Confident white males - and other profiles of denialism


"We are vaguely aware of choosing not to look at the facts, but not quite conscious of what it is we are evading." - Stanley Cohen, State of Denial


The ‘facts’ on climate change could not be clearer. There is a consensus among the climate scientists on the International Panel on Climate Change that human activity, especially burning fossil fuels, is contributing to climate change and global warming. While there may be differences as to estimates of timing of the effects of climate change, there is a scientific consensus about the catastrophic threat to the planet of warming. There is evidence that extreme and damaging weather events such as floods, hurricanes and bushfires are now more frequent. Last year saw the hottest Australian summer ever, necessitating a whole new colour chart to register the record-breaking temperatures. There is overwhelming evidence that we need to act to reduce emissions, that we need to act now, and that we also urgently need leadership from developed countries, especially the United States but also Australia, Europe and the United Kingdom, who have contributed most of the carbon in the atmosphere by their emissions thus far, and whose wealth and technological sophistication mean they are best able to make the necessary changes.

And yet as the situation has worsened, so too has the politics of irrationalism. Even as the evidence of its existence daily mounts, so has belief in climate change been waning. Even as the imperilled planet grows closer to the tipping point of no return, climate-change denialism has been on the rise. While there is some recent evidence that this trend may be easing in 2013, overall US citizens’ belief in global warming has declined since the mid-2000s.

In the long trail of comments on almost any article on climate change, the degree of rage displayed is startling. So is the predominance of men. These educated, white, middle-class males are so angry! Why? Rage is a hot emotion. It often accompanies a sense of threat, humiliation, unacknowledged shame and thwarted entitlement. There seems so much more at stake, psychologically, than merely the scientific problem of climate change and what to do about it. What appears to be threatened is a sense of self and identity tied to a belief in the Promethean thrust of our technological civilisation and human omnipotence our capacity and right to control nature. This goes far beyond any just pride in our technologically sophisticated civilisation, to a point of dangerous hubris about a utopian project.

In their research in the United States, sociologists Dunlap and McCright found that those least likely to deny the risks of climate change were women and non-whites. In contrast, they found that denial was strongest among conservative white men, who are confident in their scientific knowledge (even when they are ignorant), who have strong beliefs in technological progress and who are sceptical about environmental risk. These ‘confident white males’ are the group most likely to deny the reality of climate change. Dunlap and McCright call them ‘Cool Dudes’.

Myanna Lahsen, an anthropologist, interviewed three denialists from the highly influential George C. Marshall Institute, an anti- environment think tank, for her seminal 2008 study, ‘Experiences of Modernity in the Greenhouse: A cultural analysis of a physicist “trio” supporting the backlash against global warming’. Lahsen’s analysis evolved from her observation that we tend to ignore the deeper socio- cultural roots of debates specifically, a backlash against the environmentalist movement’s questioning of beliefs in progress and the Promethean power of man to subdue, master and exploit nature for mankind’s benefit. Through ‘remarkably frank’ interviews with, or with those who worked with, three prominent members of a ‘physicist elite’ that emerged during the heyday of the nuclear age Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg from the Marshall Institute, who together have lent status and credibility to the anti-climate-change backlash Lahsen presents a fascinating picture of the interactional style, world view and ideology of these representatives of Dunlap and McCright’s Cool Dudes.

Lahsen describes the trio’s style as ‘self-confident, sceptical and confrontational’. She argues that it is important that the trio rose to prominence during the nuclear age. After the splitting of the atom, with its strategic and military significance, physicists were at the apex of science. Reflective of an era when anything seemed possible, the trio showed a fervent belief in progress, in humans’ ability to master technologies and create social benefits for all. They believed that knowl- edge and expertise could prevent risks and unintended side-effects. The trio ‘enjoyed great privileges’ of ‘status, influence and funding’ and were ‘honoured and empowered’ as they ‘dominated the science– government interface in the US for most of the twentieth century’.

In the 1970s, with the rise of the New Left, environmentalism and the anti-nuclear movement, the status of such pro-nuclear physicists was challenged. They were even depicted as ‘a symbol of all that was wrong with society’. Lahsen shows that ‘the trio’s engagement with the backlash can, in part, be read as a reaction to a loss in privilege and a general decline of physics’. But her case gets even more interesting than this. A strong sense of a crisis in self and identity was precipitated for them by the growing environmental critiques of long-established views about the unquestioned benevolence of science and technology which came of age in the first half of the twentieth century. Seitz, for example, has written of his depression at the emergence of such critiques that challenged the dominance of his (and the trio’s) own world view, which is ‘characterised by strong trust in science and technology as providers of solutions to problems [and] an understanding of science and progress that prevailed during the first half of the twentieth century’.

