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Climate and denial

Irene QuaileFebruary 17, 2014

Despite powerful evidence that climate change threatens our economies, our health and our safety, we remain slow to act on environmental protection. What is behind our collective inaction?

Symbolbild Tinnitus
Image: picture alliance/Bildagentur-online

When American sociologist Kari Norgaard released her book 'Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life', she received storms of hate mail from right-wing climate skeptics.

"I think it is a very disingenuous debate that has been manufactured by political interests who stand to lose as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels," she said in an interview with DW. "What they're doing is trying to make it sound like there is a debate – but actually there is none."

UN Klimakonferenz in Warschau 2013 22.11.2013
Most people don't follow the global climate negotiationsImage: Reuters

But Norgaard's interests actually lie with people who accept the existence of human-induced climate change. She wants to know why that knowledge fails to translate into action.

"How is it possible that we have so much knowledge about the urgency of climate change, yet when you look around, it seems that either nobody knows or nobody cares?"

Norgaard sees an "incredible disconnect between the moral, social and environmental crisis of climate change and the lack of a widespread sense of a need for urgent action."

Refusing to accept the obvious?

Norgaard spent 10 months studying a community in northern Norway, a country where people are media literate, political participation is high and people have good general knowledge of climate change. The winter she spent there was unusually warm and the snow came two months later than usual, causing problems for the farming and tourism sectors, which are important sources of revenue for the community.

But according to Norgaard, the issue of climate change was invisible. Although the media made clear that there was a link between global warming and the changing winter weather, residents took little action. They did not contact their politicians, nor did they cut down on their consumption of fossil fuels. Norgaard attributes this lack of response to what she calls "socially organized denial." This means that although people are informed about the findings of climate science, this knowledge remains disconnected from political, social, and private life.

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The economic impact of climate change has failed to trigger wider action in the USImage: picture-alliance/dpa

She sees this as representative of how citizens in wealthy, industrialized nations are responding to global warming. In the United States, many regions are already experiencing climate impacts with economic consequences. People are nevertheless reluctant to take action that may require them to give up some of the comforts and conveniences to which they have grown accustomed.

"People have a real fear about what it means for the world and their future," says Norgaard. "Then a sense of guilt comes up because they realize that our high quality of life through our use of fossil fuels is directly linked to this problem. Then there is a sense of helplessness, because it feels so large and we see the lack of political response."

According to Norgaard, people prefer to live as if climate change simply isn't a problem. She compares this behavior to people ignoring the Holocaust. Psychologists argue that we are trying to protect ourselves by avoiding unpleasant facts and the feeling that we should take action.

The greatest communication failure of all time?

Per Espen Stoknes is a psychologist at the Center for Climate Strategy of the Norwegian Business Institute. He says the communication of climate science has failed to take account of psychological defence mechanisms.

"For a long time it was hoped that just the facts would be sufficient," he said in an interview with DW. "But there are psychological barriers which stop people taking to heart what climate science is telling us, and these have been underestimated."

RWE-Braunkohlekraftwerk Niederaußem
Will we be able to move away from fossil fuel as our main energy source?Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In fact, the more information we have about climate change, the more disengaged people in wealthy nations seem to be. Stoknes points to a 1989 survey done in Norway, which indicated the people were more concerned at that time about the changing climate. "Only four in 10 now see it as a problem," he said.

Stoknes explained that the public has the impression only about half the world's climate scientists agree that climate change is happening. In reality, the figure is 97 percent. Stoknes says the way we inform people about climate change is the "greatest communication failure of all time."

"About 85 percent of all the media reports about climate have been framed as doom and disaster. We know this gives people an aversion and leads to avoidance behaviour."

This would appear to fit with a downward slide in climate coverage around the world, says Elisabeth Eide from the University of Bergen. An author and expert on climate change in the media, Eide calls this 'climate fatigue'.

The power of peer pressure

If these researchers are correct and the lack of climate action is mainly psychologically motivated, the problem requires psychological solutions. Stoknes says we have to cross the "doom and disaster barrier" and point the way forward. Norgaard too argues for more positive examples and indications of what we could do to change things.

Psychologist Stoknes stresses the power of social norms to change behaviour. He suggests campaigns that make people compete with their neighbors, other towns, or even relatives at being climate-conscious could make a difference. He reports the success of an app where people can record and compare how much energy they have used.

Another possibility is to draw more attention to easy, green options. "If the normal way a printer works is to use both sides of the paper, for instance, people will do that. Not if they have to change a setting," says Stoknes.

A mind-shift away from portraying climate change as a paralyzing threat and instead focusing on opportunities for practical behavior could prevent the emotional need for denial.