preaching contributed to this result remains an open question, though.) However, when political action is proposed in the form of bills or laws that restrict individual freedom to pollute, opposition against virtually any environmental legal proposal is quick to mount. Tragically, the preaching posits and promotes eco-liberalism, the attitude that everybody is fee to do what he or she pleases in terms of the environment.

The non-political case for climate preaching

For NGOs and governments it is tempting to avoid the opposition and instead proclaim what everybody can agree with: That we should all care and act voluntarily. The reason for NGO’s and government’s affection for climate preaching might be as simple as that.

Humans want to self-perceive themselves as altruists. Climate preaching builds on this desirability bias and resonates with it.

Adherents of moral appeals to counter climate change may rightfully argue that politics is nothing else but the implementation of morals into written and mandatory societal rules. In fact, politics is mostly the transcription of moral standards into policy.

However, moral standards are not policy. Rather, one is the opposite of the other. The shift from one domain (morals, climate action as a voluntary individual act) to the other (climate action as a policy driven, collective endeavor) is exactly what we should aim for. It could take place without anyone putting the blame on consumers.

If it is accepted that political action is required, it should be further discussed how climate preaching interacts with political action. Or, are there other reasons in support of climate preaching which justify the preachings‘ abundance and popularity? These are the topics of the final sections.

Climate preaching is detrimental overall

The argument of this article can be boiled down to this: Appeals, innate ethics, a cultural shift and social control cannot resolve climate change and, specifically, cannot resolve the CO2-problem. Because the appeals for individual voluntary behavior change may induce and increase denial as well as climate silence, preaching is detrimental and should not be done.

There is only one caveat to this claim: Due to self-perception theory, as outlined above, or for whatever other reason, climate preaching might have positive side effects, too. Notable climate scientist and communicator Katharine Hayhoe recommends to propose small individual acts to start off with, hoping that a commitment to these acts enhances the readiness to subsequently engage in relevant action.

Similarly —if not equally—, it may be argued or believed that climate preaching positively affects peoples minds and that their political attitude will be steered towards climate-friendly politics, whether (or not) they are inclined towards reducing their personal carbon footprint. It could be claimed that citizens could —as a consequence of the preaching— be inclined towards at least easy political action like electing politicians who care about climate change. The failure of decade-long state and NGO preaching sure does not support such a claim. Even if Katharine Hayhoe’s suggestion is correct, the effect would have to compensate for the appeals‘ contribution to climate silence and denial to make appeals overall beneficial. 8

Climate preaching is overall detrimental. Don't appeal for voluntary consumer action. | 'Flowchart'
Are calls for voluntary individual consumer action beneficial or detrimental to solve the problem of CO2 from fossil energy? The question is important because these appeals often dominate climate communications. Because climate preaching cannot solve the problem, its side effects must be considered to tell whether it is beneficial or detrimental (or useless). | Summary flowchart. It is not difficult to spot its peculiarity as a flowchart —or its flaws. While it is not to be taken seriously, it is nevertheless meant to make the core argument of this article clear.

If climate preaching should have an effect on political attitudes and ultimately on political action it is at least equally reasonable to hypothesize that appeals towards voluntary action discourage, rather than encourage, political attitudes and action. The implicit claim of climate preaching is that people should solve and are able to solve the problem with their voluntary acts, not the political citizens and politicians by enforcing rules. The adherents of voluntary action happily believe they can do it —and feel empowered as consumers. I have often heard them defend their attitude by claiming that politicians won’t solve the problem of climate change. «Vote with your wallets!», they and NGOs say. «We can and should vote with our wallets», it parrots.

Meanwhile, perhaps as a consequence of climate preaching, most citizens fail to understand that they are also politicians, at least to some extent, and that their role as political citizens is crucial. The promotion of ecological liberalism —voluntary environmental attitudes— is compatible with the ideology of the political right, economic liberalism. But, as we now know for sure, decades of climate preaching neither drove that faction towards accepting the problem of climate change nor did it make any political solution of climate change more politically palatable in that camp. Was it not a bit paradoxical to hope for it?

