Citizen Action Monitor

What inhibits us from acting on climate change?

No 74 Posted by fw, October 8, 2010

In the introduction to his Yes Magazine article, Why we find it so hard to act against climate change, George Marshall, a UK-based writer who specializes in the perplexing psychology of human denial related to climate change, asks two provocative questions:

“Why do people who claim to be very concerned about climate change continue their high-carbon lifestyles? And why, as the warnings become ever louder, do increasing numbers of people reject the arguments of scientists and the evidence of their own eyes?”

Then, in the very next sentence, he draws a shocking parallel: just as historians of the Holocaust asked: “How could so many good and moral people know what was happening and yet do so little?” will future historians investigating the aftermath of the devastating consequences of climate change ask the very same question of us?

“This comparison with mass human rights abuses is a surprisingly useful place to find some answers to these questions. In States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen studies how people living under repressive regimes resolve the conflict they feel between the moral imperative to intervene and the need to protect themselves and their families. He found that people deliberately maintain a level of ignorance so that they can claim they know less than they do. They exaggerate their own powerlessness and wait indefinitely for someone else to act first—a phenomenon that psychologists call the passive bystander effect. Both strategies lie below the surface of most of the commonly held attitudes to climate change.”

“But most interesting is Cohen’s observation that societies also negotiate collective strategies to avoid action. He writes: ‘Without being told what to think about (or what not to think about) societies arrive at unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged.’ ”

How we contrive to keep climate change outside our “norms of attention”

Pursuing the proposition that “maintaining a level of ignorance” can be collectively constructed, Marshall points out that Dr. Marie Norgaard of the University of California argues that “denial of global warming is socially constructed.”

She observes that most people are deeply conflicted about climate change and manage their anxiety and guilt by excluding it from the cultural norms defining what they should pay attention to and think about—what she calls their ‘norms of attention’. According to Norgaard, most people have tacitly agreed that it is socially inappropriate to pay attention to climate change. It does not come up in conversations, or as an issue in voting, consumption, or career choices.”

But how can we contrive to ignore something that’s as blatantly obvious as climate change? We already feel the impacts in our immediate environment. Scientists and environmentalists urge us to act. The impacts directly threaten our personal and local livelihoods. And, above all, our very own affluent, consumer lifestyles contribute to climate change.

“People have decided that they can keep climate change outside their “norms of attention” through a selective framing that creates the maximum distance. In opinion poll research the majority of people will define it as far away — ‘it’s a global problem, not a local problem’ — or far in the future — ‘it’s a huge problem for future generations’. They readily embrace the views of deniers who claim that ‘it’s bunk’ or ‘only a theory,’ and that ‘there is still a debate.’ And they strategically shift the blame as far away from themselves as possible: “I’m not the problem—it’s the Chinese/rich people/corporations.”

What we do

According to Marshall, people employ ‘framing techniques’ to keep climate change outside their norms of attention:

  • I’ve got enough problems
  • I’m too busy
  • Who are you to tell me what to do?
  • It’s not me. It’s those other people (the rich/poor/Chinese)
  • Geo-engineering will solve the problem
  • The markets will sort it out
  • Haven’t they solved this already?
  • Warming sounds great. Bring it on.
  • It’s a long way off
  • The scientists still haven’t made up their minds
  • This isn’t the most important issue
  • I already do lots of things for the environment

Why we do what we do

  • Visible But climate change is invisible
  • Have historical precedentBut climate change is unprecedented
  • ImmediateBut climate change is drawn out
  • With simple causalityBut climate change is a result of complexity
  • Caused by othersBut climate change is caused by all of us
  • Direct personal impactsBut climate change has indirect impacts
  • Local — But climate change may be remote

Ironically, observes Marshall, people are most able to remain detached from climate change when it is presented to them as an “environmental” problem:

“If we take a step back we can see that the impacts of climate change are so wide-ranging that it could equally well be defined as a major economic, military, agricultural, or social rights issue. But its causes (mainly pollution from burning fossil fuels) led it to be bundled with the global ‘environmental’ issues during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. From that point on it has been dealt with by environment ministers and environment departments, and talked about in the media by environmental reporters.”

Because of these environmental associations, the general public has been able to more easily exclude climate change as a matter of personal concern — “I’m not an environmentalist”. And political leaders play the “jobs” card to enlist support from a public that is easily persuaded that  — “jobs must take precedence over the environment right now”.

How to get people involved

Given this social context of “convenient denial” to “an inconvenient truth”, how can we increase the level and quality of public engagement in this struggle to save the planet? Here are Marshall’s closing thoughts:

“How can we energize people and prevent them from passively standing by?”

We must remember that people will only accept a challenging message if it speaks to their own language and values and comes from a trusted communicator. For every audience these will be different: The language and values of a Lubbock Christian will be very different from those of a Berkeley Liberal. The priority for environmentalists and scientists should be to step back and enable a much wider diversity of voices and speakers.”

We must recognize that the most trusted conveyors of new ideas are not experts or celebrities but the people we already know. Enabling ordinary people to take personal ownership of the issue and talk to each other in their own words is not just the best way to convince people, it is the best way to force climate change back into people’s ‘norms of attention.’ ”

And finally we need to recognize that people are best motivated to start a journey by a positive vision of their destination—in this case by understanding the real and personal benefits that could come from a low-carbon world. However, it is not enough to prepare a slide show and glossy report vision that just creates more distance and plays to the dominant prejudice against environmental fantasists. People must see the necessary change being made all around them: buildings in entire neighborhoods being insulated and remodeled, electric cars in the driveway, and everywhere the physical adaptations we need to manage for the new weather conditions. If [governments have] one strategy, it should be to create such a ubiquity of visible change that the transition is not just desirable but inevitable. We need to emphasize that this is not some distant and intractable global warming, but a very local and rapid climate change, and we need to proclaim it from every solar-panel-clad rooftop.”

George Marshall

George Marshall wrote this article for Climate Action, the Winter 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. George is founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network. He is the author of Carbon Detox: Your Step by Step Guide to Getting Real About Climate Change ( and posts articles on the psychology of climate change at

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2010 by in climate change, information counterpower and tagged .
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