The counterpoint to masculine self-assertion and belief in the invulnerability of a world under the rubric of scientific progress is the repudiation of ideas of vulnerability, whether in human beings or nature. Both Nierenberg and Seitz ‘implicitly reject the notion of nature as fragile’. Redolent of the ‘confident white male effect’, in interviews Nierenberg also rejected evidence on the link between melanoma and ultra-violet rays, between DDT and human health, and the dangers of nuclear power. Climate change was ‘nothing serious’. ‘No big effects’ would happen for one hundred and fifty years. Government intervention was not needed to ensure alternative energy technologies. Societies should rely instead on the market and technological innovation.

The culture among physicists, studies found, required a macho (or highly competitive and confrontational) style of self-assertion, even bravado, while disdaining and being contemptuous of the work of others:

[The] desired presentation of self can be characterized as competitive, haughty, and superficially nonconformist … One group leader said that to convince others of the validity of one’s work one had to have great self-confidence and be very ‘aggressive’; he added that one needed a certain ‘son-of-a-bitchiness.’

Moreover, the weapons research and laboratories where such physicists work ‘inculcate an atmosphere of expert rationalism that encourages the suppression of emotions, learning not to attend to particular fears, feelings and questions, while also reviling the anti-nuclear environmental activists’ “emotionalism”’. Often the physicists expressed over-confidence in their knowledge about other scientific areas feeling themselves to be ‘experts on everything’ well beyond their area of specialty, and not recognising or having the humility to see the limits of their expertise. As well as providing a sense of being insiders, such an outlook and style was reinforced by the centrality of physicists to the prestigious government nuclear weapons programmes.

One climate scientist commented about the trio:

I know all of these guys. They are all good scientists they were: They are all retired, and they have a kind of hubris an arrogance [they think] These global environmental problems can be handled by a good physicist on a Friday afternoon over a beer. That is the attitude they have … They downplay the science of any other community. And they are really arrogant.

Another physicist remarked that ‘this is a problem with physicists’:

Scientists working in the area of climate change do not appreciatthe Marshall Institute scientists’ confident assertions about  climate reality, especially when such large assertions categorically dismiss the importance of large research efforts in climate science.

To Lahsen, Nierenberg ‘sweepingly dismissed’ the importance of the central technology used in climate science. Instead, ‘he favoured his simple back of the envelope’ calculation, which placed the likely degree of warming at half a degree Celsius over the next century. He did not find it necessary to rely on ‘those giant computers which have all those facts in them As far as I am concerned, the situation [predicting future climate change] is fairly simple. The science has been simple.’

Given that the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion is against these views, for denialism to spread, these scientists need popular mass support for their opinions, so as not to be marginalised. Conservative think tanks, media like Fox News, large corporations, industry associations and the fossil-fuel industry are all institutions that Dunlap and McCright’s research shows are dominated by conservative white males. This ‘key vector of climate change denial’, however, has a wider receptive and significant audience in the Cool Dudes outside scientific elites and among the general public.

These Cool Dudes are an influential subset of men who are dismissive of environmental risk. They are also more likely to be ‘system justifiers’, who are content with the existing social and political order in which they have a dominant place. Studies show they are less democratic, less egalitarian and more hierarchical in outlook, and that they have more trust in ‘powers that be’. Like the elite cadre of denialist scientists at the Marshall Institute, they show a degree of hubris. Such men are more likely to report that they understand global warming well, perhaps better than the climate scientists. On the basis of this hubris, almost half of these ‘confident white men’ believe that global warming will never happen. Only nineteen per cent of other males and a tiny 7.4 per cent of all other adults believe that. Conservative confident white males are three times more likely to be denialists.

One theory is that such white males may see less risk in the world because they are less vulnerable in the world they have created. Women and non-white men, less system-identified men, less confident ‘masters of the universe’, are more likely to perceive risk. The Cool Dudes’ deni- alism is a form of ‘motivated cognition’, ‘through which people seek to deflect threats to identities they hold, and roles they occupy’. Dan Kahan and his colleagues call this ‘identity protective cognition’. It serves to protect the status and self-esteem individuals receive from group membership. 


‘Why,’ asks the social theorist Ulrich Beck, ‘is there no storming of the Bastille because of the environmental destruction threatening mankind, why no Red October of ecology?’ The problem, as Beck sees it, is that dealing with climate change ‘would require the public to loosen their attachments to their lifestyles, consumption habits and social status’.

Last year we returned home from a holiday to be greeted by a young man on our doorstep. We live among the kangaroos in the bushy Yarra Valley, so encountering a thoughtful young man on one’s doorstep is more unusual than you might think. It turned  out  that  he  was  a kind of climate-change pilgrim. Clasped hotly in his hand were some cheap energy-saving gadgets. A psychologist will tell you how important it is to feel held in someone’s mind, and it seemed that while we had been lying on the beach, the government had been thinking carefully about us. It was as if it was saying, ‘Together we will go, you and I, and solve the problem of climate change.’ And also: ‘See, we are taking action!’