For NGOs, state administrations and other climate preachers the way to go is to give up the failed attempt with preaching and finally be honest: Tell donators, citizens and peers that they are powerless as consumers, but indispensable and potent as political actors.

The peculiar reluctance to go beyond self-centered action

Only one very well known climate scientist, James Hansen, deliberately acts politically. The results of his doing so are stunning. Despite his success, hardly any other climate scientist follows his example, even though there are efforts to change that (by Naomi Oreskes, one example).

But many climate scientists choose self-centered action. Notable climate scientist Kevin Anderson devotes a blog to giving up plane travel and criticizes his colleagues who refuse to do the same.

At least one academic, Richard Wilk, goes beyond climate preaching among peers. He suggests to accuse and shame the least responsible explicitly, even actively and systematically. As exceptional as this proposal is, it is consistent with the strategy of relying on voluntary individual acts to address climate change —if that is a strategy. If the strategy or simply the combined voluntary acts were to have a significant and positive effect, preaching, social control, shaming and blaming would have to be thorough and ubiquitous. However, these latter acts would also have to rely on voluntariness, but social control, shaming and blaming are again not beneficial for the voluntary actors. (There is a reason why there is the implicit accusation inhibition.) People are not likely to volunteer to blame and shame their friends and neighbors. If they did, it might do more harm than good, indeed.

A dire prediction

There are several claims made in this article. They range from:

  • (A) guilt induction and guilt avoidance are important for the communication, perception and denial of climate change (the minimal claim)


  • (B) climate preaching is detrimental overall and should be abstained from (the claim that goes furthest).

Theories may be helpful to avoid problems or make progress. Or they may be used to make predictions. If it is true that guilt induction supports denial there is a prediction to be made. If the prediction is correct, the theory is supported.

As climate change progresses, confirming climate scientists‘ predictions, it may be anticipated that climate denial loses ground and disappears. However, so far, that is not what we see, rather the opposite: Climate denial gained strength. As long as global warming was a distant threat, a future risk, there was relatively little reason to feel guilty about it and little reason to deny the problem.

Think, for example, about somebody driving carelessly. He may have been warned about the risks. He may feel guilty but, only a little bit, if at all. However, assume the careless driver hurts someone with his driving. Suddenly, there is much more reason to feel guilty. As long as a prediction is about a risk, a possible problem in the future, there is not much reason to experience guilt and reject it. That changes a lot when dire predictions turn into reality.

It should have become strange to refer to high-intensity tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons, as «natural disasters». Scientist are getting better at attributing the human influence on tropical cyclones generally, statistically, and even for individual storms.

Tropical storms now cause massive damage as the highest intensity storms are becoming more frequent, a trend scientists predicted. But even in late 2018, the medias‘ reporting about these storms almost totally avoids connecting the damage to climate change. This silence is particularly noteworthy in the US. One reason for this may precisely be that the storms can now be attributed to human influence and that they now cause extraordinary damage. This observation is congruent with claim A.

Predictions of damage caused by climate change will gradually more often turn out to be true. Consequently, there will be more reason to avoid guilt by denying climate change. We are far from the end of climate denial —I dare to predict. If my prediction had been made, say, ten years ago, it would now be confirmed.

Unless kids are told about global warming in schools at an early age, progress against climate denial will be slow or even negative. However, if we (and kids) keep being told that climate change is our fault and that the solution is to recycle, or to engage in other types of self-centered voluntary individual acts, we cannot expect climate denial to be overcome anytime soon.

This prediction is based on hypothesis A, and to some extent on claim B. Scientists get better at attributing climate change to human influence which makes the denial of climate change objectively less defensible. The psychology that drives denial is nevertheless reinforced.

