Combating the Culture of Climate Change Denial

The failure to accept the anthropogenic origins of climate change may be partly attributable to a fallacy of modern culture. Popular culture pits us against nature which in turn undermines efforts to curtail climate change.

Overcoming a culture that pits Man against nature

Man versus nature is one of seven conflicts in literary studies, it relates to the theme in literature that places a character against the forces of nature. Many disaster films and survival stories deal with the theme of man’s alienation from nature. As reflected in surveys on climate change about half of Americans are estranged from nature.

Americans are also dangerously divided on the urgency of climate change. According to a 2011 report from GfK and SC , even though the environment is an economic issue, a majority of Americans (52%) accept trading environmental protection for economic development to maintain their standard of living.

The human role in climate change is the most controversial subject of the 21st century even though the issue has been settled. Writing in WIREs Climate Change, Dr Kevin Trenberth, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says that the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is now so clear that the burden of proof should lie with research which seeks to disprove the human role. “Humans are changing our climate. There is no doubt whatsoever,” said Trenberth.

Almost 5 years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report indicated that global warming is “unequivocal”, and is “very likely” due to human activities. Since then, attempts at large scale climate regulation have failed at a number of levels.

Even the few scientists who previously resisted man-made climate change are increasingly being swayed by the overwhelming body of evidence. People like the Koch brothers work hard to resist the science supporting global warming, yet even scientists paid by this climate denying duo are finding it hard to ignore the findings of their own research.

At the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the concentration of the greenhouse gas CO2 was at 360 parts per million (ppm). In the 20 years since, it has risen to 390 ppm, and that number is continuing to grow with no end in sight.

We have not seen climate and energy legislation in the U.S. and the U.N. has failed to produce a binding emissions agreement. When combined with the imminent expiration of the Kyoto protocol at the end of 2012 it makes a bad situation worse.

Despite a sluggish global economy, the latest calculations from the U.S. Department of Energy indicate that CO2 emissions have risen sharply in 2009 and 2010.

Under these circumstances, Jochem Marotzke, the head of the German Climate Consortium, believes we are "on a course of development with CO2 emissions that makes the 2-degrees goal more and more illusory." Politicians are not willing to face up to the realities and take action. "This reluctance will bring about fatal results," Marotzke said.

Climate change denial is a major obstacle impeding action. According to a book written by Riley E. Dunlap, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State, and Aaron M. McCright of Michigan State, organized denial has succeeded in blocking domestic legislation. These authors have indicated that deniers make it nearly impossible to get responsible climate legislation in the U.S. This is the point they make in their book, “Climate Change Denial Machine” in a chapter titled, “Organized Climate Change Denial.”

"We have argued that because of the perceived threat posed by climate change to their interests, actors in the denial machine have strived to undermine scientific evidence documenting its reality and seriousness. Over the past two decades they have engaged in an escalating assault on climate science and scientists, and in recent years on core scientific practices, institutions and knowledge. Their success in these efforts not only threatens our capacity to understand and monitor human-induced ecological disruptions from the local to global levels (Hanson 2010), but it also weakens an essential component of societal reflexivity when the need for the latter is greater than ever."

To succeed in auguring the major changes required it may not be enough to communicate the facts. One of the salient factors compounding climate change denial concerns the state of disconnection between humans and nature. Western culture opposes nature and is defined by consumerism and anthropocentrism. We have been brainwashed by the idea that the natural world is there for our exploitation. Pop culture reinforces the cleavage between people and the natural environment.

If we are to save the planet we need to better understand the overarching significance of nature. We need to review our propensity for over-consumption and we need to reevaluate our homocentric tendencies. In its simplest essence, we need to understand that the Earth is more than a reservoir of raw materials; it is the indispensable substrate of our lives.

We are under the illusion that man is not part of the fabric of the natural world and this is blinding people to the need for urgent action. Although we may be disconnected from nature, this detachment is a matter of choice, and connection can always be recovered.

Until we deal with the failings of a culture that pits man against nature, we will not marshal the support required to fully engage the battle against climate change.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Facebook - Earth2100

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