The Psychology of Climate Change Denial
Even as the Science
of global warming gets stronger, fewer Americans believe it’s real. In some ways, it’s nearly as jarring a disconnect as enduring disbelief in evolution or carbon dating. And according to Kari Marie Norgaard, a Whitman College sociologist who’s studied public attitudes towards climate science, we’re in denial.
“Our response to disturbing information is very complex. We negotiate it. We don’t just take it in and respond in a rational way,” said Norgaard.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared in 2007 that greenhouse gases had reached levels not seen in 650,000 years, and were rising rapidly as a result of people burning fossil fuel. Because these gases trap the sun’s heat, they would — depending on human energy habits — heat Earth by an average of between 1.5 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit
by century’s end. Even a midrange rise would likely disrupt the planet’s climate, producing droughts and floods, acidified oceans, altered ecosystems and coastal cities drowned by rising seas.
“If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future,” said Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chairman, when the report was released. “This is the defining moment.”
Studies published since then have only strengthened the IPCC’s predictions, or suggested they underestimate future warming. But as world leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss how to avoid catastrophic climate change, barely half the U.S. public thinks carbon pollution could warm Earth. That’s 20 percent less than in 2007, and lower than at any point in the last 12 years. In a Pew Research Center poll, Americans ranked climate dead last out of 20 top issues, behind immigration and trade policy.
Wired.com talked to Norgaard about the divide between Science
and public opinion.
Wired.com: Why don’t people seem to care?
Kari Norgaard: On the one hand, there have been extremely well-organized, well-funded climate-skeptic campaigns. Those are backed by Exxon Mobil in particular, and the same PR firms who helped the tobacco industry (.pdf) deny the link between cancer and smoking are involved with magnifying doubt around climate change.
That’s extremely important, but my work has been in a different area. It’s been about people who believe in science, who aren’t out to question whether Science
has a place in society.
Wired.com: People who are coming at the issue in good faith, you mean. What’s their response?
Norgaard: Climate change is disturbing. It’s something we don’t want to think about. So what we do in our everyday lives is create a world where it’s not there, and keep it distant.
For relatively privileged people like myself, we don’t have to see the impact in everyday life. I can read about different flood regimes in Bangladesh, or people in the Maldives losing their islands to sea level rise, or highways in Alaska that are altered as permafrost changes. But that’s not my life. We have a vast capacity for this.
Wired.com: How is this bubble maintained?
Norgaard: In order to have a positive sense of self-identity and get through the day, we’re constantly being selective of what we think about and pay attention to. To create a sense of a good, safe world for ourselves, we screen out all kinds of information, from where food comes from to how our clothes our made. When we talk with our friends, we talk about something pleasant.
Wired.com: How does this translate into skepticism about climate change?
Norgaard: It’s a paradox. Awareness has increased. There’s been a lot more information available. This is much more in our face. And this is where the psychological defense mechanisms are relevant, especially when coupled with the fact that other people, as we’ve lately seen with the e-mail attacks, are systematically trying to create the sense that there’s doubt.
If I don’t want to believe that climate change is true, that my lifestyle and high carbon emissions are causing devastation, then it’s convenient to say that it doesn’t.
Wired.com: Is that what this comes down to — not wanting to confront our own roles?
Norgaard: I think so. And the reason is that we don’t have a clear sense of what we can do. Any community organizer knows that if you want people to respond to something, you need to tell them what to do, and make it seem do-able. Stanford University psychologist Jon Krosnick has studied this, and showed that people stop paying attention to climate change when they realize there’s no easy solution. People judge as serious only those problems for which actions can be taken.
Another factor is that we no longer have a sense of permanence. Another psychologist, Robert Lifton, wrote about what the existence of atomic bombs did to our psyche. There was a sense that the world could end at any moment.
Global warming is the same in that it threatens the survival of our species. Psychologists tell us that it’s very important to have a sense of the continuity of life. That’s why we invest in big monuments and want our work to stand after we die and have our family name go on.
That sense of continuity is being ruptured. But climate change has an added aspect that is very important. The scientists who built nuclear bombs felt guilt about what they did. Now the guilt is real for the broader public.
Wired.com: So we don’t want to believe climate change is happening, feel guilty that it is, and don’t know what to do about it? So we pretend it’s not a problem?
Norgaard: Yes, but I don’t want to make it seem crass. Sometimes people who are very empathetic are less likely to help in certain situations, because they’re so disturbed by it. The human capacity of empathy is really profound, and that’s part of our weakness. If we were more callous, then we’d approach it in a more straightforward way. It may be a weakness of our capacity as sentient beings to cope with this problem.