Note 1

The paragraph regarding «gentlemen’s hands are clean» is in full:

At page 631 of my work on obstetrics 2d edition, I have related the circumstances attending the practice of a physician of Philadelphia, who, in one of our epidemic seasons, lost a considerable number of women in childbed. I beg to refer you to that page, where you will see how he lost one of the number, whom he did not visit until she was advanced so far in the disorder, that upon the first inspection he pronounced her case hopeless. This case swelled his list equally with the first one he saw, to which it is not possible that he should have communicated the poison. His patients were scattered over a great superficies of the city and districts, some of them being more than two miles from others. At that time, many women were attacked, in various parts of Philadelphia, as well as in the State of Pennsylvania ; yet, so far as has come to my knowledge, no other medical gentleman happened to encounter such a great number of childbed fever cases as he did. I visited in consultation with him some of the very worst of the cases, and touched the patients, and was as liable to imbibe, or to be clothed with the effluvia from their bodies as he was; nevertheless, I did not carry any poison, or other cause of disease, to any patient of mine ; and if not I, then how should he become capable of doing so? He is a gentleman who is scrupulously careful of his personal appearance, of great experience as a practitioner, and well informed as to modern opinions on the contagion of childbed fever. Still, those of you who are contagionists will say that he carried the poison from house to house ; and if so, then you ought to give some rationale of the fact. Did he carry it on his hands? But a gentleman’s hands are clean. Did he carry a nebula or halo about him? Then why not I also? If the nebula adhered to his clothing, it might as well have adhered to mine. (Meigs 1854, par 173, p 103/104)

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Note 2

Meigs work documents the desire to reject the accusation that doctors, and in this paragraph Meigs himself, were guilty of spreading the disease:

I have practised midwifery for many long years ; I have attended some thousands of women in labor, and passed through repeated epidemics of childbed fever, both in town and in hospital. After all this experience, however, I do not, upon careful reflection and self-examination, find the least reason to suppose I have ever conveyed the disease from place to place, in any single instance. Yet for many years I carefully considered whether such transfer, by a third person, might be possible, and carefully read the statements of various authors to that effect. In the course of my professional life I have made many necroscopic researches of childbed fever, but did never suspend my ministry as accoucheur on that account. Still, I certainly was never the medium of its transmission. (Meigs 1854, par 169, p 102)

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Note 3

Reference to the use of chloride of lime as a measure against puerperal fever already in 1829 can be found in Meigs 1854. The respective paragraph is:

I with great satisfaction here refer you to Dr. Robert Collins’s work, before cited, wherein, at p. 387, he recounts the triumph he obtained over the cause of childbed fever by purifying the whole hospital. In February, 1829, it was scourged with the epidemic. He turned out all but the most destitute of the women, filled the wards, in rotation, with chlorine gas; closing the windows for forty-eight hours during the disinfecting process. He painted the floor and all the woodwork, with chloride of lime mixed with water, to the consistence of cream, and left it on for forty-eight hours more. After this, the woodwork was painted, and the walls and ceilings whitewashed. The blankets, &c. were scoured and then stoved at a temperature of 120° to 130°. From this time, February, 1829, until the close of his mastership, in November, 1833, Dr. Collins lost not a single patient with the disease in Dublin Hospital, a result highly honorable to the distinguished physician and philanthropist. Where was the contagion fled? Dr. Collins and his assistants, matrons, and ward-maids were not chlorinized ; were they ever, indeed, private pestilences? (Meigs 1854, par 164, p 99/100)

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Note 4

A remarkable study on the influence of group think on the perception of climate change (among other issues), was reported in Advances in Political Psychology (doi: 10.1111/pops.12244). Dan M. Kahan from Yale University: Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. (Link)

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Note 5

Many advocates of veganism or vegetarianism propagate the notion that meat is the most important contributor to global warming. This false claim was stirred up and brought to a wider audience by the movie «Cowspiracy». The claim is not even remotely plausible but refuses to go away —like many of the false claims made by climate deniers.

«Cowspiracy» relied heavily on a report published by Lester Brown’s Worldwatch Institute, authored by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. Much in this report is so wrong that a number of scientists felt obliged to set the record straight. However, that «Cowspiracy» relied on other people’s obviously false (if not intentionally deceptive) work, is no excuse.

Another good exposition of important falsehoods presented in «Cowspiracy» is here as well as in other places on the internet. There is no need to recapitulate the debunking. Nevertheless, one big false claim is pointed out in the following paragraph, because, essentially, the same false argument is often used by climate deniers.