The first minor point is that, in reality, these tiny actions on the part of an individual cannot combat climate change. Indeed, as Clive Hamilton has persuasively argued, ‘green consumerism’ can be harmful if it deludes us into thinking positive change is occurring when it isn’t. Change has to happen at the governmental, national and international levels; there can be no individualistic solution to it. More important than this, however, is an even deeper level of camouflage: at the very same moment, as our young man attended to trivial forms of energy saving, the government was preparing to allow huge new coalfields to open up in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. What matters is the illusion, a reality carefully constructed of ‘doing something’ when we are in fact doing almost nothing, or nothing that really matters.

This camouflage extends beyond that emanating from the ‘establishment’, as Arendt calls it. Popular culture, too, in its relentless embrace of the addictions of consumerism, tempts ordinary people to be complicit in this looming catastrophe. On the television that our climate-change pilgrim’s energy-saving gadget keeps turning off at inopportune moments, a significant part of the discourse shaping the consumer self is ‘reality TV’, like the ubiquitous programmes competing over the production of food, MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules and My Restaurant Rules, or programmes like The Biggest Loser, where fat people sit on couches watching even fatter people struggling to work off the weight put on by eating the food suggested by MasterChef et al. Then there is the smash hit The Block, which has created a new human type, the celebrity renovator. In the fervour and Eros attached to the competition over choice of window treatments and couches we perhaps find the answer to Beck’s question: a nation of renovating addicts is a politically apathetic place. For the opium of the masses is not, as Karl Marx thought, religion, but renovation.

The ‘reality’ of such shows is a very strange country, a world where consumption is elevated to the realm of the sacred, and represented as the ultimate source of meaning. On a final episode of The Block, for example, the national anthem was solemnly played, the same anthem played on Remembrance Day to commemorate our dead heroes fallen on the battlefield. Our ecstasy over all those bright, shiny new things obscures the punishingly long working hours for both parents to pay for big mortgages for ever larger houses for ever fewer people to live in. Our exultation over the infinite proliferation of all the accoutrements of affluence obscures how such lifestyles contribute to relationship breakdown and our ever-increasing energy consumption. As catastrophe looms, we are behaving just as those Freud once described as dominated by the pleasure principle, as living their lives in a self-enclosed bubble, as ‘a bird’s egg with its food supply enclosed in its shell’.

Part of the camouflage, too, is the official cultivation of resentment; the constant talk of working people, or hard-working Australians doing it tough out there. It is rare now for any politician simply to speak about Australians without putting the adjective working in front of it. It is always said in the tone of a whine. Our world of abundance and self-indulgence the consumerist world absolutely connected to climate change is recast into one of self-pitying deprivation and grievance. The ripe soil for such a sense of grievance is created not by the ‘cost of living’, as George Negus has pointed out, but by the ‘cost of a lifestyle’. It is rooted not in material deprivation but in temporal poverty. People go into heavy debt and must work many hours per family in order to finance the plasma TV sets and twenty-five square houses and the three- or four-car garage and the rest. Alongside the cultivation of a sense of entitlement, the ‘right’ to luxury goods, is an additional ‘right’ to receive tax cuts every year. It is not difficult for Tony Abbott to urge inaction over climate change with his slogan on the carbon tax: ‘No new tax.’ In reality, we have one of the lowest percentages of tax to gross domestic product in OECD countries.

This goes far deeper than mere behaviour, to our very sense of self. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, being a full citizen is now inseparable from being a hyper-consumer. Even if you have to steal to get the right brands, like the London rioters in 2011, the possession of such objects is the very essence of a successful self. It is the norm. What is abnormal, shameful and stigmatised is not to have these things, to be a ‘failed consumer’. Moreover, our current economic thinking perpetuates the fetish over growth and treats GDP per capita as the sole measure of progress. Yet many of the things that constitute true wellbeing and progress care that is unpaid, communities which nurture, happiness, and above all the kind of society which protects the environment and does not self-implode via climate change are neither measured nor counted.

Sociologists have a useful concept ‘thinking as usual’ to describe the way patterns of thought and action tend to remain within the existing paradigms and trajectories of the civilisations from which they come. The implication of all of the above is that, rather than change direction as a society, which would question the way we live now, a technological fix consistent with preserving the life of the consumer will be deeply appealing.


This is an edited extract from State of the Nation: Essays for Robert Manne edited by Gwenda Tavan out now $32.99


Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood, the Quarterly Essay ‘Love & Money’ and the memoir So This Is Life. Her most recent book is The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism.

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