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Cognitive Dissonance Is Fueling Conservative Denial

On April 6, all but one of the Republican members of the US House of Representatives rejected a Democratic amendment that would have put the chamber on record backing the widely held scientific view that global warming is occurring and humans are a major cause.  The following day the GOP-led House voted 255 to 172 to strip the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gases.  It is remarkable that in 2011,  a majority of Republicans in Congress reject the indisputable,  scientific consensus that human activity is altering the climate.

Why are conservatives, despite the mounting evidence, so unwilling to accept that climate change is a serious threat caused by greenhouse emissions?  It seems climate change is now part and parcel of America’s “culture wars.”  Similar to abortion and other social issues, climate change has become a partisan issue, with liberals backing the science, and conservatives denying it.  Often times, when pondering the reasons for climate change denial, we immediately blame the media for allotting disproportionate airtime for industry backed psuedo-scientists to sow doubt in the minds of viewers, in their quest for “balance.”  Of course this analysis is correct, but incomplete.

It’s been widely proven that fossil fuel interests, most notably ExxonMobil, used the tobacco industry’s playbook and an extensive arsenal of lobbyists and “experts” to manufacture disinformation designed to confuse the public and stifle action to address climate change.  As documented by Greenpeace, in recent years this corporate PR campaign has gone viral, spawning a denial movement that is largely immune to reasoned response.  While the more powerful climate change deniers have manipulative objectives, such as preserving their vested interests in fossil fuels or political posturing with their constituencies, many on the right actually believe climate change is a hoax.  This PR campaign has contributed immensely to denial, but there is still more to the story.

Thus, the question remains:  Why is the reality of climate change such a threat to the right?  A new study published in the Spring 2011 issue of Sociological Quarterly delves into this very topic.  The study finds that conservatives’ refusal to acknowledge the very real threat of climate change, has more to do with its implications rather than skepticism of scientific facts.  It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance!

Stanford University social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the theory of cognitive dissonance, based on a famous case study from the 1950s.  Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated a cult that was awaiting what they believed would be the imminent end of the world on December 21, 1954.  When the prediction failed, rather than recognize the error of their beliefs, the cult members’ faith grew stronger, so strong that they began to proselytize.  People will go to great lengths to rationalize their deeply held beliefs, even more so when exposed to evidence that challenges their worldview.

Climate change poses a profound threat to many things that right-wing ideologues believe in.  Conservatives tend to champion individual freedom, private property rights, small government, free markets, and above all else, unfettered industrial capitalism.   Industrial capitalism is an economic system predicated on the accelerating extraction and consumption of fossil fuels for energy, which is driving the climate change we face today. To accept this basic premise, one is compelled to question the wisdom of capitalism itself, which is a terrifying notion for conservatives.  And it doesn’t take long to recognize that conservative values are inherently antithetical to the desperately needed actions to tackle global climate change.

Seriously dealing with the threat of climate change would require government to heavily regulate corporations and subsidize renewable energy.   It would entail a strong international body, most likely boosting the power of the UN.  It would bring an end to the inefficient and energy-wasting free-trade agenda, as localizing economies would become necessary to sustain communities.  And, most importantly, confronting climate change demands addressing climate justice for developing nations suffering from the pollution of industrialized nations, or more simply, a redistribution of wealth from North to South.  Climate change poses a direct threat to the spread of free markets, the maintenance of national sovereignty, and the continued abolition of governmental regulations, all key components of the conservative agenda.  These are the types of ideas that cause conservatives to gasp, point, and shout “communist!”

When we recognize the role of cognitive dissonance, it becomes clear that conservatives and Republicans are more likely to dispute or deny the scientific consensus and the claims of the environmental community, in order to defend the industrial capitalist system.  It is far more simple to deny science, than to accept that one’s worldview is wrong.  Unfortunately, environmental organizations are in a kind of denial as well.  Climate change is about an economic model that demands infinite growth on a finite planet.  However, environmental groups are reluctant to relate climate change to economics and politics, probably because conservatives would see it as confirmation of the right-wing myth that global warming is a socialist plot to redistribute the world’s wealth.

For a conservative whose entire identity is defined by faith in the economics of capitalism and free markets, acceptance of climate change poses a danger to their sense of self, and will be avoided at all costs.  Therefore, attempts to persuade this portion of the country with science and logic is a lost cause.  However, for those of us who truly care about the future of our one and only planet and our species, it is time that we face what we have been loath to highlight in the past:  Unfettered industrial capitalism is unsustainable and is causing climate change to spiral out of control.  Until we begin to challenge the economics fueling environmental degradation, we are no better than our climate denying counterparts.

