The social organisation of denial: Understanding why we fail to act on climate change, and what we can do about that.

Kari Marie Norgaard has written a useful research paper for – perhaps surprisingly – the World Bank. (Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges in Responding to Climate Change)

She investigates how denial, operating as a social process, is hindering our ability to take effective action on climate change despite growing concern and awareness of the risks. It is not a complete analysis – I would recommend that readers keep in mind the insights about social change, consumerism,  and values highlighted in the WWF ‘Weathercocks & Signposts’ report discussed here, and analysis of the dynamics of consumer capitalism such as those discussed here and here.

Norgaard’s report is forty-something pages of body text and tables. The following is my attempt at an Executive Summary.

[The paper is mainly focused on understanding what is happening in the rich (and high greenhouse gas emitting) countries of our world. It seems reasonable to assume that similar dynamics may be at play for the rich within less-developed nations, but that different dynamics are at work for the world’s poor.]

The problem:

Climate scientists have identified global warming as the most important environmental issue of our time, but it has taken over 20 years for the problem to penetrate the public discourse in even the most superficial manner. While some nations have done better than others, no nation has adequately reduced emissions. ….Although public concern is beginning to arise, climate change has been neither a policy issue, nor publicly salient in the broadest sense. Why is this the case? And more importantly, given the seriousness of future climate scenarios, is there anything that can be done? (p.3)

Understanding and concern: what the studies show

  1. A lack of citizen understanding regarding the basics of climate science is an almost universal finding worldwide even though knowledge has increased over time. Especially notable is confusion between causes of climate change and ozone depletion, and confusion between weather and climate.
  2. Americans know far less about climate change than their counterparts in the developed world
  3. Accurate and complete understanding of information is not a pre-requisite for concern.
  4. Concern is widespread around the world, but it may also be inversely correlated with the wealth and carbon footprint of a nation.
  5. In some studies, more informed respondents reported less concern or sense of responsibility towards climate change.
  6. People stop paying attention to global climate change when they realize that there is no easy solution for it. Many people judge as serious only those problems for which they think action can be taken. (p.6)

(Inadequate) existing explanations for this lack of response

  1. Lack of information & understanding (“If only they knew”) “What is important to draw from this section…is that information alone is not enough to produce action, and that “information” like caring as will be discussed below, cannot be thought of as generic isolated blocks of “facts” with universal meaning and significance across all communities. Instead, information is socially structured, given social meanings, and must be understood in social context. As I will illustrate below, information on climate change may be accepted, resisted, navigated and interpreted differently depending upon the sense of efficacy, self esteem, and social support of the individuals receiving it.” (pp.22-23)
  2. Lack of caring (“If only they cared”) [Studies show that ] “while concern could be higher, the trend towards concern is worldwide. And that concern is increasing. ….Thus, the notion that people do not respond because they do not care about climate change is inadequate.” (p.23)
  3. It’s not high enough in people’s “hierarchy of needs” In this line of reasoning, people cannot think about climate change because at best it will affect them in the future and they are too consumed with solving the problems of the present. Here we can identify the fact that for many wealthy people in industrialized nations climate change is still abstract and distant from their daily lives (p.24) [But the hierarchy of needs is a social construct – something especially obvious in rich nations – and there is evidence which seems to indicate the very opposite of what this hypothesis suggests:] “For example, the European nation that is threatened most by sea level rise, the Netherlands, is at the very bottom of concern for climate change in AC Nielsen’s 2007 global study of nations. And in the U.S. Zahran et al. (2006) find that “respondents living within 1 mile of the nearest coastline at negative relative elevation to the coast are less (not more) likely to support government-led climate initiatives” (pp.24-25)
  4. Optimism (“Everything’s going to be alright”) [Perhaps people believe the government will deal with it? Or that technology will solve it? Evidence from a Norwegian study suggests the opposite: people (at least in Norway) are becoming more skeptical that things will work out] (p.25)

What’s actually going on: Socially organised denial (“We don’t really want to know”)

Norgaard argues that we cannot fully understand “this failure of information to move through the public awareness and into policy outcomes” (p26) unless we understand the social organisation of denial – something that research has mainly viewed as a process working within individuals. In other words, “both what individuals hear and choose to pay attention to, or ignore, must be understood within the context of both social norms shaping interpersonal interaction and the broader political economic context.” (p.26)

Thinking about the problem of climate change is deeply disturbing for most people – it generates a cascade of negative emotions that motivate us to processes of denial.

  1. Our sense of ontological security is threatened: Large scale environmental problems such as climate change seem threaten the very conditions of our life and society. This feeling may be amorphous, but it is certainly unpleasant. (p.30)
  2. We feel helpless: The problem often seems overwhelming, far too large to grapple with, and we don’t always have confidence that our governments and the world community can be relied upon to solve the problem. (p.30)
  3. We feel guilty: We are aware that our privileged lifestyles and actions contribute to the problem, and that makes us feel bad. (pp.30-31)
  4. We don’t want to feel like ‘a bad person” or a member of a ‘bad nation’: Individually and collectively, citizens of rich nations gain very real material benefits from their greenhouse gas polluting activities. We want to continue to believe in ourselves as good people. Engaging with climate change issues, and with climate change facts such as our failure to meet emission reduction targets, challenges that positive sense of self. (p.32) Clean-Green New Zealand, anyone?
  5. It is difficult to link to daily life:“rather than [being] a problem we can touch and see for ourselves, climate change is a threat which must be interpreted for us through scientific expertise, using complex instrumentation. As a result, the environmental problem of contaminated water feels invisible to those who can easily afford to buy their water bottled.” (p.33)

Furthermore, talking about it with others is difficult, as for most people it falls outside social norms – it is not a popular activity to talk about matters that make people feel uncertain and guilty. And yet conversation is vital for the sharing of information and ideas, and the creation of collective meaning and the building of community, so this absence of talk about climate change leaves us in a position where in a sense “we don’t know how to know about it”. (p.28)

Finally, there are a range political-economic factors that work as barriers to effective action, including:

1. The ability of the fossil fuel industry to influence government policy [and in countries less directly influenced by the industry, the influence major fossil fuel using industries and the general economic growth ideology]
2. The existence of climate change skepticism campaigns funded by fossil fuel interest groups
3. The lack of quality information about climate change in the mass media
4. The distortion of climate science as presented in the media due to the operation of “balance as bias” (pp.36-37)

So what should we do?

Norgaard’s recommendations are:

  1. Engage with denial openly – research shows fears are less paralyzing when faced openly.
  2. Contradict fear by providing honest information, open discussion (e.g. acknowledgement of the risks but also hopeful examples)
  3. Contradict helplessness through providing opportunities for effective action, including opportunities that reduce isolation, build community, and create positive frames of reference. “people must be given not only information, but something to do.” (p.47)
  4. Combat guilt by acknowledging the present and providing opportunities to engage in more responsible behavior.
  5. Confront and constrain the influence of the fossil fuel industry on policy debate (e.g. public information campaigns)
  6. Develop other ways of appealing to national identity and national pride e.g. through emission reduction efforts



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