Climate Change Denial

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September 28, 2014


George Marshall @ 8:10 pm

As world leaders meet today at the United Nations in New York, they will face intense pressure to act. The discovery that North Korea has been secretly pumping climate-altering chemicals into the atmosphere in an attempt to destroy agricultural production across the US has sparked an international crisis.

A recent drone photograph reveals the scale of North Korea’s secret programme to destabilise world weather patterns.

That’s not true, of course. There is indeed a summit today, called by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, to discuss dangerous climatic disruption. It’s a disruption that may in fact lead to the collapse of many of the world’s main agricultural regions. But since it’s only dull old global warming, a subject swaths of the public seem to find less interesting than watching paint dry, the politicians don’t have to worry too much about being held to account.

So why can we be confident that the North Korean scenario would lead to rapid political mobilisation while the huge threat we really do face will generate mere empty promises? Why does the former quicken the pulse, and the latter induce widespread indifference? This raises a larger question about our own psychology: why do most people understand that climate change is a major threat yet, when asked to name the greatest dangers to civilisation, still seem unable to bring it to mind?

The primary reason is that our innate sense of social competition has made us acutely alert to any threat posed by external enemies. In experiments, children as young as three can tell the difference between an accident and a deliberate attack. Climate change confounds this core moral formula: it is a perfect and undetectable crime everyone contributes to but for which no one has a motive.

There is no outsider to blame. We are just living our lives: driving the kids to school, heating our homes, putting food on the table. Only once we accept the threat of climate change do these neutral acts become poisoned with intention – so we readily reject that knowledge, or react to it with anger and resentment.

Even worse, climate change appears to contain a royal flush of other qualities that are notoriously hard for our brains to engage with: it requires immediate personal sacrifices now to avoid uncertain collective losses far in the future. The cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize for his studies of how irrationally we respond to such issues, sighed deeply when I asked him to assess our chances: “Sorry,” he said, I am deeply pessimistic. I see no path to success.”

I would agree with him if indeed climate change really were uncertain, impossibly costly and located in the far future. It can easily seem so, if that’s how you are determined to frame it. However, many economists, such as Nicholas Stern and Hank Paulson, George W Bush’s former treasury secretary, see it differently. So do the 310,000 protestors who jammed 30 blocks of Manhattan, and the tens of thousands more in London on Sunday shouting with heartfelt conviction that climate change is real, happening now and entirely actionable. For them the real obstacle – memorably represented on one float in New York as a 15 metre-long octopus – is the oil and gas industry and its tentacles of political influence.

And herein lies the real challenge. Climate change can be anything you want it to be. It can be here or there, in the present or the future, certain and uncertain. It seems that we see climate change as a threat – and are therefore able to harness that innate reaction to an external enemy – only once it is poured it into the mould of our familiar stories, with their heroes and villains.

So my fellow advocates for action create this enemy narrative with dramatis personae from our past struggles – corrupt politicians, malignant corporate executives, fat bankers, lazy journalists, slippery lawyers and an apathetic public. All the while, however, our opponents are mirroring these actions. During a raucous evening with members of the Texan Tea Party I was told in predictably blunt language that liberal environmentalists are the real enemy, and that we have invented this scam to extend government control. Like most conservatives, they failed to see that it is climate change itself that poses a threat to their values, freedoms and property.

This tendency to confuse the facts of climate change with the narratives constructed from them is just as common among politicians. I can safely predict that the leaders gathering in New York will stress the urgent need to control greenhouse gases but remain mute about the $1tn a year spent bringing yet more fossil fuel reserves into production. In 25 years of negotiations, no measure to control fossil fuel production has ever been discussed. It does not exist anywhere in the official narrative.

For the general public, too, there are gaps and blind spots. Most people have never discussed climate change with anyone outside their immediate family. A third cannot recall having talked about it with anyone at all. And, counter-intuitively, climate-related trauma seems to make people even more reticent. Speaking to the victims of Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 Texan drought and wildfires, I could not find anyone who could recall a recent conversation with their neighbours about climate change. Battered communities, it seems, find strength in the hope of recovery, and actively suppress any disheartening discussion of underlying causes or future threat.

So if we are to really mobilise action on climate change it is vital that we recognise that it exists in two forms: the scientific facts and the far more potent social facts of constructed narratives or deliberate silence. It is the latter that provide the basis on which we accept, deny or ignore the issue, reinforced by our innate need to conform to the norm within our social group.

However, seen in this light, the situation is far from hopeless. Like the cycles that govern global energy and carbon systems, public attitudes are subject to positive feedback effects that can amplify small changes and result in rapid shifts. Strong visible protest and increased media coverage can break the climate silence and create wider engagement. Above all, though, we need to recognise that the narrative we choose will shape what happens from now on. We may continue to fall back on our need for an enemy. But the very best story would be a one of common purpose, based around our shared humanity.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 23rd September under the title: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. It has attracted 271 comments, the vast majority of which are extremely opinionated, and some very rude. Taken together, they entirely support my observation that climate change exists in the form of socially constructed narratives based around values, worldview containing existing (or projected) enemies.