The authors of the Wordwatch Institute’s report count CO2 from livestock respiration as greenhouse gas emissions. However, respiration of CO2, whether done by humans, cows, plants, bacteria, etc., at most equals CO2 removal by photosynthesis. This biological cycle therefore doesn’t increase CO2 concentrations and these natural emissions must not be accounted for to point out the global warming effect of elevated CO2. The cycle is fundamental for the understanding of how life on earth works. Anybody who has ever been taught fundamentals in biology must have learned about it. Anybody who seriously wants to participate in the debate on climate change should long have understood this biological carbon cycle.

Some deniers also account for respired CO2. They do it to support their own false claim that CO2 emissions from fossil energy are comparatively minuscule —compared to greenhouse gas emissions from the production of meat. See picture below. (Fossil fuel CO2 emissions are the single most important contributor to global warming, not meat production.)

«The CO2-theory» with respiration. Shared over 1300 times.
«The CO2-theory. […] Fact is therefore: 0.038% CO2 in the air. [Deniers tend to copy the same outdated number over and over again.] Of that, nature itself produces ca. 96%. The rest, that’s 4%, humans. Thus 0.00152% of the air [us human made CO2]. And these 0.00152% should be responsible for changing the climate?» Stefan Rahmstorf calls this misleading argument an «ancient classic of the climate denier propaganda» and pointed to his post where he had refuted it before because, embarrassingly, even some journalists don’t get it, are not fit for their task, like to confuse the public or, rather, are victims of the implicit accusation inhibition. Like so much more in the denier’s information bubble, the «classic» just refuses to go away. Instead, the we-are-not-guilty message nearly goes viral. | Post on facebook by «Denkdeinding» on July 1, 2018. Within a few days it was shared over 1300 times and accumulated more than 400 comments. The Cowspiracists use essentially the same false claim.
There is another peculiar parallel between the makers of «Cowspiracy» and climate deniers: Both are inclined to believe in conspiracies. The Cowspiracists posit that, whoever won’t join in and call for a meat-free diet must be part of a conspiracy. It is reminiscent of the deniers who posit that governments, the scientific community, many NGOs and much of the public conspire to promote global warming «theory», an alleged hoax. (When the denier’s inclination towards conspiracy theories was tested, by Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues, and confirmed scientifically, the deniers were not amused. It would be interesting to see the results of scientists‘ probing into some environmentalists‘ inclinations towards conspiracy theories.)

Furthermore, like climate deniers, those who promote a meatless diet with exaggeration are remarkably resistant to facts.

Vegans and vegetarians keep advertising «Cowspiracy», often after having been made aware of the falsehood presented by the movie. (As is demonstrated by this example of sustained promotion in spite of an acknowledgement to know better.)

In a «response to criticism» the makers of «Cowspiracy» somewhat acknowledge, but then nevertheless disregard the problem with their accounting for livestock respiration. The «Cowspiracy» website even keeps advertising the Worldwatch Institute’s report. The website does it below a bold title which reads: «Livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.» Just below that section, the makers of «Cowspiracy» write: «Regardless of whether animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of GHGs or 51%, it is still a primary driver of climate change.»

Who cares about numbers off by a factor of more than three, as long as the movie’s goal to «raise awareness» is achieved? Not the makers of «Cowspiracy». They are well aware of the biggest of their many false claims, but prefer to deal with it casually.

Those advocating a meat-free diet to mitigate climate change typically live in economically strong countries. If they don’t base their argument on blatantly wrong numbers, they like to mention that livestock emissions amount to 14-15% of total greenhouse gas emissions. (This number is largely accepted. It strongly depends on how deforestation is accounted for.) However, regarding their personal abstaining from meat they should consider this: The fraction is only typically around 6% to 8% for those who live in economically strong countries. That is not because the people in these countries eat small quantities of meat. It is because their CO2 emissions from coal, oil and natural gas are terribly high.

The extra CO2 causes by fossil fuels and cement production has a very long tail in the atmosphere, because there is no natural mechanism that could remove it in due time, for which reason these carbon emissions accumulate in the air, biosphere and oceans, unlike methane or N2O.

