Social Responses to Climate Change

By Caity Varian

Climate change has emerged as one of America’s most polarizing political issues. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that scientists are more than 97% certain that climate change is happening and that the primary cause is human activity. While there are climate deniers across the globe, this anti-science stance is a primarily an American phenomenon. Why?

The United States is one of the most responsible nations for climate change, which might explain why we experience the most skepticism. Climate skepticism challenges the credibility of science and disputes the claim that there is a scientific consensus on climate change. There are two levels of skepticism: denying that climate change is happening and denying that climate change is happening due to human activity. Ignorance about climate change is preventing appropriate public action.

Emotion plays a key role in climate change denial. Feelings of fear, helplessness and guilt all play a part in the denial process.

Kari Marie Norgaard, Environmental Sociologist at the University of Oregon, analyzes the social responses to climate change information. Norgaard argues that climate denial is a social process in which collective actions are taken to restore a sense of equilibrium and social stability. Cognitive and social tools are used to deny or ignore a problem even when the populace agrees it should be addressed.

Respondents who are better informed about climate change express less rather than more responsibility for the problem and respondents with higher levels of information about global warming show less concern. The theory of cognitive dissonance claims that people with low self-efficacy will be likely to deny responsibility and concern unless they feel they are able to do something about the problem. People stop paying attention to global climate change when they realize there is no easy solution. Many experience guilt and a feeling of powerlessness. The logic is “I don’t think about it because there is nothing I can do.”

Climate Change poses profound challenges to our identities and cultures. Responses of denial and skepticism reflect our motivation to dominate nature and continue to improve our standard of living, whether we would like to admit it or not. We don’t want to give up our luxuries, make compromises or admit that we are a part of the problem.  

The first step to addressing the problem is admitting that there is in fact a problem and that we are contributing to it. We must come to an agreement that climate change is real and it is primarily caused by human activity. We must rethink our way of life, our energy consumption and consider what we are willing to give up or change in order to address the problem. A firm belief in science and an open mind about finding solutions is the first step to making the environmental and social change that our planet needs.

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