  1. Greg #

    Capitalism is a road to suicide. The lifestyle needed to sustain capitalism is self-destructive to the individual and the environemnt. To see our future, and parts of our present, read IRON HEEL by Jack London. Then check out the Century of the Self to see how this was all accomplished.
    Hoa binh

    April 25, 2011
  2. I have a different take on it. The right wing foot soldiers don’t believe the science behind global warming for the same reason they believe that President Obama was born on the moon, not in Hawaii. They believe what they’re told to believe by their ideological priests, the Trumps, Palins, Bachmans, Gingriches and the thousands of other propaganda hacks for the corporations and the right wing ideologues who’ve run this country for years. The foot soldiers are brainwashed. Orwell got it right in 1949 in his book “1984.”

    The oil companies, energy industries, the Chamber of Commerce and the rich don’t care if the science is real or not. They know it’s bad for profits and that’s all they need to know. If their greed destroys the planet and the people on it, tough luck for the planet and us.

    April 25, 2011
  3. In a patronage society, your allocations of goods and services (money, jobs, social status) are determined by figuring out who is powerful, what they want, and being agreeable and reliable. This does not take brains. In fact, you’re better off without brains. The doctrines and narratives of power are completely fake synthetic structures aimed at YOU the listener, and theydon’t even believe their lies. In antiwar demos, for example I often heard our opponents say saddam was not a threat, yeah, we knew there were no WMDs, we knew there were no Al Qaida.. But they supported the war, so, they repeat the lies.

    April 26, 2011
  4. Dell #

    Cognitive dissonance is also fueling the man-made global warming believers to deny any evidence to the contrary of their pet theory.

    April 26, 2011
  5. This is a good article, but it misses the crux of the matter. “Conservatives” (they are not conservatives though they wear that label) are die hard individualists. They are developmentally arrested morally, spiritually, and many also intellectually. They are at the tail end of the learning curve. Individualism cannot exist when we acknowledge that “we are all in this together” which is what awareness of global interconnectedness affirms.

    To acknowledge that all our actions effect all of us, that “ownership” (of land, of water, of air, of nation) is an obsolete concept, would mean that these developmentally delayed dinosaurs are actually accountable for their greed, their cruelty, and their selfishness. Pathological narcissists like Boehner, Obama, Bush, Pelosi, Ryan, Walker, the Kochs, etc. (the list is a long one) cannot accept being held accountable for their actions because they truly do not value anyone but themselves. Everyone else is a 2 dimensional cartoon to the narcissist, so our feelings, our lives, the life of the Earth, do not matter to these people.

    We are at the point where we either remove these people from positions of power, or we sink. It’s pretty simple.

    April 26, 2011
    • Conservatives are not individualists. They congregate in churches, political clubs, trade organizations, Freemasons, the American Legion and other fraternal groups, the military — all they do is congregate and subsume their own wills to the will of the group, the will of God, the commanding officer, whatever is the order of the day for the collective good of their class. It is in fact liberals who are the individualists. Try to form an organization with them and they tell you that electing officers is patriarchal. Let them get 10% of what they were after on a particular issue, and they go home to watch TV and take their kids to piano lessons. Enough with the individualism fraud. Like so much else under discussion, we’ve got it all backwards. Bad data in, bad analysis out.

      April 30, 2011
      • I don’t think you understood what I meant by individualism. I did not mean people who are self sufficient or resourceful. I meant people who believe in the rights of the individual over the common good.

        April 30, 2011
  6. good article, smart and connecting dots (e.g., issues-economics-tactical advantage – political interdependence….) that most do not wish to consider. My own first thoughts:

    1. It was a little easy on the left, where I find cognitive dissonance and denial as pervasive and self-protective as it is on the right. I wouldn’t let them off so easy by attributing their reluctance mainly to a fear of confronting the right on its economic turf; a mere tactical reluctance. I find the contrapuntal slogans and reductions of the left to be as riddled with disconnects related to their own fears about the collapse of the fundamental themes to which they attach their own identities – ‘collectivism’, ‘working class’, ‘solipsism’, ‘subordination of personal desire’ and so forth. All become nodes of a fiercely held denial every bit as much as for those on the right. The left has no immunity when it comes to cognitive dissonance and of clinging to one dimension of a multidimensional species, any more than the right. The need to dominate the ideological field is as strong on one side as it is the other; both proclaiming their total correctness and the extinction of the other side as the only possible resolution.

    2. The mutual assertion of the need to dominate, to be correct in the face of contrary evidence, is a false hypothesis fed by mixtures of real and unreal fears on both sides. The assertion that Capitalism invariable leads to Facism is equivalent to the resistance of evidence that Socialism leads to Leninism (or some other brand of collective brutality). The left as easily dismisses this as something that reflects “only stages or phases” of an incomplete transformation as does the right dismiss its failings as “incomplete technological revolution, or insufficient largess to “lift all boats”. Both equally indict the other as the prime reason for their own failures (as if it were only some kind of denied purity of their programs that prevented their postulated success). Those are hallmarks of cognitive dissonance and ‘doomsday postponement’ processes.