Unless CO2 emissions from fossil energy are stopped entirely with political measures, voluntarily refraining from eating meat won’t prevent global warming from progressing beyond intolerable limits and will cause human societies and animals much suffering. No self-centered act will halt the impending devastation of life in the oceans —we are not talking about individual lives, it is about many species to be lost forever and extremely biodiverse ecosystems.

Therefore, dear vegetarians and vegans with a tendency to overstate the importance of personal acts and a tendency to distort the facts: If you really worry about climate change, get political on coal, oil and gas! Start doing the right thing, or your conscience can’t be clean.

The above should not be misunderstood. It is fine to voluntarily not consume meat.

The production of meat usurps habitat about the size of Africa from the natural living world. This ongoing usurpation often destroys biodiversity. If not paramount, this is certainly an extremely pressing problem.

But let us be correct with meat and climate. And let us be reasonable with the appreciation of the impact of voluntary individual consumer decisions.

Therefore, dear advocates of meatless diets, please advocate political action on meat production or on climate change.

The «Cowspiracy» filmmakers‘ motivation supports the central argument of this article: Implicit accusations and our desire not to feel guilty are a dominating factor in how we talk about global warming (or remain silent about it) and how we deal with climate change (and fail to deal effectively with it). The Cowspiracy team’s motivation is reported in another «Cowspiracy»-debunking article:

The narrator/protagonist Kip Anderson’s sudden „realization“ that he couldn’t affect climate change after doing all the things he was supposed to–like turning off the lights when not in the room, watching water consumption, walking or riding a bike instead of driving, etc.–because animal agriculture was causing all the problem was amusing. He was just one person out of 7 billion people trying to make a difference, he himself couldn’t affect climate change just by doing all those „greener living“ things, though he would be a small part of the solution. Even more head-shaking was his „eureka“ moment with just one email from a friend about meat-eating, although legit, but the way that he and his producers went about to find out about it all was just simply wrong.

The author of the debunking article, Karin Lindquist, has looked into who made the movie and found out that all of its makers were vegans.

They distort the facts to dispel a feeling of guilt about climate —exactly like the climate deniers. To augment their belief in the effect of their personal little contribution, they blow up the importance of their diet to mitigate global warming.

Should we just be complacent about vegans and vegetarians misleading themselves and the public with alternative facts on climate change? No, we should not. First, falsehoods are wrong —essentially by definition. Second, there can only be so many biggest causes of global warming. To elevate meat consumption to the doubtful status of prime contributor to the warming —or just overstate the importance of meat consumption (or meat production)—, the wrong cause is given priority and self-centered action on a smaller climate issue is prioritized over effective action on the bigger climate issue: CO2 from fossil fuels.

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Note 6

Guilt describes a feeling that is not only associated with unease but induces a desire to redeem, a desire to respond to a wrongdoing to try to restore the undesired state of mind. The feeling of shame is different from guilt insofar as redemption of wrongdoing is impossible or not considered. If that distinction is accepted, the doctors who opposed Semmelweis should probably have been affected by a feeling of shame, rather than guilt, because the lost lives could not be brought back. The distinction between guilt and shame makes sense when analyzing the reactions to appeals for voluntary climate action. Those who reject the appeals with denial might also do so because they consider voluntary individual action as useless because it fails to have any noticeable effect and they therefore deem redemption out of reach. This would suggest induced shame, rather than induced guilt. However, in public perception, the word shame as a feeling probably suggests a deeper, more conscious acknowledgment of the wrongdoing by the wrongdoer than the word guilt. Shame would suggest a more conscious reaction, whereas feeling guilty can happen with limited awareness of the state of mind. In this case guilt is more fitting in the context of this article than shame. Anyway, it is difficult to say whether appeals rather induce guilt or a feeling of shame and the article uses guilt where is could use shame —and probably rather often should use shame.

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Note 7

It would be surprising if there were no innateness, no instinct, that favors appeals. In our Pleistocene pre-civilization past all the methods people had to organize their groups were innate ethics, informal rules derived from these ethics and group interest in rule compliance as well as social control to enforce the informal rules. It could be called the ‚Pleistocene social toolbox‘. Appeals can be seen as the first step towards the establishment of informal rules. This is not to say that the ‚Pleistocene social toolbox‘ is absent or useless in modern societies and that appeals are generally invalid in the age of civilizations. But to resolve climate change, informal rules won’t do.

