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.


Why brand your plan? Reasons to put a name to your sustainability strategy

27 04 2011

I was recently asked to participate in one of those phone surveys for a leading technology business and comment on the branding of their sustainability strategy.  It led me to think how common it is now becoming for leading corporates to create such high profile reputational brands. And from my experience of transformational change I can think of a number of good reasons for doing so.

Ashridge’s current research into organisational approaches to embedding sustainability has already produced a number of exciting insights and highlighting some effective trends, one of which is this increasing propensity to brand sustainability strategies.  Since M&S leapt to public attention with Plan A, other high profile branded strategies have followed, such as Unilever’s recently published Sustainable Living Plan, Sky’s Bigger Picture and O2’s Think Big. Putting a name to what can otherwise be a hard to  fathom concept offers a number of advantages.

Here are my top five:

1 Branding your sustainability strategy provides coherence. It demonstrates a joined-up, visionary and (the clue’s in the word) strategic approach to responsible business, providing a memorable umbrella under which many initiatives can be affiliated, particularly useful given the diversity of project scale and focus that can be categorized as sustainability

2 It makes budgeting and investment decisions easier because there is clarity about what is and isn’t strategic and what directly contributes to the vision and espoused purpose

3 It is easier to engage employees and galvanise action around a visible intent with a slogan. A branded strategy has the hallmark of senior level blessing as well as offering a touchstone for corporate values (far more tangible than a list of values on a mouse-mat) and it has an emancipatory edge. Employees won’t need to ask permission so readily if they know their behaviours are in tune with the espoused intent

4 To the external world the brand shows not only serious engagement but also invites other stakeholders – customers, suppliers, indeed the whole supply chain – to get on board and participate. It enables business to reposition itself as socially-aware enterprise with the public and foster the ‘shared value’ between business and society that Michael Porter is now advocating. Crucially it supports greater transparency and accountability

5 It makes the job of managing such a comprehensive transformational change programme easier.  The diverse requirements of re-writing people strategies, innovating for new technologies, writing new policies and procedures, let alone shifting behaviour, mindset and deeply rooted habitual norms, can be aligned and project managed around such a visible and exciting point of focus.

If there is one drawback, it is that sustainability is always project, never finished accomplishment.  So whereas the project slogans may get tired and the printed posters fade, the work of creating sustainable enterprise continues indefinitely (isn’t that a common definition after all?). As InterfaceFlor have discovered, after 15 years of Mission Zero, there is still a long way to climb to achieve zero impact.

So, for branded strategies to work at their best, we have to keep refreshing the vision, checking the course and most of all, continue to positively engage, internally and externally, to build the organisations that reflect the reputational brand identities we espouse.

Alexandra Stubbings

Psychology of Climate Change

26 09 2010

Recently Prof David Uzzell, Professor of Environmental Psychology at University of Surrey, spoke at the Royal Society on the role of psychology in addressing climate change. Leo Hickman quotes him at length in the Guardian Environment Blog.

As a great bastion of evidence-based and peer-reviewed scientific endeavour, I could imagine the Royal Society might wonder why the overwhelming evidence of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not enough to rationally convince Government, business and the public in general of the need for urgent and socially transformative change. The problem is that rational argument doesn’t work on an issue which is more ideological than logical. A deeper psychological understanding of what compels ‘belief’ and ‘denial’, and a more sophisticated examination of ‘denial’ (e.g. literal denial of evidence? or acceptance of evidence but denial of implications – splitting), enables more effective forms of influencing behavioural change. But as Uzzell points out, the discipline of psychology alone is not enough. What’s required is a trans-disciplinary approach that benefits from insights from science – conventional and post-conventional, from sociology and anthropology, and from new economics. I would add that a social psychological understanding, that acknowledges the fundamentally social source of our psychological patterns and drives, is necessary for developing responses to the complexity of Climate Change. This means engaging at the level of the individual in relationship rather than attempting to influence individuals as discrete, Leibnizian windowless monads.

