sociology of climate change

I recently read Kari Marie Norgaard’s, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, an excellent and somewhat unusual book that has instantly made its way onto the list of “must read” books that I send people when they ask for recommendations.[1] The primary reason I think so highly of this work is simple: It describes a facet of our climate change mess that has received far too little attention, and delivers some deep and possibly critical revelations in the process. In fact, this is the first time I’ve seen an expert focus explicitly and at length on the sociology of climate change and not psychology, economics, politics, activism, or, dare I say it, the underlying climate science. Norgaard does talk briefly about other areas, most notably psychology, but her primary focus here is on sociology.

Norgaard addresses the fundamental issue that so many of us obsess over: Why aren’t more of us taking meaningful action on climate change? One aspect of her book that takes a little adjustment for many of us involved in social mediaizing about climate change is how she uses the word “denial”: She classifies everyone who understands that climate change is real and serious but still does nothing about it, for reasons that vary from one person to the next, as being in denial.[2] While I disagreed with her choice at first — it felt too harsh to me, like she was lumping these passive consumers and voters in the same category as the trench warfare deniers we encounter in web site comment sections — I now think it’s an accurate and critically important distinction.

That change in my view of this situation makes it all the more important that I provide the full context of how I approached Living in Denial, as part of explaining why I think it’s such an important contribution to the ongoing dialog about how we respond to climate change.

Before reading Living in Denial, my mental model of our situation, which I think is fairly common among the scientists and climate communicators I know, included a three-way breakout of the citizens of “developed” countries:

  • A tiny portion of the public already engaged with the topic and attempting to do something about it. We’re activists, we drive plug-in cars, we squeeze our energy consumption and carbon footprint as much as we can, and we act like “tedious bores” (to borrow an annoying apt phrase from Michael Tobis) at social gatherings when the topics of climate or energy come up. If you read this site the chances are pretty good that you’re one of us.
  • The even tinier segment that we from the first group routinely call “deniers”. These are the people I’ve long described as being driven by either ideology or financial interests to deny that climate change is happening or that it’s man made or that it’s a serious threat or that it’s not too late to address — pick an argument and strategy, but don’t be surprised when you see them changing arguments as rising sea levels chase them up the ladder of denial.
  • The vast majority of the public, those people for whom climate change is not an alien concept, but don’t feel anywhere near the level of urgency needed to motivate them to alter significantly their consumption or voting patterns. People in this group are virtually allergic to partaking in anything as crass as environmental activism. They judge their lives largely by what they possess and experience, with precious little concern for the future aside from what directly impacts them or their children. Their lifestyle creates a strongly positive correlation between their happiness and their environmental impact, most notably in terms of their carbon and water footprints.

The main communication battle, as so many of us have told each other for years, involves the first two groups trying to influence the last — it’s the battle for the hearts and minds (and therefore the consumption and voting patterns) of the vast middle. If we climate activists and communicators can get even a small portion of the currently disengaged masses to alter their interactions with society and replace mindless consumption with mindful consumption, to scour away their myopia and get them to think in terms of multiple generations and not next summer’s vacation on the other side of the planet, we can pretty quickly change public policy and start building some momentum toward creating a more sustainable civilization. We’re up against more than mere complacency, of course, as anyone knows who’s been carpet bombed by fossil fuel industry ads extolling the wonders of “clean coal” and natural gas.

Norgaard uses a different taxonomy, one that focuses strictly on deniers, that she borrows from the British sociologist Stanley Cohen:

  • Literal: The people who insist that climate change isn’t happening.
  • Interpretive: Those who accept the facts but put a spin on them to make them appear less important or relevant.
  • Implicatory: Those who find a way to shun the issue (my term).

Norgaard quotes Cohen as saying the last group minimizes “the psychological, political or moral implications that conventionally follow”, and observes that the “public silence on climate change”

is not in most cases a rejection of information per se, but the failure to integrate this knowledge into everyday life or to transform it into social action. As Cohen puts it, “The facts of children starving to death in Somalia , mass rape of women in Bosnia, a massacre in East Timor, homeless people our streets are recognized but are not seen as psychologically disturbing or as carrying a moral imperative to act…. Unlike literal or interpretive denial, knowledge itself is not at issue, but doing ‘right’ thing with the knowledge.

Norgaard focuses throughout Living in Denial on the implicatory group, the vast, disengaged middle group I described above.

Thanks to Norgaard’s book, I’m now convinced that I and a lot of others in this fight have horribly misread the situation with regards to this last and critically important group. I’ve always assumed that they simply didn’t understanding the issue well enough to feel the urgency; I was a strict adherent to the “information deficit model” school of thought. While I’m still convinced that information deficit is a significant problem in getting people to take action[3], I think Norgaard makes an extremely compelling case that that a larger influence is the sociology of climate change, and how society creates (to borrow an economics term) barriers to entry for individuals taking action on climate change.

I’ve long said that because climate change is indeed the ultimate example of a “super wicked problem”, we need to look at a whole panorama of factors in dealing with it — science, technology, economics, politics, and psychology. But even as I tried to take an all-encompassing view of the problem, I still had a blind spot, in that I never even considered sociology.

