Talk about climate change seems to be a taboo subject in America today.
mainstream media routinely report on extreme weather, like this
winter's high temperatures and last summer's droughts, but reporters and
commentators typically veer away from connecting it to climate change.
turns out that the United States is one of the few countries in the
world still quibbling over climate change, and its influence is
stymieing progress at environmental summits like Durbin
(2010), and Copenhagen
What's going on?
As you may expect, it's about money, politics, culture and media bias.
a sociologist at Western Michigan University, has been studying how
sociological and cultural factors are preventing Americans from talking
about or acting on climate change. He drew on the research of sociologist Stanley Cohen, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, who says that denial "refers
to the maintenance of social worlds in which an undesirable situation
(event, condition, phenomenon) is unrecognized, ignored or made to seem
He cites three categories of denial:
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- A literal denial is: "the assertion that something did not happen or is not true."
- With an interpretive
denial, the basic facts are not denied, however, ""they are given a
different meaning from what seems apparent to others." People
recognize that something is happening but that it's good for us.
denial "covers the multitude of vocabularies, justifications,
rationalizations, evasions that we use to deal with our awareness
of so many images of unmitigated suffering." Here, "knowledge
itself is not an issue. The genuine challenge is doing the "right'
thing with this knowledge."
and interpretive denial
climate change deniers declare that the earth is not warming even
though 98 percent of our scientists have written thousands of
peer-reviewed papers and reports concluding that climate change is real
and caused by human activity
deniers are organized by conservative think tanks funded by the fossil
fuel industry that attempt to create doubt about climate science and
block actions that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create
clean energy alternatives.
To do this they use conspiracy theories and "fake" experts with no background in climate science. They insist on absolute
certainty, cherry-pick the data and ignore the larger body of evidence
or misrepresent data and promote logical fallacies like "the climate has
changed in the past, therefore current change is natural."
"Creating doubt blocks any action," said Kramer. "This is the same tactic the tobacco industry used
to deny that smoking was harmful to people's health. And, some of the same people are now doing this with climate change."
"conservative climate change denial counter-movement," as Kramer calls
it, was led by the George W. Bush administration and congressional
Republicans who obstruct and manipulate the political system to
promote their view. They are complemented by right-wing media outlets
such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. The mainstream media's "balancing
norm" practice then allows the denialists to be placed on par with the
rationale behind this counter-movement is that corporations make money
if Americans continue their materialistic attitudes and practices so
they lobby politicians to protect their interests and they fund think
tanks that accuse "eco-scientists" of destroying capitalism, as revealed
by the New YorkTimes.
provide research monies to university scientists, who rely on them as
support from state legislatures and benefactors dwindles. They advance
narratives that people from other parts of the world are worse off than
Americans, so we don't have to change. They make claims to virtue on TV
ads about all they are doing for the environment (a.k.a.
"greenwashing"). And, they argue that doing something about global
warming will cost too much and cause them to lose their competitive
shows that conservative white males are more likely to espouse climate
change denial than other groups for two reasons. They tend to filter
out any information that is different from their already-held worldview
because it threatens the identity, status and esteem they receive by
being part of their group, he said. Sociologists call this "Identity
conservative white males have a stronger need to justify the status quo
and resist attempts to change it. Sociologists call this "System
Protective Cognition" should also inform environmental activists that
the information deficit model of activism is not always a good approach,
warned Kramer. Just providing more information may not change anyone's
views given their commitment to a particular cultural worldview.
In implicatory denial
people recognize that something untoward is happening but they fail to
act because they are emotionally uncomfortable or troubled about it.
example, there are the people who are aware of climate change and have
some information about it, but take no action, make no behavioral
changes and remain apathetic.
response occurs when people confront confusing and conflicting
information from political leaders and the media. Consequently, they
have yet another reason for denial--or they believe the problem can be
overcome with technology and they can go on with their lives.
level people understand that climate change can alter human
civilization, but they feel a sense of helplessness and powerlessness at
the prospect," said Kramer. "Others feel guilty that they may have
caused the problem."
