Internalized climate change denial? (Ep. 45)

We all know about internalized racism and sexism, but what about internalized climate change denial? During a fake debate, I learned little about climate change, but a lot about humans.

I'm taking a class this semester about how the climate affects plankton and the dependent animals in the ocean. Our final class was set up as a climate change debate with set questions and two groups: one group would argue the point of reason, the reality I've been talking about on this channel for months. The other group was slipping into the fun and comfortable role of climate change denier.

Against all odds and my expectations, the debate was fun—and realistic! While I didn't learn anything new about climate change, I learned some things about people—and about something very similar to internalized climate change denial.

Because I spend so much time talking about how we need to stop being assholes who destroy this planet, I joined the deniers. We were set four questions to research, and had to prepare a two-minute statement for each question, as well as some general arguments for the group discussion.

The first question was posed, the reason group presented their speech, the deniers countered, and the debate was opened. One of the deniers asked a purposefully stupid question about why Carbon plays such a big role when it's such a small thing, and wouldn't it make more sense to talk about methane. And that's when things broke. One of the smartest people in the class spoke up, and began to answer the question. Five minutes of talking about isotopes and carbon dating later, I had no clue where she was headed, but had learned one crucial thing: reality can be really boring. And that became our largest weapon.

We, the pretend-deniers, were loud, annoying, interrupted the others with statements like "But isn't warm weather nice?" or "We don't know that for sure. That's just propaganda by climate alarmists." We made zero sense. First, we argued that technology would make GMO advance enough to feed the world. Then, we argued that we needed to reduce the population. They, very reasonably, asked us how we'd like to do that. Someone brought up China's one-child policies, completely ignoring all the issues with that. I even said that we should stop supporting the weak and the elderly, the poor and the needing, and the problem would solve itself. That, among all the utter nonsense I spoke aloud that day, playing a role, was the one argument I couldn't bring without adding a quick disclaimer that I don't actually believe this.

Later, we argued that solar and wind had too many issues to solve—yes, we had argued for technological advances before, but we didn't have to make sense.

And I am very sad to say, that it worked. We reached the fourth and final question, I gave my statement, mostly propaganda about how the government will rob the Germans of their diesel cars and schnitzel, about how no one wants the change anyway. I blamed the rich. I blamed the government. I went all climate denier, and made zero sense. But, I was loud. I was a little asshole firebrand. And when I stopped speaking, and the host (well, our professor) asked for a counter from the other group, no one spoke. They didn't have arguments ready to deal with my specific brand of nonsense. So, instead of a countering statement, we opened the discussion, and things went to mayhem. The reason group was losing patience with our rambunctious bullshit. A few minutes later, the discussion was over, and if there had been a winner, it would have been us. It didn't matter that none of what we said had any scientific basis. It didn't matter that we argued for and against things at the same time, switching back and forth as needed by the argument. It didn't matter how many logic faux-pas we committed.

Every single person in that room usually argues for the side of reason, but it was still scary how very effective our tactics were. And it's still scary how little we know about how to reason with "these people." When we talked about the debate after, someone said, how important it was to have sources and scientific proof ready for these kinds of debates, and while I agree to a point, I also think that we are back to the same question democrats have asked themselves for years:

Should we sink to the level of our opponents in order to beat them or lose while maintaining the high ground?

If the other side plays dirty, do we still play fair?

I know why so many people say it's impossible to argue with climate change deniers. And that is definitely true. You can't argue with them. You can't debate them. As soon as things have a chance to get heated, you lose. But 1:1, in the right setting, you might be able to convince someone on the verge. Stop focusing on those too far into their own delusions, and reason with the millions in between.

We've been indoctrinated with lies and half-truths for decades, and even among those who try to do right by the planet, there is a form of internalized climate change denial at times. I've spoken with people in the neighborhood who say they are environmentally conscious, because they buy organic food and recycle their single-use plastics. We have been trained to think of "recyclable" as "recycled." We have been trained to be greenwashed by companies who apply such simple tactics as adding some green to their damn packaging. And, most of us, have built up a pretty selective eye. Those same neighbors buy water (not even sparkling) from the supermarket, because they have kids and glass would break. This, of course, is a lame excuse, but we've been told it's okay to apply such weak reasoning without second thought. I can think of quite a few ways around the kids-breaking-bottles problem, but coming up with them is marginally harder than using the excuse to buy flat water in a plastic bottle.

And, while I am probably a little further along on this journey than most, my own actions during the debate show that there is a little internalized denier inside me as well. Remember how I put a disclaimer before suggesting the abandonment of the weak, the poor, and the elderly? Why was that the statement I had to distance myself from? I spluttered out nonsense after nonsense. I called for opening more coal mines, because coal is integral to the German society. Why did I need to distance myself from the immediate abandonment of very real people, while I felt totally fine pretending to kill the future of our species? Why are millions of people now worse than many more later? And yet, I felt I couldn't make the suggestion without a disclaimer, because even I still haven't fully kicked that internalized climate change denier, just like I still haven't fully kicked the internalized misogynist, the internalized racist, the internalized whatever-ist.

And no matter how hard we try to be tolerant, to be thoughtful, to respect others and the environment, there is a constant fight against societal standards and doctrines, and our internalized shortcomings.

Unfortunately, the best way out of this is together. Let's call out our bullshit. Let's help each other kick out the inner assholes, and save ourselves.

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.