Hickman’s blog also references a paper by Pitman and Newell that explores the psychology of judgement and how we make decisions, and the common traps that we fall into. It supports the case that the adversarial discourse of ‘belief’ and ‘denial’ is ridiculously simplistic and a much more sophisticated investigation of drivers towards action and away (disengagement and denial of implications) is necessary and urgent. The implications for organisational change is obvious – as with climate change a more integrated, trans-disciplinary and participative approach is required.

Energy flows: volcanoes, grounded flights and thermodynamics

21 04 2010

If anyone wanted evidence of how delicate, precarious and interdependent our systems are, they only need to look to the events of the past few days.  I was speaking at a conference in Istanbul on Thursday 15th on Creating Sustainable Value, due to fly back to the UK in the afternoon. It hadn’t been an easy choice to fly out to the conference in the first place, another example of the constant dilemma of wanting to raise awareness and responsiveness to the challenges of the 21st century, (environmental, social, economic, geopolitical, fill in the blank with your global crisis of choice) on the one hand, and not wanting to expend the carbon getting there on the other.

However, given the conference’s theme was one so close to my heart – organisational identity – the choice to attend eventually won out.  A four hour flight and too much carbon later, and I found myself in a very pleasant hotel in central Istanbul, a protected enclave from the externalities of water scarcity and desertification that a trip out of the city makes increasingly apparent.

As I delivered my presentation I already knew that I wasn’t going to get home that day. I waxed lyrical on the podium about the interconnectedness of our global civilization, and how a volcano in Iceland could prevent me getting home from Istanbul to the UK. It was an ideal rhetorical device to open my session on organisational identity and sustainability, and the need to re-formulate our often-unquestioned assumptions about the fundamental context within which we operate, our organisational purpose, values and the expressions of such. What I didn’t know at that point was that it would take me another five days to get home.

It’s easy to forget, or should I say deny, the mind-bending complexity of our global systems as they exist at the so-called ‘edge of chaos’. David Korowicz has made this point powerfully and profoundly with his paper Tipping Point. He points crucially to how our whole society, economy, indeed our entire global civilization, is actually a thermodynamic system of energy flows, and as such we are inescapably dependent on energy to service our complex social infrastructure.

We might like to think that we exist outside of and above ‘nature’, that we have been clever enough to create systems that exist in a supra-reality, disconnected and protected from our physical environment, even to the point that it becomes superfluous to our needs.  But ultimately, says Korowicz, we are a physical complex adaptive system, and therefore subject to all the same laws of thermodynamics as any other physical complex system. This means that the inevitable tendency towards entropy – disintegration – can only be countered by a constant inflow of energy. And we have engineered a global civilization that requires ever increasing amounts of energy to support ever increasing complexity, most of which is in the form of fossil fuels, ancient solar energy that was captured and laid down in the Earth’s crust millions of years’ ago.

The current aviation chaos is testament to how central this energy is to our civilization, and how taken-for-granted it is. There is no alternative to oil in the foreseeable future in the amounts we require to sustain the pace and scale of our international and interconnected societies. Going faster, moving further from equilibrium, requires more energy. And, says, Korowicz, that is inherently unsustainable. If we haven’t hit peak oil yet, it is likely we will do in the next 10-15 years.

Getting home from Istanbul by plane takes about four hours plus a car trip either end. Going overland (still by car or train, alternative but slower oil-dependent transport systems) would take at least 3 days and there’s still the Channel to negotiate.  On foot… well images of medieval pilgrimages of months and years come to mind.

As it was, in my case, it took a four hour flight to Madrid, then overland in buses, trains and cars.  Still two days and still dependent on a cross-continental flight.

So the wake-up call isn’t just about the immediate impact of stranded travellers; flowers and food perishing before reaching their destinations; the huge cost to the economy.  We are pretty good at dealing with these short-term crises generally speaking.  The wake-up call is about the fragility and systemic nature of our oil-dependent global systems, and the insidious – because it’s uncertain, creeping and therefore out-of-awareness – impact of peak oil.

