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  • Writer's pictureGregory Andrews

Climate change denial: Lies work!

My last blog was about climate change denialists and toxic masculinity. This one is about their use and promotion of lies and deception.

In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger revealed a fundamental aspect of human nature – when faced with conflicting beliefs and actions, humans tend to alter their beliefs to reduce their cognitive dissonance and avoid changing their behaviour. This insight provides a lens through which we can understand how and why climate change denialists use lies and deception. It's also why, like anti-vaxers, they employ the tactics of repetition and trolling.

In the 1960s, the tobacco industry exemplified strategic use of lies. Facing the challenge of selling cigarettes amid growing health concerns, it cleverly exploited smokers cognitive dissonance, giving them a reason to continue their habit, even in the face of mounting evidence of the harms of smoking. By emphasising subjective notions like flavour and enjoyment in advertisements, and thus framing smoking as a pleasurable experience, the tobacco industry strategically influenced individuals' desires to smoke by promoting their sense of agency and self-justification.

Hitler and Mussolini used lies extensively to manipulate public opinion and consolidate power. Mussolini falsely promoted claims about Italy's economic prosperity and invincibility. Hitler deceitfully promoted Aryan supremacy and a twisted vision of racial purity to justify the Holocaust. Both used fabrications to consolidate power, perpetrate atrocities, and create a distorted reality that facilitated their authoritarian rule. In more recent times, political figures like Donald Trump have used misinformation to advance their agendas. Australia is not immune, the Children Overboard Scandal and the Robodebt Royal Commission showed how lies are used by our leaders to manipulate public sentiment for political gain.

In the context of climate change denialism, the parallels are striking. Climate change deniers use and repeat big lies to create a distorted reality that aligns with their interests. The idea that climate change is a hoax or exaggerated becomes the central lie around which other smaller falsehoods orbit. The big lie helps to organise and propagate a series of smaller lies. Barnaby Joyce, for example, has been called out for consistently spreading misinformation about wind and solar energy. Peter Dutton has promoted fake news on the effects of wind farms on whales. And Scott Morrison and Michaelia Cash told us EVs would ruin our weekends. Multiple lies at multiple levels and from different angles make protecting the truth even more challenging. The audacity of the falsehoods and the power of social media algorithms that promote them, make it easy for people who are scared and suffering from cognitive dissonance to get sucked in.

The irony is particularly glaring when we examine how self-proclaimed libertarians, who advocate for individual freedoms, align themselves with climate change denialism. Some climate change denialists might believe they are championing freedom, but the misinformation they perpetuate is actually aligned with shady organisations and politicians aiming to control and manipulate the masses.

The illusory truth effect, driven by repetition and source dissociation, is formidable. The importance and urgency of dismantling the lies of climate change denialists is thus paramount. Recognising the anatomy of the lies – clarity, repetition, and the embedding of falsehoods within a cloud of truth – is crucial in deciphering and combatting them.

Repetition of the truth, presented in diverse and engaging ways and platforms, is essential. Protests, articles, blogs, podcasts, tweets, art, music, and memes can all contribute to a chorus of truth that pierces the veil of deception. The task is challenging, but our climate is on the brink of irreversible tipping points. The truth matters more now than it ever did. Our future depends on it.

Image thanks to Professor Mark Maslin from his Twitter feed.

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Jan 08

is this not the age old dilemma of when swathes of people's skills and life long capabilities are not needed anymore in society there is let loose a maelstrom of worthlessness and lashing out by any means. We are all of us getting swamped in this age of separation/ replacement by the 'machine', now in new guise of AI . If there is no valued place for these men you speak of then there is deep resentment and displacement., revealing itself in ' toxic behaviour'. These are the exiles of our present age...exile in old times was THE worst punishment one could inflict. There will be no remittance from this toxicity until the wheels have turned a bit more and…


Keith Hughes
Keith Hughes
Jan 07

Thanks Gregory for the cogent and convincing analysis. Ironically, and for the reasons outlined in your essay, the people who most need to take on board the conclusions, won't. I guess the challenge for the rest of us is trying to work out what will get through to them! Keep up the good work.


Jan 07

See the book by Naomi Orestes and Erik Coneway "Merchants of Doubt" in which they confirm that the same tactics were used to sell cigarettes after all evidence linked them to cancer as are being used to push climate change denial. Interesting, often the same people have been involved. One of the main tactics in each case has been to buy "scientists" (or at least, engineers) to bat for the denial side, simply by spreading doubt. Hard to convince those who benefit financially from selling either cigarettes or fossil fuels that there is a problem. Maybe just as hard to convince idealogues (listen to last week's "Science Show" on ABC Radio National. Keep up the good work.

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