Welcome to the December 2010 Wake-Up Call, Awake’s monthly newsletter for research and news about behaviour change for sustainability.


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In this edition of Wake-up Call…


·         Feature Article – Dealing with Denial

·         60 seconds with… Kylie Bollard, Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo Alliance

·         Interesting article of the month - Does The Weather Influence Our Connection to Nature?

·         Exercise of the Month – Reduce Your Festive Footprint


Feature Article – Dealing with Denial


In the vocabulary of environmentalists, nothing is delivered with more venom than the accusation of “climate change denier”. This is the term for anyone who refuses to accept the reality of global warming, and humankind’s part in it.

On the other side of the fierce debate, those who question climate change science contend that the label “denier” is too readily applied in order to discredit anyone who has the gall to approach the issue with an open mind.

One of the issues here seems to be an argument over the difference between scepticism and denial.  A useful discussion of the distinction is provided by Michael Shermer in New Scientist. He argues that scepticism is integral to the scientific process, whereby the investigator must carefully sort through the facts and come to a conclusion based on the weight of the evidence. Denial, on the other hand, is driven by an ideology, one in which commitment to a pre-existing belief “takes precedence over the evidence”.  Shermer goes on to say “one practical way to distinguish between a sceptic and a denier is the extent to which they are willing to update their positions in response to new information. Sceptics change their minds. Deniers just keep on denying”.

If we accept that denial is a prevalent response to climate change, it is worth taking a closer look at how it operates.

Denial is a defence mechanism in which a person, faced with a painful fact, rejects the reality of that fact. It’s discovery as a psychological phenomenon is often credited to Sigmund Freud, and most often talked about in the fields of psychology and pathology. Three main types of denial are commonly discussed:

·         Simple denial – this is where the person denies that the problem exists at all

·         Minimisational denial – where the severity of the problem is downplayed

·         Transference denial – where responsibility for the problem is placed elsewhere

Each of these forms of denial appear applicable to the climate change debate. We often hear people argue that “I’ve seen evidence that the world is actually cooling” (simple denial). Others state that warming may actually be a blessing, with warmer holidays and better crops (minimisational denial). And transference denial seems to be present any time we hear people say “it’s the government’s responsibility”. Indeed, the steadfast belief that man is not responsible for warming, in spite of scientific consensus to the contrary, would appear to be a good example of transference denial.

There are good reasons why we resort to denial when it comes to climate change. As far as challenging problems go, it’s a big one.

For a start, we can’t see it (much). This makes it necessary that we place our faith in scientists to tell us what is happening, and as a result, we lose a bit of control. People don’t like losing control, and therefore denial is one reaction to the feeling of helplessness that ensues.

The overwhelming size of the problem also lends itself to denial. If what “they” are telling us is correct, we are going to have to completely reconsider our way of life, the things we value, and the way in which we shape our identities. Being overwhelmed is fertile ground for denial.

Another reason why our response to climate change doe not seem to be in proportion to the dire consequences predicted is the role of emotion. While the problem is commonly communicated in the form of facts, figures and statistics, people are primarily driven by emotions in their decision-making. An article on this subject by Lisa Bennett discusses this issue, concluding that “most people have to feel a risk before they do something about it”. Too often, climate change is something that we know about, but we don’t necessarily feel it. Whereas we do feel things like rising energy costs, and the convenience of driving to the shops instead of walking.

Many environmental advocates are at their wits end about how to deal with climate change deniers. Perhaps it would be useful to look at how the issue is dealt with in clinical settings.

Firstly, a certain amount of denial is not necessarily seen as a bad thing. It helps defend the individual against feelings of distress when faced with overwhelming problems. However, at some point, certain issues need to be faced in order for the individual to make necessary changes. Climate change is one of those issues where it is generally accepted that people are going to need to change their behaviour, or at least support changes at community and government level, in order to ensure a livable planet in future. So this issue needs to be “treated”.

In the clinical world, there is no universally accepted approach to dealing with denial. The chosen treatment largely depends on which school of psychology the practitioner subscribes to. The traditional approach insists that denial should be confronted head-on, believing that progress will not be made until the individual admits they are in denial. Other approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, do not place much emphasis on denial, instead attempting to understand the worldview of the individual. Motivational Enhancement Therapy is probably the most empowering approach. Practitioners “believe that denial should be worked through more subtly, empathically focusing on the personal reasons surrounding denial and seeking to strengthen the desire to change” (these various approaches are discussed here).

