Climate-change denialism

by Stan Hirst

A 2010 series of public opinion polls reveal that 58% of Canadians consider global warming to be real and mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities. By comparison, only 41% of Americans and 38% of British citizens think this. A further 17% of Canadians think that global warming is indeed a fact, but that it is mostly caused by natural changes (the corresponding figures for the U.S.A. and Britain are 20% and 26%). That leaves a quarter of the Canadian population with either no opinion at all or the view that climate change is theoretical and without any proof. A disturbing 39% of Americans and 36% of Brits fall into this category.

Why do such a lot of people find it so difficult to accept something which many others consider one of the most serious problems the planet has ever faced? Effective and persistent deliberate misinformation by the energy industry is one very obvious reason.  Deep suspicion on the part of conservative people of climate-change views expressed widely and forcibly by others considered liberal or just plain radical is a second likely major factor. Perceived overstatement of the consequences of climate change has not helped credibility of the climate change lobby.

George Marshall of the British-based Climate Outreach and Information Network has analysed public attitudes towards climate change and finds several similarities to attitudes towards other unpleasant realties in life. He quotes Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics Stanley Cohen who uses the term passive bystander effect. This describes societies who are faced with conflicts between  a moral impera­tive to take action and a need to rather protect themselves and their families. Cohen suggests that people deliberately maintain a level of ignorance so that they can claim they know less than they do. They exaggerate their own powerlessness and wait indefi­nitely for someone else to act first. Societies negotiate collective strategies to avoid action. They arrive at unwrit­ten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged, and what cannot.

This all sounds a bit severe, but Dr. Kari Norgaard of  Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, ­has reached similar conclusions, and believes that denial [of climate change] is a social construct. Based on her research in Norway, she believes people to be deeply conflicted about cli­mate change, but they manage their anxiety and guilt by excluding it from the cul­tural norms which define what they should pay attention to and think about – their “norms of attention.” People accordingly and tacitly agree that it is socially inappropriate to pay attention to cli­mate change, so it does not come up in conversations, as an issue in voting, or in consumption or career choices. It’s a bit like a committee that has decided to avoid a thorny problem by conspir­ing to make sure that it never makes it onto the agenda of any meeting.

Marshall notes that there are many different ways that the proximity of climate change could force itself onto our agendas. We already feel the impacts in our immediate environment. Scientists and [some] politicians urge us to act. The impacts directly threaten our personal and local livelihoods. And, above all, we realize that it is our consumption and affluence that is causing the problem. However, people have decided that they can keep climate change outside their “norms of attention” through a selective framing that creates the maximum distance. Thus they define it as far away (“it’s a global problem, not a local problem”) or far in the future (“it’s a huge problem for future generations”). They embrace the tiny cluster of sceptics as evidence that “it’s only a theory,” and that “there is still a debate.” And they strategically shift the causes as far away as possible: “I’m not the problem—it’s the Chinese, the rich people, the corporations, whatever.” Europeans (and Canadians) routinely blame the Americans.

People seem to have selected, isolated, and then exaggerated the aspects of climate change that best enable their detachment. And, ironically, focus-group research suggests that people are able to create the most distance when climate change is categorized as an “environmental” problem, not a social or an economic one.

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