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  1. Murray Reiss says:


    You say Global Warming’s such an obvious catastrophe
    Portending planet-wide chaotic instability
    A greater threat to national security
    Than invasion occupation or tyranny
    The world we co-evolved with simply blown away

    So where’s our sense of over-riding urgency
    Why haven’t we declared a nation-wide emergency
    Why haven’t we declared World War III

    Where’s our Manhattan Project for carbon sequestration
    And alternative energy innovation
    Where’s our mass conscription
    Total mobilization
    Where’s our holy crusade to save civilization

    Well …

    To wage war we’d need an enemy
    Of implacable hostility
    And ruthless ingenuity
    The mastermind behind the globalized conspiracy
    To seize control of our whole fossil-fueled economy
    And turn its engines of growth & prosperity
    Into mass destruction weaponry
    To raise the heat however many degrees
    It takes
    To trash our poor planet’s liveability

    ‘Cause without the spectre of this sinister foe
    We got no one to fight
    We got nowhere to go
    We’ve had our War on Terror
    Had our War on Drugs
    Now we need his carbon-bombing
    Troops of thugs
    Out there raising the level of our seas
    Spreading drought famine pestilence & tropical disease
    Inciting heat waves wildfires
    Hurricanes and floods
    Or else … What??
    We’re gonna turn on a dime
    And wage war on us???

    Line up our cars and trucks shoot ’em all in the head?
    Stomp our air con units till they’re gasping for breath?

    Put our tractors out to pasture with all the bags
    Of fertilizers made from natural gas?
    And send our kids out foraging for roots and berries?
    Whoa — the future just started looking pretty scary.

    Evacuate the suburbs Stuff them like sardines
    Into sky-high towers for increased efficiency?
    Can’t do that without oceans of cement —
    Oops — busted our carbon budget again.

    Stop refining crude for all our life-enhancing plastics?
    No SaranWrap? The future’s looking mighty drastic.

    Stop drillling for oil? Blasting mountains for coal?
    Kick our trillion-dollar pension fund investments down a hole?

    Pull the plug on our power plants and factories
    And give up our jobs and a functioning economy?
    So we can live in caves or up a tree?
    Well, we wouldn’t do that to ourselves — would we?

    We need to put a face to that enemy
    So we can put an end to his villainy
    Before we end up the innocent casualties
    Of his plot to squeeze the last degree of heat
    From the coal oil and gas right under our feet

    ‘Cause if we don’t conjure up some enemy
    We’re gonna have to declare World War Me

  2. Bill Wolfe says:

    You framed this all wrong:

    “There is no outsider to blame. We are just living our lives: driving the kids to school, heating our homes, putting food on the table. Only once we accept the threat of climate change do these neutral acts become poisoned with intention – so we readily reject that knowledge, or react to it with anger and resentment.”

    There are plenty of corporations to blame. Here’s the way I ooh at it:

    When I drive my kids to school I have to buy gas from a greedy oil company that is poisoning the planet is a 19th century internal combustion technology car instead of taking a bus or train or modern electric car.

    When I put food on the table I am poisoning my kids with chemicals and antibiotics in the food supply used by greedy corporations seeking to maximize profits whip don’t give a damn about the health of my kids.

    When I heat my home I am forced to use fossil fracked gas instead of the sun and the wind because of monopoly power of capitalist energy companies.

    See, enemies are not hard to find if you think right

  3. Sanjay says:

    Another simpler view might be:

    In the West the populations are now detached from the natural world. So much so that it’s either taken for granted or it doesn’t matter because food, water and shelter are continuous and consistent. In fact quality of life remains largely unaffected by whatever happens in the natural world.

    Hence, talk of natural world issues are met with indifference because it’s currently so irrelevant.

    This compares starkely with my experiences of living in India as a child when occurences in the natural world had a direct impact on my life. Society was conditioned by experience (and by belief systems) to respect (and fear) natural word disruptions.

    That society is a million miles away from the one where I now live. Interestingly, that society is most concerned by climate change and the one I live in now is ignorant or dismissive of it.

  4. cody michaels says:

    the far future is now – check out, etc. Arctic meltdown, increasing methane instability, etc. wasn’t just fossil fuels – destructive mega green energy project hydro quebec & tar sands in boreal forest also played huge role in the acceleration of arctic warming, ice collapse. also, industrial farming and poor topsoil management, general inefficiency, etc.

    this all in turn is changing climate in ways untenable civilization and it is already underway and getting worse.

  5. Brilliant article. It is such a conundrum to be facing something so many people are afraid to address or don’t know how to address in our everyday lives. I’ve been told “People don’t want to be made to feel guilty.” Part of me wants to reject that and say, “Too bad for them. Let them toughen up and get with reality.” But I understand – *sigh* – that things can be framed in a certain way to make them more palatable and thus, eventually more actionable. I think a big part of this can be story – the externalized heroes and villains we relate to – but this can also add fuel to the ideology that Hollywood is some mouthpiece for the Illuminati / a propaganda machine for a liberal agenda. I think the fears evoked from acknowledging climate change relate to a sense of freedom and individualism. Facing climate change seems to tacitly imply (and perhaps accept) the inevitable controls – government intervention at massive levels. The contradiction is, if people who feared loss of liberty (eminent domain on the personal level, EPA regulations on the corporate level) then some measure of judicious restraint in the short term would be so beneficial! But the individualist’s mindset is so entrenched – “Don’t tell me I can’t drive a hummer” is, partly, the root of the problem. If we could somehow excise the sense of entitlement from people without infringing on liberty, if we could be of service without restricting freedoms, that would be the best case. I just don’t know how that comes into being.

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