Climate change denial: crime, mental disorder or both?

In 2005 I published an editorial that forecast that climate change denial would eventually be ruled a culpable offense by some court. I predicted that certain New Jersey governments denying climate change, specifically those that refused to respond to sea level rise, would eventually be held responsible for property loss that could otherwise have been prevented by reasonable actions taken in other localities. My prediction published in New Jersey was locally unpopular at that time.

Since then, the state (along with the federal government and most local governments) has officially recognized the reality of sea level rise and its impact on citizens and real property. Climate change denial remains as political rhetoric but not an official position or basis of action by our government. At this point more than a decade later it seems that any politician who refuses to follow laws designed to mitigate climate change might be even subject to criminal complaint.

Lately I notice an increasing trend of discussing climate change denial in terms of mental disorder. The topic has received serious attention from the psychological profession since 2009 but never really been a front page news item. Not that climate change deniers are gathering national headlines, the topic has reappeared in public discussion.Recently I was surprised by a young journalist who wished to present climate change denial in a project on essentially even footing as those working to address its effects.

Aside from any comic or political intent, the concept of mental disorder has merit. It appears that there are a small portion of people, for whatever reason, do not process cognitive information in the same scientific way as the rest of the community. They have a unique trait of being able to look at the same information but not process it the same way as the overwhelming majority. That might be valuable in some areas like creative fields – but it is a liability within the scientific and legal worlds.

My personal observation is that the only way a person can uphold a climate change denial opinion is to: a) avoid considering all of the available information, b) close their mind to the entirety of available information, or c) lack the mental capacity for reasoned response. I should clarify that by “opinion” I mean “reasoned response” not “personal opinion”. Of course, everyone is entitled to a personal opinion, and personal opinion is not required to be based on fact, logic, or law. Yet if we are talking about reasoned response, subject to universally understood principles of logic and standards of evidence, then there is no factual, logical or legal defense for climate change denial.

I still wonder when we will see the first definitive court case where a public official’s denial of climate change is alleged to be the most proximate cause of a claimant’s damages.This legal action will likely happen long before public opinion agrees that climate change denial is a mental disorder. An interesting preliminary ruling in one such case issued last month indicates that more legal action will follow. I predict that this will be a lucrative area of practice for a new generation of environmental accountants and lawyers.

Until then, an opinion is just that.

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