Seasons Greetings?

Are we all living in denial?

A major influence on my thinking has been the book "Living in Denial: Why Even People Who Believe in Climate Change Do Nothing About It," by Kari Marie Norgaard, that examines why those who know about climate change fail to act on that knowledge.

She attributes this lack of response to the phenomenon of socially organized denial, by which information about climate science is known in the abstract, but disconnected from political, social, and private life, and sees this as emblematic of how citizens of industrialized countries have failed to act in response to the threat of global warming.

If Norgaard is correct in her research, people don't want to rain on any one's parade. In particular, this means not challenging family or friends about their lack of action on climate change because we don't want such a downer to spoil our enjoyment of family holidays, and, instead, put things off to more socially appropriate times.

There are at least four months a year when climate-related events seem to grind to a halt, or at least are few and far between. Recently, I was reproached about a a panel discussion that was scheduled (by another group) on the same day as a religious holiday. My response was that, if we have to avoid all religious holidays, we might as well give up.

So I'm writing to see if there's a way to raise this level of urgency. I certainly do not want to suggest that I am "holier than thou" ... far from it. I just think it's essential that we overcome this lack of a sense of urgency. Based on what may be underestimates, we have a maximum of six years to reach peak emissions. (Many believe it is far less.) But, as you all know, they continue to climb and we are on path to reach an increase of 4 C or more this century.

In "A new paradigm for climate change," Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, call for academic rigour in elaborating the scientific and economic choices:

… academics may again have contributed to a misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2°C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives… as the remaining cumulative budget is consumed, so any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2°C is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints…

At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society… This catastrophic and ongoing failure of market economics and the laissez-faire rhetoric accompanying it (unfettered choice, deregulation and so on) could provide an opportunity to think differently about climate change… 

It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

What can we do?

I certainly don't have the answer to this question, but I'd just like to encourage everyone to consider the extent to which we may be living in denial.

Here are some activities that Climate Action Now members have organized:

  • we held a mock polar bear funeral at the New Year's polar bear dip after our dashed hopes for the Copenhagen climate summit in 2010;
  • we canvassed door to door handing out flyers;
  • we donned sandwich boards and distributed flyers at City Hall.

These are not particularly ambitious actions and, since then, I have not done much other than get arrested at protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington and Ottawa.

I hope you might discuss this with your family and associates, and, if you have ideas about what we could do to break out of this apathy, I'd love to hear them:

Patricia Warwick