There is a danger in drawing too many parallels between denial as part of a clinical disorder, and climate change denial among the general population. In fact, even in clinical settings, therapists are warned against overusing the term. In an article entitled “Denial in Clinical Medicine”, Shelp and Perl warn that “one danger in the loose use of the term denial is a tendency to disregard or give less attention to the self determining choices or wishes of a patient. When patients are mis-described as denying, communication and consultation with the patient tend to decrease, which may result in the patient's having less effective control over his or her body and its care.”

Despite this caveat, there are a few tips we can take from the  clinical approach to denial which may be useful in dealing with those who refuse to acknowledge the existence of climate change.

·         Recognise the difference between scepticism and denial. Is this person just eager to clarify the facts, or refusing to open their mind to the possibility that the science may be valid?

·         Identify which type of denial is being exhibited. Simple, minimisational, or transference?

·         Acknowledge that denial is a common defence mechanism, one which is perfectly natural given the enormity of the climate change issue.

·         Rather than confront the individual by banging them over the head with more evidence, try to understand their perspective. What is it that they feel most threatened by? What would it mean for them if the worst consequences of climate change were to eventuate? What changes are they willing to make?

Blaming, name-calling and making people wrong is not progressing the climate change debate sufficiently. An approach which recognises and acknowledges the human element in peoples reactions to climate change information holds far more promise if we are to engage everybody in action.



You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it:


Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations.  Visit www.awake.com.au for more info


60 Seconds with….. Kylie Bollard, Sustainability Project Officer. Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo Alliance


What first got you focused on sustainability?

Biodiversity conservation was my main driver for getting into sustainability, and trying to get a creative environment that will continue for future generations. I’ve also always been interested in educating the community.

What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?

I recently put a solar panel on my house, and have a water tank and vege garden.

What is a less sustainable choice that you are not so proud of?

Forgetting to take green bags to the supermarket. Wasting too much food, and I don’t compost.


Interesting Article of the Month –  Does The Weather Influence Our Connection to Nature?


Forces of Nature Affect Implicit Connections With Nature

By Sean Duffy and Michelle Verges

Environment and Behavior (2010) Vol. 42, pp 723-739

What is it about? 

This study set out to find if peoples connection to nature is affected by the seasons, and also by daily weather variations.

What did they find?

Results showed that people felt more connected to nature during the warmer months, and more connected to built objects and environments during the colder months. A similar pattern was found for daily variation – connection to nature was higher on fine days conducive to outdoor activity, as opposed to wet days.

What can we take from this?

Connection to nature is an important precursor to pro-environment behaviours. While this study did not show a direct effect of weather variation on behaviour, understanding how connection to nature operates is important for those trying to influence environmentally beneficial behaviours. These results suggest there may be some benefit to planning pro-environment communications for times when people are most receptive to the message. For example, people who are enjoying the outdoors in the summer may respond more positively to efforts to promote preservation of nature than if they were targeted during the winter.


Exercise of the Month – Reduce Your Festive Footprint


It’s that time of the year again, where most of us engage in a flurry of buying, giving, eating, drinking and being merry. What an environmental impact this has!  Here are a few things to consider over the coming days and weeks.

1.      Do I need to buy so much?

2.      Could I source more locally and sustainably produced things?

3.      Could I purchase more services instead of “stuff”?

4.      Can I take the opportunity to nudge the recipient toward greener behaviours through

my choice of gift. (e.g A stylish re-usable shopping bag or keepcup)

5.      How are gifts to be wrapped? And delivered? Can this be done more sustainably?

6.      Could I make my own cards and wrapping out of recycled materials?

These are just a few things to consider when it comes to buying gifts this festive season. There is also plenty of opportunity to consider the environmental impact of holidays, food choices and waste disposal.

But whatever you do, please also try to have some FUN, and a safe, happy holiday season!


The exercise of the month provides a tool to help you get engaged, inspired, aware and in action around sustainability.  Feel free to use it on your own, with a friend, or in your work.  If you do use it with others, please tell them where you got it!



About Awake

Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations.  Visit www.awake.com.au for more info



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