The everyday denial of climate change

By Kari Marie Norgaard | July 5, 2012

For nearly three decades, natural and physical scientists have provided increasingly clear and dire assessments of the alteration in the biophysical world. Yet despite these urgent warnings, human social and political response to ecological degradation remains wholly inadequate. While apathy in the United States is particularly notable, this gap between the severity of the problem and its lack of public salience is visible in most Western nations. As scientific evidence for climate change pours in, public urgency and even interest in the issue fails to correspond. What can explain the mismatch between scientific information and public concern? Are people just uninformed? Are they inherently greedy and selfish? These are the questions that chart the course of my work, which concerns not the outright rejection of science by climate skeptics, but the more pervasive and common problem of how and why most people who say they are concerned about climate change nevertheless manage to ignore it.

A warm winter. I began my fieldwork in a rural part of Norway more than a decade ago. A high standard of living and high levels of political involvement make Norway a useful place to explore questions about apathy toward climate change. If any nation can find the ability to respond, it must be in a place such as this, where the population is educated and environmentally engaged. As it happened, there was unusually warm weather during the 10 months I spent in the community. November 2000 brought severe flooding. The first snowfall did not come until late January 2001 — some two months later than usual. By then, the winter was recorded as Norway’s second warmest in the past 130 years. The local ski area opened in late December only with the aid of 100 percent artificial snow — a completely unprecedented event with measurable economic impacts on hotels, shops, taxi drivers, and others in the area. The local lake failed to freeze sufficiently to allow for ice-fishing. Small talk commonly included references to “unusual weather” and to”climate change,” accompanied by a shaking of heads.

It was not just the weather that was unusual that winter. As a sociologist, I was perplexed by the behavior of the people as well. Despite the clear social and economic impacts on the community, there was no social action in response to the warm weather. Nobody wrote letters to the local paper, brought the issue up in one of the many public forums that took place that winter, made attempts to plan for the local effects of climate change, put pressure on local and national leaders to develop long-term climate plans or short-term economic relief, decreased their automobile use, or even engaged their neighbors and political leaders in discussions about what climate change might mean for their region.

People were aware that climate change could radically alter life within the coming decades, yet they did not go about their days wondering what life would be like for their children, whether farming practices would change, or whether their grandchildren would be able to ski on real snow. They spent their time thinking instead about more local, manageable topics.

Living a double life. Because members of the community knew about global warming but did not integrate this knowledge into everyday life, they experienced what Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk in their 1982 book, Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case against Nuclearism, call “the absurdity of the double life.” In one reality was the collectively constructed sense of normal life. In the other reality existed the troubling knowledge of increasing automobile use, polar ice caps melting, and predictions for ominous future weather scenarios. “We live in one way and we think in another,” a teacher at the local agricultural school told me. “We learn to think in parallel. It’s a skill, an art of living.”

The term “denial” is sometimes used to describe the outright rejection of scientifically accepted information, as in the case of climate skeptics. But for most people, who do genuinely care about the planet, denial takes the form of avoidance rather than rejection. People avoid disturbing information in order to sidestep unpleasant emotions and to maintain positive conceptions of individual and national identity. As a result of this kind of denial, people have a sense of knowing and not knowing about climate change, of having information but not thinking about it in their daily lives. Information from climate science is understood in the abstract but disconnected from social or private life.

To avoid emotions of guilt, fear, and helplessness, people in the Norwegian community I studied changed the topic of conversations, told jokes, tried not to think about climate change, and kept the concept off the agenda of political meetings. Community members collectively held information about global warming at arm’s length by following cultural norms of what to pay attention to, what to talk about, and what to feel. When disturbing ideas about climate change entered the conversation, people used a series of cultural narratives to deflect those ideas and to normalize a particular version of reality in which “everything is fine.” For example, they tried not to think too far into the future, tried to avoid scaring one another or being too negative, and often emphasized how “Norway is such a small country anyway” and “at least we’re not as bad as the Americans.” I have since done comparative work in the United States, where many of the feelings about climate change, as well as tactics of normalizing it, are similar to what I found in Norway — except that the bad guys are the climate skeptics and the Chinese.

The struggle for awareness. In writing on the nuclear peril — a problem that these days seems far more manageable than climate change — Lifton and Falk describe many of the same difficulties the world faces in coming to terms with climate change. They write of our “fragmented awareness,” how “we have no experience with a narrative of potential extinction,” and how therefore we “cling to a desperate conventionality.” They point out that fear inhibits our ability to break through illusions to awareness. And at stake in our “struggle for awareness” is the fact that “the degree of numbing of everyday life necessary for individual comfort is at odds with the degree of tension, or even anxiety, that must accompany the nuclear awareness necessary for collective survival.” Lifton and Falk note that, with the appearance of nuclear weapons, imagining the reality of the situation became “uniquely difficult, and at the same time, a prerequisite for survival.”

Can such socially organized denial be overcome? In the case of climate change, the explanation for public silence is not a lack of understanding of climate science or a lack of caring about ecological conditions and our human neighbors; the public silence comes from people who — despite understanding and caring — actively mute out the climate crisis in order to protect their senses of identity and empowerment as well as to maintain culturally produced conceptions of reality. Part of what makes people feel helpless is an assessment of this very serious problem in a context where nobody else is acting, and political actions appear to be socially unacceptable or politically unfeasible. Climate change requires large-scale reduction of emissions, but the current political structure of countries such as the United States and Norway is intimately embedded in a petroleum-based economy.

Thinking globally, acting locally. Although not inherently unproblematic, local efforts may provide a key for breaking through climate avoidance from the ground up. There is already a momentum building for communities to understand how climate change is manifesting on the local level. Regional political renewal cannot be enough on its own, but it may be an important step for individuals in breaking through the absurdity of the double life. As people participate in local efforts, they will begin to see the relevance of climate change to their own lives. Working together may, over time, create the supportive environment that is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for people to face greater fears about the future and engage in large-scale social change.

Together, we make the world safer.

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