"Thinkwashing" Overthinks and Avoids Climate Action

"Thinkwashing" Overthinks and Avoids Climate Action

When it comes to addressing the climate crisis, the primary obstacle is no longer a lack of knowledge or outright denial -- it’s a delay tactic called "thinkwashing.” The term was coined by science journalist Eleanor Cummins in her recent piece for Wired, further explained as "a combination of willful ignorance of existing knowledge, policy perfectionism, and an all-or-nothing position on the role of technology in society,” which leads to an over-intellectualization of the issue, inhibiting real action. Oftentimes, thinkwashers undermine proposed solutions with one simple, dismissive phrase: it’s complicated.”

DW: Why it's hard to care about climate change, March 18, 2022.

Why This Matters

Of course, addressing climate change (or any of the century’s biggest issues) is economically, socially, and legally complicated. But thinkwashing uses complications to dismiss solutions -- it’s "a way of obscuring the basic fact that 'complicated’ intellectual questions can often be answered, at least in part, by straightforward moral imperatives and a pragmatic approach to the future.”

For companies that profit from the fossil fuel industry, thinkwashing is an often-used tool. The philosophy allows them to delay action by perpetually pushing for further research rather than addressing known root issues within the company’s operations. For the general public, it typically takes on the form of techno-pessimism, meaning oversimplifying new, up-and-coming technology, such as direct air capture, lauding it as a silver bullet solution, then shying away from further action if the technology is debunked on any level.

The classification of technology as inherently "good” or "bad” is a false dichotomy that obscures possibilities for progress. In Cummins’ words: "we must think before we act, and we must act even when it is hard.”

TED: His Holiness Pope Francis | Our moral imperative to act on climate change, October 20, 2020.

Axios: How tech could help the world fight climate change, May 10, 2021.

Staying Grounded

There are groups of climate activists across the world staging effective protests and teach-ins. But, a recent study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) found a major disconnect between what people say they are willing to do to address climate change and what they actually do. Of the study’s participants, just 17% of those who identified as "alarmed” are participating in climate action now. An additional 77% said they are willing to. It’s clear that thinkwashing is leaving many feeling immobilized.

IPCC scientists have stated that the world currently has all the tools it needs to limit warming, but they will only be effective if we use them. That means climate is not an issue of needing new technology -- it’s an issue of politics and needing new policy.

The antidote, then? According to Cummins, it’s techno-pragmatism, which advocates a "grounded, scientific approach to whatever comes next” so leaders in the public and private sectors and the general public can pursue meaningful action.

Real Stories: What Is Climate Anxiety? | Seat At The Table, May 12, 2022.

60 Minutes: The "bit of good news" on climate change, October 4, 2020.