If you look at climate change through the lens of Actor-network theory, we seem to be in the middle of the problematisation phase of organizing. Understanding the actors and the network might make it easier to understand and avoid climate-change denial.
In some versions of the Actor-network theory of sociology, there are four phases to taking on an issue: problematisation (defining the problem and interested parties), interessement (getting people involved), enrolment (actors accepting their roles) and mobilization (people act and also adopt designated roles willingly). Granted the timetable that the climate crisis is forcing on us, we should be finishing enrolment and moving on to mobilization. Within certain constituencies, we are; people have largely accepted the logic of recycling, for instance, and are widely coming over to the notion of saving energy by buying compact fluorescent lamps. But other, major actors are not yet "enrolled in" the problem.
In fact, some of the most powerful actors (whole industries like coal and petroleum, for instance, plus the communities that depend on them) are not on board. It's easy to dismiss them with the dictum that "it's difficult for a man to believe something when his salary requires him not to" but it's more complicated than that. Much of society is stuck in the problematisation phase: they can't even agree on what the problem is, much less how to fix it.
In Actor-network theory, this first phase is characterized by one or more primary actors trying to "own" the problem. These primary actors try to define the terms of the issue, and, more importantly, they struggle to become gatekeepers for everybody else's actions with respect to the issue. The gatekeeper is able to assign roles to other actors and enroll them (often simply by labeling and branding people, things and actions in an uncontested way).
In other words, the problematisation phase is a power struggle.
A lot of people are suspicious of the whole climate change issue because they correctly perceive that what's happening right now is that one particular group is trying to own the debate. That group that they are suspicious of is us: those who believe in the objective reality and danger of human-caused climate change. And here's the rub: we're not suspect because of who we are, we're suspect because we're trying to become the gatekeeper. Anybody who tries to own the debate (become the gatekeeper) is going to be suspect. Because problematisation is a play for power.
The logical strategy for climate change during this phase is to defer to one particular actor: the climate science itself. Not all the interested parties in an actor-network need to be human, and in this case the environment itself is arguably the biggest player. So logically, the problematisation phase should have ended long ago because we should all have just let the environment (as represented by the science) assign us our roles.
I am going to argue that one of the reasons this hasn't happened is that a very large portion of the human race does not believe that there are non-human social actors. For them, the environment literally cannot exist as an actor, and therefore what the science represents cannot be the environment: it must represent some group of humans. Ever heard the argument that there's some sort of conspiracy among climate scientists to convince us that there's a crisis? (Often it's described as a conspiracy to get more funding for more studies; if that were true, I'd expect every other area of science to be sprouting its own conspiracy now because it's clearly worked so well for the climate scientists.) This conspiracy theory is a direct effect of the struggle to define the gatekeeper for the problem, and it's perfectly logical when you realize that many people don't believe any human group can disinterestedly represent a nonhuman actor.
And maybe they're right to be suspicious. Can anybody really act as mouthpiece for the facts of the matter, without importing their own agenda? Is it really true that nobody advocating action on climate change is coupling it to other agendas (globalization or anti-globalization, for instance)? And if we're stuck in a phase where multiple groups are trying to use the debate to drive their own agendas (however well-meaning they may be), how do we move on? How do we get to the vital step of enlisting the entire human race in an endeavor that's only going to work if people accept their roles?
Next time you meet a climate skeptic, you might want to consider that what they're skeptical about may not be the facts of the matter, but rather the agenda of the messenger. The louder you yell, the more you try to explain, the more suspicious they'll become.
One answer to this problem may be to accept it and use it. By declaring that his agenda behind pushing green energy is to make America independent of Middle East oil, for instance, Barack Obama provides a credible motivation for skeptics to hang on to. They might never believe that he's pushing green energy in order to save the environment, because for them, the environment can't be an actor. But oil companies and foreign powers can.
This is a great strategy, which seems to be working to motivate a lot of people who couldn't be enrolled by an appeal to environmental protection. Small communities across the U.S. and Canada are waking up to the fact that wind power means local jobs, for instance. But while the actor we call energy-independence can help enroll people, it can not be allowed to become the ultimate gatekeeper for the issue. The environment really is an actor, and we have to be willing to put its agenda ahead of our own.
That means that we all have to think long and hard about where our own agenda differs from its; and we must be willing to step back from what we want to let the real gatekeeper of the issue do its job. Climate change is not about globalization; it's not about consumerism run wild; it's not about the rich 5% of countries pushing the other 95% down; it's not about money; it's not about oil. It's about a number—parts-per-million of CO2—and the agenda of any real gatekeeper for this issue cannot be about anything but reducing that number.