    3. It is this mutual denial, masked as difference, that entrenches each in its own cocoon along with the litany of excess and hubris that each hurls at the other. For example, neither left nor right have ever proposed or considered the possibility of two equal and separate economies as a means of expressing the best of both and constraining the evils of either. Might be possible, but denial, the fixation on one’s on framework at all costs, makes this and a hundred other fertile possibilities unthinkable. At the bottom of cognitive dissonance is the fact that the war goes on, even if it ruins the planet or stalemates us into perpetual suffering. Blame doesn’t change a thing, it just insures that all have a rationale for staying exactly where they are. How 20th centurish of us.

    4. A small experiment. Try if you wish to suggest the idea of two separate economic systems within a single society – one for the ‘means of survival’ (which would include the essentials of planetary health); the other for the ‘means of progress’ (or ‘luxury’, if you prefer. Suggest to people on either side of the divide. I have yet to encounter a case where the respondent did not attempt: first to appreciate this as some kind of ‘centrist’ idea (which it is not) and dismiss it; and, failing that, attempt to conceive both economic structures in terms of their own disconnect – left or right. I’ve yet to meet (except in one single case) anyone who contemplated a third possibility – that only one of the two systems need be run on the socialist-capitalist axis (of any flavor). The other, ‘the means of survival’ can be referred directly to the ‘social contract’ and become neither owned and private nor public and communative (or, if you prefer, both individual and collective). The disconnect, the cognitive dissonance, doesn’t permit that option. (does it for you?)

    April 26, 2011
    • Virtuess09 #


      April 27, 2011
  7. C. James #


    The article isn’t about whether or not cognitive dissonance (“CD”) is the sole provence of the right. It’s about the right’s CD re: climate change. And the article does a very good job of explaining how and why this CD exisits and seems to grow stronger in the face of more and more evidence supporting AGW. It’s not an argument against capitalism, either.

    Dan S., you don’t have a different theory, you’ve only identified what fuels CD… the rightwing ideologues and deniers who get far too much time on MSM.

    There is quite a bit of disagreement on the future effects of AGW, but the evidence is clear- the planet is heating up, and the burning of fossil fuels is to blame. How fast the planet heats up, how hot it’s ging to get, and the best ways to mitigate the damage is where the honest debate lies.

    April 29, 2011
  8. C. James #

    FYI the “Huh?” was a hat tip to the “What?” above my comment in regards to the pseudo-intellectual ramblings of red slider. Not to be a dick but seriously… c’mon man. And I meant “province”, duh.

    April 29, 2011
    • red #

      Well, C., you are being a “dick.” If you don’t understand what I wrote, then say so and what you don’t understand, and I will try to clarify. If you don’t like the message, then say so, and what you find objectionable. If you think it says something useful, but badly expressed, then re-write it if you like and offer that back as a suggestion.

      But just making ad hominem attacks and trying to stick you labels on someone is dickey and does nothing to help. There is no such thing as “pseduo-intellectual.” Everything anyone says or does is “intellectual” – that’s what the thing on your neck does, that’s all it does. Some ideas don’t come in simple slogans and neat sound-bites. If they did, then everybody would instantly grasp what Marx said and see its merits (and its weaknesses). They don’t (you don’t). What your attacks do is alienate people who are working as hard as you at changing the world. Is that what you want – to only engage those who do it your way? I believe that’s exactly what the ruling classes do, yes? That’s cognitive dissonance.

      April 29, 2011
  9. Hi Rania, this is a great post and I think you highlight some very relevant issues. I remember the incident in the early nineties involving Edward Bernays’ PR stunt, relating woman protesters with ‘torches of freedom,’ so tobacco companies can up their sales. In the same light you’re showing disinformaiton and the manufacturing of consent. I’d like to believe that such disinformation can be identified with younger generations, that we can spot this through years of past exposures, and that it fails to work. But when conservatives are spending vast amounts of money on campaigns, money that could be put to much better use, then it’s hard to believe sometimes. The grander a show is the more viewers it will appeal to. Strange phenomenon cognitive dissonance. I understand also this right-wing myth to distribute wealth is also part of the conservative way of thinking, another phenomenon, that blocks again the need to come together and resolve very serious issues. This atomising of the people is done so we all have to race to the top of a pyramid scheme, and while we fight for scraps those at the top stay in power, dismissing almost any perspective of reality for self indulgence. And they’re rewarded for this. Global Warming is very real and very significant. Ignorance to this degree is unacceptable and disinformation must be made identifiable. I think one way of doing this is looking into the sources from where it stems.

    May 3, 2011
  10. I also forgot to include, I am starting out my blog and would appreciate any advice. If you can find time to take a look you can find it at Regards Denver

    May 3, 2011

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