Identity has the potential to lead to great mobilization or great destruction. As activists, if we can master the power of engaging with identity effectively, we can educate and open minds to the change and actions necessary to solve the world’s problems.

The last few years have seen an increased awareness of climate change, the beginning of the #MeToo movement, and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. One thing that all of these have in common is the need to engage with individuals whose views might differ from our own in order to create change. 

Whilst organizations seek to change the minds of those in power, as individuals, how can we play our part? Undertaking the OICD’s Repairing Divisions of Identity Course allowed me to see the value in understanding the identity of the ‘opposition’, and this article seeks to share my discovery.

As we celebrate Earth Day, let’s take climate change as an example. 

Climate change and identity may seem an unlikely connection, but with the denial of climate science increasingly visible, climate change and identity must be considered together if we are to preserve and grow the effectiveness of the climate movement, and combat climate change.

As the dangers of global warming continue to increase, attitudes towards the crisis remain varied, from those who are dedicated to pursuing immediate action, to those who deny and actively try to prevent solutions. Recent years have seen an increase in denialist literature, more individuals taking to social media discussing their opposition, and even the former American President, Donald Trump, claiming climate science to be a hoax.

Climate change has become an increasingly political issue over the last few decades, as exemplified about a decade ago when US politicians were punished for supporting climate policies. In 2010 those who had voted for the Waxman-Markey Bill (which attempted to set limits on carbon pollution) were ousted by Republicans. Journalists, scholars, and the public have since continued to label climate change a partisan issue. But opposition to climate science runs deeper than party lines.

Never has it been so important to consider the ‘politics’ of climate change at a deeper level. If it continues to be considered as a battle of left vs. right, red vs. blue, the picture for us all looks bleak. Not only will the issue further divide society, but failing to treat exclusionary identities such as denial quickly, can impede progress by hindering vital efforts to seek solutions. If we as individuals feel discouraged, disengaged, and hopeless, both existing and innovative solutions become less likely. Ultimately, this makes solving the climate crisis increasingly elusive.

So what leads someone to deny climate science? And how can we tackle this?

When it comes to exclusionary identities such as denial, rarely is the ‘problem’ the problem. Instead, neglected needs lead to these identities – whether those needs are for security, justice, equality, or a sense of belonging. To address denial, we must address these roots. 

All too often, activists simply tell those who deny climate science that they’re wrong. Or activists think their time is better spent speaking to those who are already willing to change. And these are exactly the mistakes I have been making.

Before undertaking the OICD’s Repairing Divisions of Identity course, I had scarcely sought to understand those who deny climate science. After the course, I applied empathy when speaking to those whose views opposed my own, and acknowledged that their identity position was founded on common universal human needs. Now, when talking to an individual, I acknowledge that there must be important reasons upholding their position, and in doing so I find it easier to persuade them to take the small step of reading a myth-busting article. 

Telling an individual they’re wrong is counterproductive and only serves to strengthen identity positions in a vicious cycle. If someone feels unheard and is tempted to repeat their arguments, it becomes likely they will become further entrenched in their identity.

By dismissing groups or individuals as ‘ignorant’ or ‘wrong’, they are left feeling discounted, underappreciated, and unvalued. These feelings awaken the identity system which attempts to provide a remedy through identity reinforcement. This identity reinforcement leaves a person with fewer identity options, trapping them in a singular identity, with nowhere to go. 

Even the label of ‘denialist’ as used in this article is problematic, as it brands and therefore marginalizes this identity, widening the societal division.

The urgency with which we need to act is clear. Every contemptuous comment further ingrains the stance of the disengaged. It is incredibly important to alter the way we address individuals who oppose climate science, while there is still a chance to provide choices to those caught in a singular identity. If we are to solve the biggest challenge in human history, we must change how we approach those who stand in the way. 

Hear the OICD Institute’s Fireside discussion with Chip Pitts on the topic of Advocacy, Justice, Climate Change, and Human Rights.

For more information about the OICD’s Repairing Divisions of Identity Course, and to sign up, please click here.

Written for Identity Digest by Darcy Williams
Darcy Williams is an intern at the OICD and a climate change activist.
Edited by Chip Pitts and Bruce White