Environment

Living in Denial: Why Even People Who Believe in Climate Change Do Nothing About It

Kari Marie Norgaard's new book examines why those who know about climate change fail to act on that knowledge.

Don’t be fooled by the title of Kari Marie Norgaard’s Living in Denial- this is not a book about people who reject the basic science of climate change (I’m looking at you, Koch brothers and Exxon). This is a book about many of us, and how we to varying degrees live in denial. Although focusing on a small rural community in Norway, Norgaard sheds light on how people systematically interact in ways that serve to downplay or ignore climate change, and avoid the unsettling emotions it raises.

In the Introduction, Norgaard says she is looking at climate change to build a model of socially organized denial, where denial is not just an individual, psychological process, but one that occurs through social interaction. By denial, she means Stanley Cohen’s three varieties of denial: literal, interpretive, and implicatory. Literal is outright dismissal of information (i.e. climate change deniers). Interpretive means reinterpretation of information (perhaps thinking climate change is natural, or will not be that bad).

Implicatory is Norgaard’s main focus, meaning the information is not rejected but the psychological, political, or moral implications are not followed. This is the heart of the book: why those who know about climate change fail to act on that knowledge. In that sense, Norgaard is not interested in climate change activists, but why so many who accept the science don’t act, and how this inaction becomes a cultural norm (similar to what political theorist Antonio Gramsci calls hegemony).

Norgaard explores the topic of social denial through interviews and ethnography in Bygdaby, Norway, from 2000-1. Bygdaby is a small rural community of about 14,000 people, with many farms and a strong sense of tradition, yet also firm roots to the modern world, including the fact that 34% of Norway’s national revenues came from petroleum in 2008.

Although gaining so much of its wealth from oil, Norgaard tells us that neither the country nor the town of Bygdaby has the well-financed climate denial operations that other countries have, most notably the U.S. That makes Bygdaby an interesting case study, since most of the residents, Norgaard tells us, accept the science of climate change, meaning much of the inaction here is apparently not due to simply literal denial.

In exploring the topic, Norgaard makes use of many different bodies of research in the social sciences and psychology. The work is nicely blended with her ethnographic research to illustrate the subtle ways in which individuals engage in social norms of selective attention to avoid uncomfortable feelings, crystallizing as cultural nonmobilization on climate change.

Much of these processes are not necessarily conscious nor deliberate, so in focusing attention on them, Norgaard helps make them conscious. In doing so, the book offers insights into underlying social and psychological barriers to action that – to my knowledge – have not been widely considered or discussed, yet arguably represent some of the biggest challenges to addressing climate change.

Norgaard notes many different ways that the social organization of denial works – she later calls it a kaleidoscope. Among them is the sheer enormity of the problem of climate change, one that can leave people feeling powerlessness, as individual actions appear insufficient and political actions seem so untenable. Thus bringing up climate change can feel like it accomplishes little more than bringing down the social mood of a group, kind of like Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live: “Sure, it’s a beautiful, sunny day, because the planet is cooking us alive.” Wah-waaah!

Acknowledging climate change also immediately invites questions over how you live. Unless you have a zero waste home run by solar power with an organic garden and a bike, then you probably use fossil fuels, which invites criticism about hypocrisy – criticism that is somehow null and void if you just do not bring up climate change at all.

The result is that climate change is often only discussed during socially sanctioned times and settings, like classrooms. Yet it is in the fabric of everyday life that the problem is woven and changes need to be made.

Though focused on denial, Norgaard’s work indirectly raises the question of how and why people become active and push for social change. Norgaard says that most people in Bygdaby probably understand at least the basics of climate change science: increasing greenhouse gases trap heat and warm the planet. But does level of awareness – both cognitively and emotionally – make a difference in individual response? What if more people connected increasing greenhouse gases with daily weather events? (How to change the minds of people who deny the science outright is an entirely different matter, as science writer Chris Mooney recently laid out.)

For example, a recent Yale study found significant differences in how groupings of people respond to climate change, suggesting more variation between individuals than Living in Denial explores. This could be a function of place (the Yale study looked at the U.S.) and also time, as the science on climate change grows more alarming, and its everyday effects become more apparent.

But Norgaard’s main point is showing how a group of well-meaning people can be both aware of climate change and not addressing the problem – how they interact in ways that push climate change out of the range of full attention and action. In that way, it speaks to many of us. As we become more aware of the subtle ways in which we collectively avoid the unsettling reality of climate change, will we change our actions to align with the knowledge? Or will we continue living in denial?

Christine Shearer is a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch, and a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UC Santa Barbara. She is managing editor of Conducive, and author of the forthcoming book, "Kivalina: A Climate Change Story" (Haymarket Books, 2011).
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