April 28, 2011, 9:23 AM
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
As Donald Trump tries to milk a last bit of publicity out of the failed “birther” challenge to President Obama, it’s worth reading a fresh take by an Australian psychologist on the deep roots of denial in people with fundamentalist passions of whatever stripe. Here’s an excerpt:
[I]deology trumps facts.And it doesn’t matter what the ideology is, whether socialism, any brand of fundamentalist religion, or free-market extremism. The psychological literature shows quite consistently that a threat to one’s worldview is more than likely met by a dismissal of facts, however strong the evidence. Indeed, the stronger the evidence, the greater the threat — and hence the greater the denial.In its own bizarre way, then, the rising noise level of climate denial provides further evidence that global warming resulting from human CO2 emissions is indeed a fact, however inconvenient it may be. Read the rest.
As a sociologist and longtime student of human responses to environmental problems, I’ve seen reams of analysis come and go on why we get some things right and some very wrong. A new book by Kari Norgaard has done the best job yet of cutting to the core on our seeming inability to grasp and meaningfully respond to human-driven climate change.As the science of climate change has become stronger and more dire, media coverage, public opinion, and government actions regarding this issue has declined. At the same time, climate denial positions have become increasingly accepted, despite a lack of scientific evidence. Even among the public that accepts the science of global climate change, the dire circumstances we now face in this regard are consistently downplayed, and the logical implications that follow from the scientific analysis of the necessity to enact swift and aggressive measures to combat climate change are not followed through either intellectually or politically.Instead, at best, a series of half measures have been proposed, which though they may be comforting, are essentially symbolic measures that allow the status quo to continue unchanged, and thus will not adequately address the issue of global climate change. Thus attempts to address climate change have encountered significant cultural, political, and economic barriers that have not been overcome. While there have been several attempts to explain the lack of meaningful action regarding climate change, these models have not developed into an integrated and empirically supported approach. Additionally, many of these models are based in an individualistic perspective, and thus engage in a form of psychological reductionism. Finally, none of these models are able to coherently explain the inter-related phenomena regarding climate change that is occurring at the individual, small group, institutional, and societal levels.To move beyond the limitations of these approaches, Dr. Norgaard develops a sociological model that views the response to global climate change as a social process. One of the fundamental insights of sociology is that individuals are part of a larger structure of cultural and social interactions. Thus through the socialization processes, we construct certain ways of life and understandings of the world that guide our everyday interactions. Individuals become the carriers of the orientations and practices that constitute our social order. A disjuncture between our taken-for-granted way of living, such as the new behaviors necessitated by climate change, are experienced at the individual level as identity threats, at the institutional level as challenges to social cohesion, and at the societal level as legitimation threats. When this occurs, there are powerful processes that work at the psychological, institutional, and overall society level to maintain the current orientations and ensure social stability. Taken together, these social processes create cultural and social stability. They also create, from the view of climate change, a form of social inertia that inhibits rapid social change.From this sociological perspective, Dr. Norgaard takes on the apparent paradox of climate change and public awareness; as our knowledge about the nature and seriousness of climate change has increased, our political and social engagement with the issue has declined. Why? Dr. Norgaard’s answer (crudely put) is that our personality structures and social norms are so thoroughly enmeshed with a growth economy based on fossil fuels that any consideration of the need to change our way of life to deal with climate change evokes powerful emotions of anxiety and desires to avoid this issue. This avoidance behavior is socially reinforced by collective group norms, as well as the messages we receive from the mass media and the political elite. She develops this thesis through the use of an impressive array of sociological theory, including the sociology of the emotions, cultural sociology, and political economy. Additionally, she utilizes specific theoretical approaches regarding the social denial of catastrophic risk. Here she skillfully repurposes the literature on nuclear war and collective denial to the issue of climate change. This is a unique and insightful use of this literature. Thus her theoretical contribution is substantial and original. She then illustrates this process through a thick qualitative analysis based on participant observation in Norway. In her analysis of conversations, she illustrates how collective denial of climate change takes place through conversations. This provided powerful ground truth evidence of her theoretical framework.This is an extremely important intellectual contribution. Research on climate change and culture has been primarily focused on individual attitudinal change. This work brings a sociological perspective to our understanding of individual and collective responses to climate change information, and opens up a new research area. It also has important practical implications. Most climate change communication efforts are based on conveying information to individuals. The assumption is that individuals will take in this information and then act rationally in their own interests. Dr. Norgaard’s analysis course charts a different approach. As she demonstrates, it is not a lack of information that inhibits action on climate change. Rather, the knowledge brings about unpleasant emotions and anxiety. Individuals and communities seek to restore a sense of equilibrium and stability, and thus engage in a form of denial which, although the basic facts of climate change are acknowledged, the logical conclusions and actions that follow from the information are minimized and not acted upon. This perspective calls for a much different approach to climate change communications, and defines a new agenda for this field.
[Note: people interested in this line of argument should follow the work done by researchers at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), at Columbia University, @ http://cred.columbia.edu.]