May 12th, 2015


Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, UC Berkeley

Associate Professor, Sociology and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon

Author, What We Think About When We Try not to Think About Global Warming


A sociologist, a linguist and an economist walked into the Commonwealth Club, and…it sounds like the first line of a joke, but it was actually the start of a wide-ranging discussion of the emotional, sociological and economic underpinnings of climate denial.

In her book “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life,” sociologist Kari Norgaard profiled a rural community in Norway during an unusually warm winter. Ice fishing and the ski industry were both negatively impacted, yet its citizens did nothing collectively to respond to an economic disaster that was clearly the result of global warming. Norgaard finds this sense of denial paralleled in other well-off, well-educated Western nations, including the United States.

“It’s the most serious, very complex problem,” Norgaard says about climate change.  “It’s threatening to our fossil fuel based economy, it’s threatening to our political systems…it’s threatening to our sense of the future, meaning, cultural norms, so many different things.”  And yet it appears we as a society have failed to develop any meaningful response, even among those who accept it as reality.

It was during one of her classes at the University of Oregon that Norgaard got the inspiration to explore the way society has responded to climate change.  She observed that while some students reacted emotionally to a disturbing film, others remained impassive.  “It got me thinking about how it is that we receive and process really disturbing information, and the idea that in fact when information is really disturbing, one of our reactions can be to shut down.

Linguistics professor George Lakoff  believes that for each of us, our own personal world view gets in the way.  For many, this leads to climate denial. “When you have facts that come in that won’t fit the way that you understand the world, then the way you understand the world is not gonna change.  The facts will be either ignored, ridiculed or attacked…it’s like it’s not even a fact.”

Surprisingly, “people were actually more concerned about global warming in 1989, twenty-five years ago, than they are today,” says Per Espen Stoknes, an economist and psychologist. Since then, he says, scientific narrative has largely put distance between us and climate change, dulling our sense of urgency.  “It’s distant in time, distant in space and then distant in social impact.  It’s always impacting somebody else that I don’t know …and we know that empathy is decreasing with increasing social distance.”

Perhaps distance leads to denial. But no matter the reason, Norgaard sees a problem more serious than that: climate awareness combined with inaction. “The fact that people who do get it, who do see what’s happening and believe it, are not mobilizing to a greater extent. I think that is by far the more serious problem.”

“We do need a political leadership,” she continues, “but we also need discourses about how we can be citizens and enact that caring, responsibility towards each other and the kinds of things that all of us can do to move our society forward.”

There are those who don’t believe that individual action matters.  And in Stoknes’ view, they’re right. “Individual actions will never solve the climate problem -- that’s what I’m saying as a psychologist,” he asserts. “However, it does have huge social ripple effects.” By acting as individuals, and getting acknowledgment from others, he says, we reinforce the idea that effecting change is a collective effort. “So it does have a social, cultural effect, even if individual action will never solve the climate problem itself.”

Taking the conversation public is one way to move the needle, says Norgaard.  “We need to have discourses about what it means in our place, how the things that we are seeing are about climate change…all of these different ways that we can make climate change visible in public space: letters to the editor, all of these kinds of things matter. Just talking about it in simple conversation helps to make it real, which is part of how the democratic process needs to work.”

For those who have a hard time framing that conversation, Stoknes suggests several approaches. One topic that hits home for nearly everyone is health: “Health of people, your family, your children, the community and also health of the forests or the health of the water system.That really makes it feel personal, near, urgent and here.”

Ethical and economic issues also serve to push buttons and prick up ears.  Pope Francis himself has spoken out against the moral perils of global warming.  And while climate change and the environmental disasters it spawns mean billions of dollars lost, there is also  opportunity around the corner for those who would dive into the new energy economy.

“Health, risk, morals and opportunities, these are the ways to speak about the climate,” Stoknes concludes. “So please join us!”


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- Anny Celsi
May 12, 2015
The Commonwealth Club of California
Photos by Ed Ritger