Monday, November 1, 2010

Fred Clark at Slackivist makes an good point about why the barkers for climate change denial have had such blazing success and why the scientific facts about global warming have failed to sway the public:
[One] framework that I'm convinced plays a large role in American climate-change denialism is the quasi-religious desire to believe that harmful consequences can only result from deliberately malicious actions. If climate change were shown to be the work of a clearly identifiable villain -- something more along the lines of the pollution narratives of A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich -- then [people] might be more receptive to the idea. But they cannot accommodate facts that suggest the possibility of calamity due to the aggregate effects of billions of mostly innocent decisions. This particular delusional framework defends itself aggressively because a great deal is at stake for those who subscribe to it.
Clark's main interest is in the religious imprimatur on this, but I think he's exactly right that climate destabilization conveys a narrative that simply violates peoples expectations of justice and sense -- and at a deep cognitive-emotional level, people don't like that.  And as we know, people are motivated to not hear things they don't like.

Climate change denialists have worked to widen the chasm between climate scientists and the lay public when it comes to their understandings of what is going on.  Physical scientists (at least the good ones) really don't expect the natural laws they study to adhere to our arbitrary expectations of justice or right or narrative tidiness.  But because regular people DO have those expectations about the world they live in, the scientists seem to be offering a world that is not only physically in dire straits, but also a world that seems devoid of moral sense.  They tell a story where living a normal, even virtuous, life is going to destroy the planet.  The denialists, on the other hand, offer a world that not only is in no physical peril, but where vice and virtue are more sensible and human-scaled.

Advocates have been struggling to accommodate people's desire for this moral sense.  Sometimes they stress the virtuousness of individuals changing their lightbulbs or driving less, or they invoke moral ideas of stewardship.  But so far that's been a rickety foundation for a re-making of the global energy and economic systems.  Alternately, (and this is what we have mostly worked on) we can try keep the moral issues to the side at least long enough to enable people to understand climate change as a straightforward, technical problem.  Too much CO2 in the atmosphere is thickening a heat-trapping blanket - so we need to either reduce our carbon emissions or get the carbon out of the air.  That's the technical challenge.  It won't be easy, but that's what we have to do, and no amount of denial or procrastination is going to change that.  As far as moral narratives go, once this technical groundwork has been laid out, there is room for plenty of moralizing about what it means to make the hard changes as opposed to continuing with business as usual.