Several cultural factors also thwart any decisive action on climate change, said Kramer.
sense of "individualism" helps us strive toward our individual goals,
but it likewise keeps us from joining together to do something about
climate change. They ask: "What good does it do to recycle or drive
less when we have such a huge, complex problem as climate change?"
exceptionalism" celebrates the American way of life, which has given us a
vast bounty of wealth and material goods. We want to continue this
life and, in fact, deserve it. Nothing bad will happen to us.
Finally, "political alienation" keeps us from trusting our political system to tackle the problem.
ultimately need is international agreement about what to do about
climate change," said Kramer. "Nothing will happen, however, until the
United States commits to doing something."
What to do about climate change?
believes we should regard climate change as a matter of social justice
and not just science because the people most affected by it are not the
ones who created it.
To illustrate, analysts at Maplecroft
have produced a map that measures of the risk of climate change impacts
and the social and financial ability of communities and governments to
cope with it. The most vulnerable nations are Haiti, Bangladesh and
Kramer emphasized the moral obligation we have to future generations
and other species. Simply put, we must reduce our use of fossil fuels
that are largely responsible for emitting greenhouse gases into the
atmosphere and causing extreme weather conditions like hurricanes,
floods, drought, tsunami, earthquakes, heat waves, warm winters and
melting polar ice caps.
people's lives, livelihoods and communities are affected and it
shouldn't escape notice that human encroachment on animal habitats is
contributing to massive species losses, what some call the Sixth Great
Extinction. Criminologists are grappling with the language
characterizing this wonton disregard with words like "ecocide" and
suggests that we shift our lifestyles from a culture based on
materialistic consumption to a culture based on the caretaking of the
Earth, as advocated by Scott Russell Sanders in A Conservationist Manifesto
(2009). Sanders asks such questions as (see a video
- What would a truly sustainable economy look like?
- What responsibilities do we bear for the well-being of future generations?
- What responsibilities do we bear toward Earth's millions of other species?
- In a time of ecological calamity and widespread human suffering, how should we imagine a good life?
Kramer calls for a more "prophetic imagination" as put forward by
Walter Brueggeman, a theologian and professor emeritus at Columbia
Theological Seminary, where we take a reasoned approach and face the
realities of climate change, confront the truth, "penetrate the numbness
and despair," and avoid drowning in our sense of loss and grief that is
paralyzing us from action.
an approach can give voice to a "hope-filled responsibility" where
people are empowered to act rather than left listless and inattentive.
"It's not about someone being responsible, but all of us," said Kramer, "because we are all affected by climate change."
One major way we can do that is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions--and we have a way to measure our progress.
, author of The End of Nature
(1988), one of the first popularized books about global warming,
contends that rising counts in greenhouse gas emissions are threatening
our world. Today, we are at 400 parts per million (ppm) and heading
toward 550-650 ppm compared to pre-industrial counts that measured at
275 ppm. McKibben advocates a goal of 350 ppm
and has encouraged people in 188 countries to reduce carbon emissions in their communities. (See the video
explaining this charge.)
However, can people really be motivated to act given the complexity of the problem?
Kramer harkens to Howard Zinn's autobiographical book, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train
(1994). In it Zinn says that we have to "look to history" to see that
people working at the grassroots level were able to make change despite
tremendous and entrenched obstacles. It was people who ended slavery
and Apartheid, liberated India, dismantled the Soviet Union and
initiated the Arab Spring of 2011. (See a video
change is a political issue" Kramer insisted. "We know what to do. We
know that we need to mitigate the carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
What we lack is the political will and the mechanisms to move forward."
Kramer insisted that climate change is not a party or ideological issue but rather a humanity issue.
"Planet Earth will survive," he concluded, "but will human civilization?"