Climate Change Complacency — Neither Belief Nor Denial

By: Alton C. Thompson

Regarding what is often referred to as “climate change,” three categories of people can be identified:

  • Believers: Those who agree with the majority of climate scientists that global warming is occurring.
  • Deniers: Those who claim, on the basis of supposedly solid evidence and reasoning, that global warming is not occurring; or who simply deny global warming for ideological reasons. (“It can’t occur, therefore it won’t.”)
  • The Complacent: Those who simply give little thought to the question of whether or not global warming is occurring, it’s simply not something on their “mental map.” (See, e.g., Chuck Gasparovic’s “Climate Change Complacency.

In this essay my focus is on people in the third group, and I offer some possible reasons why people would be in this group.

First, global warming seems so abstract to most, so far removed from their everyday lives. As Gasparovic puts it in his recent essay (cited above):

When most of us woke up this morning, it looked a lot like yesterday morning. The clock radio turned on, hot water came out of the shower, the toaster worked. It did not seem much warmer outside nor could we look out our windows and see any signs of melting glaciers or rising sea levels. And even if climate change did darken our thoughts, most of us quickly relegated it to the backs of our minds, some, like Tom [“an agribusiness banker in Greeley, Colorado, a Republican, and one of the nicest people I have ever met”], with knee-jerk disbelief, others with a slight tinge of guilt or maybe an exculpatory damning of the oil companies, because . . . didn’t we already have enough stress in our lives without having to worry about that shit hitting the fan, too? And, after all, what could we do about it?

The news media give us stories of extreme weather events, and some of the consequences of such events (such as “wild fires”), but most of us fail to “connect the dots”—and thereby conclude that these extreme weather events just might be evidence that global warming is underway.

Second, the media themselves bear responsibility for widespread complacency, for although climate scientists for the most part publish their research finds in technical professional journals, some also express their views at professional meetings—where at least some journalists are present. But journalists’ reports of such meetings tend to downplay the seriousness of the global warming problem—perhaps because their editors insist on this, or their editors themselves re-write journalists’ reports so that they don’t sound so alarmist.

Some “popularizers” (such as Bill McKibben) have arisen who have made an effort to educate the public on the basics of global warming. But only a few read their books/articles, and little or no reference is made to their works in the mass media—so that even the “popularizers” fail to educate the public. The fault here, however, lies not with people such as Bill McKibben but with the mass media for failing to summarize and reference the works of such people.

In the mainstream media one rarely encounters references to “global warming,” and even more rarely encounters detailed discussions of the topic. Attention may be given to unusual weather events—such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and droughts—but rarely is the phrase “global warming” mentioned in connection with those events—and if it is, the stories mentioning it are likely to be short, and “buried.

Thus, an important reason why so many in our society are complacent regarding global warming is that the mainstream media—newspapers, popular magazines, television—give so little information to the public on the subject. The main role of these media seems to be to divert the public’s attention from important issues—because, one would assume, their advertisers don’t want to alarm the public, and then stop purchasing their products or services. Needless to say, our political “leaders” don’t do anything to educate the public either—not surprising given that many of them are deniers.

A third factor of importance is one that has occurred to me as I have been re-reading Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With An Indian Elder (1994). The elder in this case is a Lakota Indian given the name “Dan” by Nerburn. At one point (p. 59) Dan says the following to Mr. Nerburn:

“Do you hear that bird?” asked Dan.

I told him that I did.

“Do you know what he is saying?”

“I don’t speak ‘bird’,” I answered.

“You should,” he twinkled. “Learn a lot. The birds are ‘two-legs’, like us. They are very close to us. He is calling to another. He is saying it will rain soon.”

“You can tell that?”

“Yes, and I can tell that the wind is switching to the north and we will soon have colder weather.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just do,” he responded cryptically. “It’s in the voices I hear. I can understand all the trees. The wind. All the animals. The insects. I can tell what a color of the sky means. Everything speaks to me.”

What’s clear from this passage is that Dan’s life has been lived so close to Nature that he has had plenty of opportunity to listen to the sounds of Nature, and observe the behavior of various animals and insects—and has taken advantage of that opportunity. As a result, he has been able—on the unconscious level—to make generalizations that enable him to make predictions about what’s about to happen next. It is in this sense that the trees, e.g., “speak” to him.