This all ties in to something I often mention that Paul Gilding says in his book The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World. He argues that when people ask “what will it take to move us to action?”, they often resort to talking about a “Pearl Harbor incident” that jolts us out of our complacency and makes us leap into super-hero-esque action as we mobilize our human, financial, and material resources to limiting the damage of climate change. He argues that before such a turnabout can happen, there has to be a change in us that opens us up to responding to a trigger event. He points out that we’ve already had several candidates for inciting events, like Katrina and the EU heat wave of 2003, that we simply ignored. This notion of our epiphany happening in two stages, the prep for the epiphany and the epiphany itself, which I always found compelling, dovetails perfectly, if grimly, with Norgaard’s view: The current sociology of climate change makes it vastly more difficult for that needed, initial sea change to happen in us.

But what could make that prerequisite change in us? My assumption has always been that once we take enough of a pounding from climate change impacts in enough places around the world, so many people will understand and feel the urgency of our situation that we’ll be ripe for a big epiphany. Put another way, it will take a steady drumbeat of “small” impacts, spaced closely enough together to overcome our short memories and affecting the “right” parts of the world’s population (because rich people matter much more than poor people in this context) to prime us so that a major catastrophe, like a hurricane roaring up the US east coast and hitting the New York City area and causing far worse damage than Sandy, will force us to take action. After reading Living in Denial, I’m not sure even that scenario is right. Norgaard makes a compelling case, even if not in so many words, that the change has to happen at the meso scale, a reprogramming of the fabric of society to stop the suppression of communication and activism. This is, to put it mildly, not good news, simply because it all but guarantees that we’ll stay on our current path of rising emissions with the concomitant, ever-rising, locked-in future impacts much longer than many of us assumed.

Going back over a decade, to when I was first getting deeply engaged with climate change, it would have been very easy for me to yield to cheap cynicism and conclude that humanity would not do anything significant about our greenhouse gas emissions until it was too late to avoid truly catastrophic results. In my own act of denial and faith in humanity, I refused to see the world that way. Because I subscribed to the information deficit model I was able to cling to the belief that we weren’t fundamentally broken, either individually (via psychology, evolutionary or otherwise) or en masse (via sociology, a factor that emerges from psychology and other phenomena). I’m no longer sure that the cynical view that said we were no smarter or more possessed of enlightened self-interest than an animal responding to pleasure and pain stimuli was incorrect. In the last 10 years our global emissions from fossil fuel use and cement making have zoomed by nearly 40% (XLS file), and while we’ve seen lots of nibbling around the edges of the problem (the adoption of EVs and residential solar power, renewable portfolio standards, coal losing its deadly luster in the US, if not globally), there’s been nothing close to the breadth, depth, and type of change we desperately need. Aside from those increased emissions, the primary “accomplishments” of the last decade seem to have been polarization and political gridlock.

The implications of all this are sobering. If we truly need to escape from the trap of sociology and psychology caused by our technological and economic development racing so far ahead of our evolved nature, than it’s exceedingly difficult to justify the blogging, letters to editors, TED talks, books, presentations, etc. that consume our activist hours. In and of themselves they are so much wheel spinning, a righteous hobby that sucks up our time and energy while we (perhaps unknowingly) wait for the environment to deliver enough pain to make us act in our own best interest.

Does Norgaard’s (and my) interpretation mean we’re doomed, and that the NTHE (near-term human extinction) camp is correct? Absolutely not. But it does imply that we’re facing a much more difficult future than many of us, including me, had assumed even in a plausible worst case scenario. With every day we collectively refuse to see and act on climate change in a way appropriate to the threat we’re locking in more, more painful, and more expensive impacts. We are increasing the odds of seeing major food shortages, as more frequent heat waves (e.g. Russia in 2010) and relentless sea level rise devastates coastal population and food producing areas.

The solution, to use an overly burdened word in this context, is not merely a grass roots approach, as Norgaard suggests in her final paragraphs, but the right kind of grass roots effort. Environmental activists are addicted to starting their own, from-the-ground-up efforts to try to “fix climate change” (or mercury pollution or particulate matter pollution or loss of wetlands or…), often with precious little steely eyed analysis of what is really needed and how best to accomplish it. Our lack of understanding of the basic science (e.g. the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2), our desire to save humanity from itself, and our arrogant belief that we’re individually the ones to pull off that astounding feat, often lead us to do ineffective and counterproductive things. We need a reformulated environmentalism, one that is as smart and savvy and ruthless as the fossil fuel companies, one that can hurdle the barriers of politics, economics, psychology, and, yes, sociology.

But that’s a topic for another post.


[1] The others are Eaarth, Limits to Growth, and Merchants of Doubt.

[2] For a similar take on this “stealth denial”, see “Turning up the volume on climate change isn’t changing behaviour” [http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/behavioural-insights/climate-change-denial-behaviour-change]

[3] I’ve seen many examples of people who were deeply committed to doing something about climate change but were shocked to find out that CO2 is not like other pollutants and stays in the atmosphere for a very long time, essentially permanently, in human planning terms. (Even if this characteristic of CO2 is old news to you, please pause here for a moment to consider its implications for our emissions and their consequences. CO2 is not a convenient pollutant that will very quickly “rain out” of the atmosphere as our emissions decline; our emissions are, for human planning purposes, a one-way ratchet, making it all the more critical that we make deep and lasting cuts as soon as possible. When environmentalists realize this for the first time they feel trapped and often leap to the wrong conclusion, namely that it’s too late to do anything about this mess.) Likewise I’ve often scared such people simply by showing them the “waterfall graph” of Arctic sea ice volume or pointing out how energy, water, climate, and food production are tied up in one big, nasty knot. Norgaard sees very little merit in the information deficit model, making it the one point where I have a significant disagreement with her.

Photo Credit: Sociology of Cimate Change/shutterstock