The insidious thought that facts we have been taught are false and there is a controlling group, or entity behind our ordinary beliefs, designed to trick or deceive us for some end.
There is no doubt that much climate denial can be attributed to human paranoia about not wanting to be deceived. Proponents will take pleasure in the idea that they know better, that they don’t get fooled by scams.
The settled science behind climate change also affords denialists an opportunity to be seen as outsiders and independent thinkers who aren’t taken in by the herd, or ‘groupthink’.
Some politicians have taken up the cause of climate denial as it fits with their world view. The most prominent supporters of Brexit see it as the logical next campaign for their political identities.
Just as the European Union is ‘run by faceless bureaucrats’, climate breakdown is ‘handed down to us by the “globalist” United Nations and a cadre of “woke” environmentalists’.
In the UK, this new campaign is aware that outright denial of climate change would lose its audience, so the tactics are more focussed on undermining climate solutions, or advocating for delay to climate action.
This can be keenly felt by a group of backbench Conservative MPs who recently created the ‘Net Zero Scrutiny Group’. The group has willing national newspapers to repeat untruths about clean energy, or the costs of the transition.
It also has strong links to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which itself has spent years seeking to discredit the work of climate scientists. The foundation has now rebranded to ‘Net Zero Watch’ to give the impression its work is about accountability.
Many of these groups take their lead from existing currents within the culture. These currents have gained strength as denial reaches presidents and prime ministers.
Donald Trump once claimed that science didn’t know the truth about climate change and that “it’ll start getting cooler”.
Boris Johnson, before he became prime minister, would often quote the climate denier Piers Corbyn in his newspaper columns.
These articles would openly sow doubt, claiming warm winters had “nothing to do with the conventional doctrine of climate change”. Labelling climate science as a ‘doctrine’ is a clear signal to opposition.
It’s a sign of an unhealthy public discourse that these views have become acceptable and repeated throughout our culture.
Its damaging impact can be seen in recent research which shows people across Europe consistently doubt the scientific consensus around climate change.
A report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London surveyed 12,000 people across the continent, and found a significant difference between perception and reality.
On average, respondents thought 68 percent of scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity. People in Britain were bottom of the table with an average estimate of 65 percent. The real figure is more than 99 percent.
More concerning is how the trend towards climate dismissal could be taken up by extreme right wing political identities. The writer Mary Annaïse Heglar has connected the dots from climate delay to white supremacy.
If the impacts of climate change bring chaos and instability then those most affected will be communities of colour.
“Taken from a white supremacist lens, climate change can actually be seen as a boon because it gets rid of all those “undesirable” non-white people”, she writes.
The view runs that as the crisis intensifies we will need to close borders to protect national resources. This is an all too familiar argument which could be weaponised by delaying climate action.
Climate denial will continue to play a role in our political culture as a symptom of decline.
And it will become a sharper political tool as the need for action becomes more acute. It is only by treating the underlying cause of distrust that we can move beyond it.
Adam Wentworth is a freelance writer and communications professional based in London. He has worked in renewable energy and climate change for eight years, including as editor at Climate Action.