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Activity: Climate Change Denial

An activity from “Unleashing blessed unrest as the heating happens”

Purpose: Exploring the phenomenon of climate change denial, what lies behind it and the dangers it presents, and considering what might be done.
Grade level: 10-12
Time: 60 minutes for Stage 1; 60-75 minutes for each of Stages 2 and 3; ongoing short periods of time for Stage 3

cut-up set of cards from handout
• newsprint, markers, glue stick
• pile of blank cards for each group of four students
• Climate Change Denial pin-board


1. Class members sitting in a circle are asked to think about times when they have worried about something but put it ‘to the back of their minds’ or otherwise tried to forget about or reduce its significance – things like going out to play ball the evening before a big exam when as they play they feel uncomfortable not to be studying, or going through the motions with a boyfriend or girlfriend when they no longer feel good about the relationship but aren’t prepared to face up to the fact by telling them, or behaving in some other way when part of them is telling them they should be behaving in another but not confronting the problem. They recount examples they are prepared to share and the feelings they had. The teacher introduces the idea of denial: that in big things and small things people use self deception to evade reality and to protect themselves from facing up to things. The class is asked if they can identify in their examples different forms of denial and give each form a descriptor.

2. Students form groups of four. Each group receives a set of cards, newsprint, markers and a glue stick. They are asked to read and discuss the cards and determine the range of issues raised by each card and by the set of cards taken as a whole. Their task is to arrange the cards on the newsprint sheet, demonstrate connections between the cards by drawing one or two-way arrows, and write commentaries explaining the issues raised by the cards, and the nature of their card arrangement.

During the work group, members take time out to write on blank cards their own personal examples relating to or mirroring the examples in the card set. They do not share these at this stage.

Each group presents, with the teacher encouraging feedback and discussion of what is said. At an appropriate point towards the end of group-generated discussion, the teacher reveals the following explanations:
Climate change denial is the term used to describe attempts to downplay the extent of global warming, its significance, or its connection to human behavior, especially for financial interests, but also to protect individuals from facing the future and facing up to changes they would need to make in their behaviors to slow global warming.

Cognitive dissonance, a term used in social psychology, describes an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas or behaving in two contradictory ways simultaneously, or when we know but won’t acknowledge that what we are saying or how we are behaving is contradicted by evidence and our own opinions, but resist amending what we say or do.

Questions are then asked of the class:
• Do we see denial in the different cards and, if so, what forms does it take?
• Do you see examples of cognitive dissonance lurking behind or within what is written in the cards?
• Do you see any ‘big ideas’ in any of the cards that would help explain denial and cognitive dissonance?
• Do you see any ‘big ideas’ in any of the cards that would suggest how to deal with denial and cognitive dissonance?
• What examples of denial do you find most shocking?
• Should we distinguish climate change denial from climate change ignorance?
• Does denial of climate change add to the magnitude of the threat the planet faces?
• How should climate change denial best be dealt with?

Throughout the discussion following each question, students are encouraged to share examples of personal climate change denial as they have written them up on the blank cards.

3. Students are asked, ahead of the next class, to each conduct a brief three-question interview with five members of their community:
a. How serious do you think climate change is?
b. What are you doing personally to stop climate change?
c. Is there anything more you think you should be doing?

During the second activity session, groups re-form and students analyze their twenty interview responses through the lenses of the concepts of denial and cognitive dissonance. They are specifically asked to identify different types of denial. Each group reports on its findings. Class discussion follows.

4. A Climate Change Denial pin board is made available in the classroom. Students are invited to bring examples of climate change denial they find in newspapers, magazines and on the web, or overhear, and pin them on the board with their own note of explanation. The class reviews the board occasionally.

© Sustainability Frontiers, 2011