Rick Perry, climate change sceptic: (Republican) States of Denial?

18 08 2011

In his seminal book, States of Denial, Stanley Cohen identifies three discrete forms of denial: literal, interpretive and implicatory, each with its own psychological status. Literal denial can be a genuine aversion to a truth too hard to acknowledge. Interpretive denial is a means of twisting the facts to create an alternative ‘truth’ (intentionally or not). Implicatory denial is a not-so-subtle technique for refusing to accept the consequences of the situation. What form might we assume Rick Perry to be displaying as he makes his bid to be the next Republican candidate for the US Presidency?

Given the drought underway in Texas currently, with only 40% of the usual annual rainfall since January and the hottest summer on record, literal denial seems unlikely. Unless we imagine it arises, as Cohen suggests, from a psychological refusal to engage with a reality too painful to acknowledge. Such a form of denial has been shown to be particularly acute in developed world communities more likely to be affected by climate change (such as East Anglia in the UK and the Netherlands). Feeling helpless or culpable whilst contributing to our own undoing creates a cognitive dissonance and potential distress too painful to bear. Literal denial is the psychic consequence and perhaps one we can understand Perry exhibiting.

What about interpretive denial? This is the most common form in the discourse on climate change scepticism. That the scientific data is incorrect or even intentionally falsified (note Perry’s suspicion of Gore’s motives, describing him as a ‘false prophet of a secular carbon cult’). This looks the more likely culprit, although arguably interpretive denial in this instance is still a defense against the anxiety of accepting anthropogenic climate change as occurring. The alternative is that given the sums going into the Republican campaign coffers from the local oil and gas industry, Perry might have been influenced by their lobbying. But surely a god-fearing Christian such as he wouldn’t be swayed by Mammon, would he?

Which brings us to the third possibility – implicatory denial. In this scenario, Perry has a full appreciation of the evidence for climate change and the role of society’s (including his own) greenhouse gas emissions. But he refuses to engage with the consequences. If the belief is that the current drought, and even global climate change more broadly, is an Act of God, then nothing is to be done about it. That would be tantamount to blasphemy.  Psychologically we could interpret this as a form of learned helplessness, which at the level of the man on the street might be excusable, but when running for one of the most powerful positions in the world, isn’t.

So to the ‘too late to do anything about it’ argument, which when combined with the refusal to acknowledge the data or the visible effects in his own backyard, is the most invidious of all. It’s Gidden’s (self-styled) Paradox – we do nothing because we believe it’s not happening, then say it’s too late once the effects are indisputable. Such a combination is a powerful psychic vaccine against accepting responsibility.

So what might help shift this United States Governor out of his state of denial? Providing more data won’t do it. When faced with uncertainty and equivocality we don’t need more information, we need different interpretive frameworks and values (Karl Weick, Sensemaking in Organisations, 1995). And when the arguments are at the level of belief and personal paradigm, no appealing to logic or rational judgment works either. As we mourn the tragic loss of the great environmental entrepreneur, Ray Anderson, could we hope for a similar epiphany to bring about a ‘mid-course correction’ to Perry’s thinking? That might require spiritual faith on a par with Perry’s own.

What alternatives does that leave us with? Perhaps the best we can hope for is that enough other voices speak up strongly and offer their alternative interpretations of the causes of the Texas drought and the need for urgent change. Shifting the cultural beliefs in communities through amplifying more desirable themes and values in public discourse is an effective if long-term strategy, and the way change comes about naturally over time. Social proofing – translating those beliefs into normative behaviours that then become more socially accepted using role models and media – is a good way to shift the cultural norms faster. With ever-increasing use of social media it is feasibly possible to reach an inflection point of values-led change in specific environments, though again it’s not an overnight option. Re-framing – highlighting the language used (such as the defamatory association made between Gore and cults) – would have the advantage of exposing the manipulative devices behind the rhetoric and discrediting them. But would that be enough to shift the discourse? And Perry himself?

Playing Perry at his own game, taking action and making highly visible statements such as Bill McKibben and co’s march on Washington – statements that construct the issues in terms of ethics and the personal responsibility of action and non-action – these will at least keep the debate open and not collapse the discussion to an apparent foregone conclusion. The question remains whether such a change in belief for this potential presidential candidate is change we can believe in.

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