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Note 8

Katharine Hayhoe’s suggestion that a commitment to a small act makes a commitment to a larger act more likely is certainly not wrong in itself. It is even supported by science: If you successfully ask somebody to put a small billboard up in his or her garden, the likelihood increases that the same person agrees to put a larger billboard up later. Moreover, the claim is plausible. It is consistent with the confirmation bias. However, will a commitment to a small, self-centered act also induce more consequential societally relevant commitments? My experience with activists shifting from political action to self-centered acts, but not in the other direction, lets me doubt it. One climate campaigner (Tine Langkamp) says that people who engage in the divestment movement tend to be prepared to go beyond this activity later and join actions of civil disobedience for example because, unlike people who engage in more self-centered activities, they learn that policy change is needed more than anything to prevent intolerable climate change. To propose small political acts as a first engagement, like signing petitions related to climate change or taking part in a demonstration, can be expected to be a good advice. Another recommendation is to join a politically oriented group like this (US, Germany).

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Selected sources

(Meigs 1854) Charles D. Meigs. On the Nature, Signs, and Treatment of Childbed Fevers. Philadelphia. Blanchard and Lea, 1854. (Link)

Marko Rössler, NDR. Keiner sollte wissen wie er starb. NDR Info – ZeitZeichen – 13 Aug 2015 (Link)

Ignaz Semmelweis. Open letter from 1861. (German, Link)

Nina Kunz. Minimalismus. Lexikon der Gegenwart. Das Magazin, June 23, 2018, p 4-5

Paula Scheidt. Konsumkritik der reinen Vernunft. Richtig leben. Das Magazin, June 30, 2018, p 8-13

George Marshall. Don’t Even Think About It. Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change (book)

(Feinberg and Willer, 2010) Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer. Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs. Psychological Science. Vol 22, Issue 1, pp. 34 – 38. December 9, 2010. (Link, paywall; Link to full text, supplemental material)

(McDonald et al. 2014) Rachel I. McDonald, Kelly S. Fielding, Winnifred R. Louis. Conflicting social norms and community conservation compliance, Journal for Nature Conservation,Volume 22, Issue 3, 2014, Pages 212-216, ISSN 1617-1381, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2013.11.005. (Link, paywall)

(Stoll-Kleemann et al. 2001) Susanne Stoll-Kleemann, Tim O’Riordan, Carlo C. Jaeger. The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global Environmental Change, Volume 11, Issue 2, 2001, Pages 107-117, ISSN 0959-3780, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0959-3780(00)00061-3. July 2001. (Link, paywall; download from research gate)

(Napier et al. 2018) Jaime L. Napier, Julie Huang, Andrew J. Vonasch, John A. Bargh. Superheroes for change: Physical safety promotes socially (but not economically) progressive attitudes among conservatives. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 48: 187–195. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2315.

(Stoknes 2014) Per Espen Stoknes. Rethinking climate communications and the “psychological climate paradox”. Energy Research & Social Science. 1. 161–170. 10.1016/j.erss.2014.03.007. 13 April, 2014 (download full text from research gate)

(Bissing-Olsen et al. 2016) Megan J. Bissing-Olson, Kelly S. Fielding, Aarti Iyer. Experiences of pride, not guilt, predict pro-environmental behavior when pro-environmental descriptive norms are more positive. 5 January, 2016. (Link, paywall)

(Schneider et al. 2017) Claudia R. Schneider, Lisa Zaval, Elke U. Weber, Ezra M. Markowitz. The influence of anticipated pride and guilt on proenvironmental decision making. PLOS. 30 November, 2017 (Link to full text)

(Obradovich and Guenther 2016) Nick Obradovich, Scott M. Guenther. Collective responsibility amplifies mitigation behaviors. 4 May, 2016. (Link, paywall). Online articles here and there.

Featured image: With its products and name the restaurant chain «not guiltiy» employs the psychology of guilt and the inherent human desire to avoid guilt.

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