The world that most of us live in today is very unlike Dan’s world in being highly urbanized. The physical world that most of us live in, then, is primarily a human-made (more specifically, man-made) one of buildings and streets/roads, etc. We are interested in how natural phenomena affect us (reflected in the prominence of weather reports during “news” broadcasts), but our way of life—involving, as it does (in many cases), preparing for work, traveling to work, sitting at a desk for 8 hours or so, then traveling back home—is one that basically removes us from the natural world. Because it does, although we have some sensitivity to how the natural world affects us, we tend to be totally oblivious of how we affect the natural world. As a consequence, we can affect—and have affected!—the natural world negatively without even being aware of doing so. In doing so, we have inadvertently affected our own lives—and the effects of our past actions will become increasingly prominent—but so far have not (except for a few) awakened to that fact. Soon, however, we will be learning—to our disadvantage!—that causes have effects even though we either remain oblivious to them or deny them.

Even those in our society whose everyday activities bring them in close contact with the natural world feel little connection with it. For example, for most farmers land is simply a commodity—an “input”—and as they drive their tractors through their fields, the noise of the tractor drowns out any sounds coming from nature; and because the tractor’s cab may be enclosed, and the farmer is listening to the radio or a CD, farmers further prevent themselves from hearing the sounds of nature—and more generally have the feeling that they are a part of nature.

Not only are our lives physically removed from nature, they are, fourth, mentally removed as well. The thought processes in which we are engaged while working tend to be far removed from events that are occurring in the natural world, and during our leisure time we are thinking about other people, about sports, about the world of entertainment, about the latest lie or stupid statement made by a politician, etc. That is, our minds tend to be occupied with “current events”—and usually trivial ones at that; and whatever thought we give to the future is typically flawed by the fact that the present is simply projected into the future, with no thought regarding how global warming will affect that future. For an intelligent species, ours is incredibly stupid—and (to allude to a book by James Lovelock) Gaia is, therefore, likely to get its revenge.

The final point that I would like to make is that thinking in this society tends to be highly individualistic. Daniel Elazar has argued that (from a political culture standpoint) the United States can be divided into Moral, Individual, and Traditional culture areas, but it is clear that an individualistic mindset is the dominant one in this country—and always has been. What that fact implies is that people not only have difficulty thinking in societal terms, but beyond the near term. For that reason alone, then, Americans have difficulty thinking about global warming: global warming goes against the grain of the sort of thinking that imprisons their minds.

Gasparovic closes his essay with these words:

So ignorance and disbelief, in spite of a small group of influential naysayers, are not really the problems. Nor is the only problem the corporations that benefit from fossil fuel extraction and pay well for that benefit before every election. The bigger problem is the rest of us. We are the great majority who can see what’s going on but do nothing about it. Our complacency is the problem, our convenient cynicism about what can be done, our finger pointing without action, our hoping that someone else will do it for us. Unfortunately, even if we are not concerned about the chaotic collapse of our societies and the world our children and grandchildren will inherit, it appears that conveniently dying of old age before life on earth radically changes may no longer be an option.

However, I see little point in affixing blame for the complacency that prevails regarding global warming, for such an intellectual exercise gets us nowhere. What must be recognized is that if a certain trait possessed by a group or species gives that group/species a survival advantage, that group/species has a high probability of surviving. For humans, ignorance has no survival value; and given that that trait can be changed only with great difficulty—and, realistically, won’t get changed on a large scale, soon, or ever—the implication is that our population—most of the world’s population, in fact—is doomed.

Those individuals who recognize this fact, and recognize, further, that their only chance for survival is to begin to engage in adaptive measures, so that they then follow through, may survive the ravages of global warming. For don’t fool yourself—those ravages will come. But even if one does start to engage in adaptive measures, there is no guarantee that one will survive anyway—which fact, if recognized by those thinking of adapting, may, of course, cause them to accomplish suicide instead. It’s true that this may be a painless option (so the song asserts)—and this path may very well become a very common one taken in the near future. But taking such an option will do nothing for the “salvation” of our species—assuming that “salvation” is even possible, of course.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.