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Olga Bonfiglio

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Presidential Candidates And The Sociology Of 'Climate Change Denial'

Posted: 04/04/2012 7:30 pm

Promises by both major political parties three years ago to do something about climate change have gone by the wayside. Today's Republican presidential candidates have, in fact, gone further in the opposite direction, rejecting evidence that humans are responsible for (or principle contributors towards) the warming of the earth.

Why?

Could it be that the Republican candidates are now all conservative white men?

Ron Kramer, a sociologist at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, says there is reason to think so.

Kramer has applied sociological research on the phenomenon of "climate change denial" to understand what is preventing Americans from tackling climate change as a political priority even though 98 percent of our scientists have written thousands of peer-reviewed papers and reports concluding that climate change is real and caused, or at least accelerated, by human activity, he said.

Research shows that conservative white males are more likely to espouse climate change denial than other groups, Kramer recently explained to a group gathered at Peace House, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They tend to filter out any information that is different from their already-held worldview because it threatens the identity, status and esteem they receive by being part of their group. For example, many successful, conservative white males stridently defend the capitalist system because it has worked well for them. For members of this group, criticism of the system is akin to blasphemy.

But there are other reasons that embrace a much broader swath of Americans, in particular.

There is the kind of denial where people recognize that something untoward is happening but they fail to act because they are emotionally uncomfortable or troubled about it. So, even though they are aware of and informed about climate change, they take no action, make no behavioral changes and remain largely apathetic about it.

This response occurs when people confront confusing and conflicting information from political leaders and the media. And, there is plenty of that going around thanks to conservative think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry, "fake" experts, the insistence on absolute certainty or cherry-picking the data and ignoring the larger body of evidence. It is common for columnists and pundits to misrepresent data and promote logical fallacies like "the climate has changed in the past; therefore current change is natural."

"Creating doubt blocks any action," said Kramer. "This is the same tactic the tobacco industry used to deny that smoking was harmful to people's health. And some of the same people are now doing this with climate change."

Consequently, they have yet another reason for denial -- or they believe the problem can be solved with technology and they can go on with their lives as usual.

"At some level people understand that climate change can alter human civilization, but they feel a sense of helplessness and powerlessness at the prospect," said Kramer. "Others feel guilty that they may have caused the problem."

Several cultural factors also thwart decisive action on climate change in the U.S. , said Kramer.

Americans have a tendency toward "anti-intellectualism," so "nerdy" climate scientists are easily presented as suspect.

Our strong sense of "individualism" helps us strive toward our individual goals, but it likewise keeps us from joining together to do something about climate change. People ask: "What good does it do to recycle or drive less when we have such a huge, complex problem as climate change?"

Another cultural factor, "American exceptionalism," celebrates our way of life, which has given us a bounty of wealth and material goods. We want to continue this life, feel we deserve it and believe that nothing bad will happen to us if we do, Kramer explained.

Finally, "political alienation" keeps us from trusting our political system to tackle the problem.

"What we ultimately need is international agreement about what to do about climate change," said Kramer. "Nothing will happen, however, until the United States commits to doing something."

Kramer believes we should regard climate change as a matter of social justice and not just science because the people most affected by it are not the ones who have contributed to it.

North American and European lifestyles, which are based on easy and cheap access to fossil fuels for energy, agriculture and consumer products have inadvertently caused much suffering, poverty and environmental degradation to the people of the Global South.

Analysts at Maplecroft have produced a map that measures of the risk of climate change impacts and the social and financial ability of communities and governments to cope with it. The most vulnerable nations are those in the Global South

Secondly, Kramer emphasized our moral obligation to future generations and other species. Simply put, we must reduce our use of fossil fuels that are largely responsible for emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which contribute to extreme weather conditions like hurricanes, floods, drought, tsunami, heat waves, warm winters and melting polar ice caps.

Again, people's lives, livelihoods and communities are affected and it shouldn't escape notice that human encroachment on animal habitats is contributing to massive species losses, what some call the Sixth Great Extinction. Criminologists are grappling with the language characterizing this wanton disregard with words like "ecocide" and "biocide."

Kramer suggested that we shift our lifestyles from a culture based on materialistic consumption to a culture based on the caretaking of the Earth, as advocated by Scott Russell Sanders in A Conservationist Manifesto.

Third, Kramer called for a more "prophetic imagination" as put forward by Walter Brueggeman, a theologian and professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary, where we take a reasoned approach and face the realities of climate change, confront the truth, "penetrate the numbness and despair," and avoid drowning in our sense of loss and grief that is paralyzing us from action.

Such an approach can give voice to a "hope-filled responsibility" where people are empowered to act rather than being left listless and inattentive.

"It's not about someone being responsible, but all of us," said Kramer, "because we are all affected by climate change."

One major way we can do that is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions as Bill McKibben has suggested with a goal of 350 parts per million (ppm). Today, we are at 400 ppm compared to pre-industrial counts that measured 275 ppm.

Given the complexity of the problem, and the tendencies to denial fostered by some media, how can people really be motivated to act ?

Kramer harkens to the historian Howard Zinn, who advised that we have to "look to history" to see that people working at the grassroots level were able to end slavery and apartheid, to liberate India, dismantle the Soviet Union and initiate the Arab Spring in 2011.

"Climate change is a political issue" Kramer insisted. "We know what to do. We know that we need to mitigate the carbon emissions from fossil fuels. What we lack is the political will and the mechanisms to move forward."

Kramer emphasized that climate change is not a party nor ideological issue but rather a humanity issue.

"Planet Earth will survive," he concluded, "but will human civilization?"

 
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