Alexandra Stubbings

The social construction of climate change

7 12 2009

This week has seen the thin veneer of rational discourse about carbon reduction targets and financial implications of climate change responses truly blown apart as the so-called ‘climate change debate’ moves out of the realm of scientific peer-reviewed research and into brazen name-calling. Near libellous assaults are volleyed from all sides as the language of science drowns in the cacophony of pseudo-religious idiom – ‘denier’, ‘evangelist’, ‘convert’.

This week’s Spectator makes the audacious claim that it is the ‘still, small voice of calm’ amidst the madness, and yet liberally sprinkles it’s varied contributions with lines like ‘climate change has mutated from a debate into a catechism’, and ‘the climate change debate in Britain exhibits the hallmarks of a collective craze. Asking dispassionate questions is not sacrilegious’. I find this use of language fascinating. Particularly in Western democracies, and even more so in the Boardroom, the moral ground is won by appearing to offer the most rational argument, delivered unemotionally and with reference to ‘objective evidence’. This, after all, is the foundation of scientific discourse.  But clearly we cannot step outside of, or ‘bystand’ such a discourse, whilst we comment upon it. Whatever language we choose to use – bitter recrimination, zealous advocate, logical dispassionate – we are taking a position and constructing an argument.

Our choices – about how we analyse and interpret the scientific data, how we choose to act upon what we learn – however objective they may seem, are still founded upon deep-rooted and socially constructed belief systems. And it’s only when we are willing to question our own assumptions publicly that we can honestly participate in this debate.

Negotiating by numbers – Far from certainty and agreement in Copenhagen

1 12 2009

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted” – Albert Einstein


With the current climate negotiations about to open formally in Copenhagen next week, we at Ashridge are looking on with interest, excitement and some trepidation. In particular at how 15,000 delegates can be successfully brought into effective dialogue and participation, to get their diverse voices and needs heard.


We frequently use a model here at Ashridge, derived from the work of Ralph Stacey and Bill Critchley, that considers what happens in social interactions when we are far from certainty and far from agreement. It’s a model that draws on complexity thinking and I find it an invaluable framework for understanding what is going on in Copenhagen right now.


We are far from certainty about the impacts of climate change: Whilst there is overwhelming consensus among the scientific community now that climate change is happening, that extreme weather events will become more frequent, and that rapid global de-carbonising of society is necessary, exactly how specific locations will be affected can only be considered in terms of probabilities.


We are far from agreement about how to respond: As Mike Hulme has pointed out, even if we can agree on how to interpret the science (and that’s a matter of much debate), we still have the issue of response, and how our framing of that response is constructed through our local cultural norms and social interactions. The ‘essential’ questions that need answers in Copenhagen look seductively rational at first glance…


1. How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?

2. How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?

3. How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?

4. How is that money going to be managed?   (Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary, UNFCCC).


…. but the answers hinge upon some deeply entrenched and often unquestioned assumptions about some very non-rational and potentially emotive issues: about social responsibility across human-constructed borders and across generations; about blame, shame and justice; about ownership, property and individual identity; and about our attitudes to risk, probability and leadership. I could go on.


However, as Fred Pearce is keen to point out this week, ‘there is good news too’. We have demonstrated historically our human capacity for pretty rapid societal change – just consider the technological and social changes of the last 50 years.


And as Stacey and Critchley have discussed (link?), systems that are far from certainty and far from agreement – that are at the ‘edge of chaos’ – have an incredible capacity for creativity and the flourishing of innovation. As we move out towards the far reaches away from certainty and agreement, and just before we tip into complete chaos, radical change is possible.  But it’s possible if we are willing to surface and question our own assumptions about how the world is and should be, experiment with new thinking and engage in novel ways, and yet with some clarity of purpose. There has never been such an urgent need to do so, and such opportunity to fundamentally shift our global political, economic and social paradigm.