Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial, on the gaps between information, concern, and social response to climate change.
Earth Day is one of the largest and most successful social movements in U.S. history—yet, unlike other powerful social movements of our time, our success must be measured not only by the standard of cultural and political change, but the yardstick of our ecological impact.
For over 20 years, atmospheric scientists have provided increasingly dire assessments of alteration in the biophysical world around which human social systems are organized. Yet, worldwide, we see remarkably little public response.
The category of climate change did not even make it onto the Pew Research Center’s annual list of national domestic priorities for the U.S. government until 2007—24 years after the first front-page story on climate change ran in the New York Times! And the economic, ecological, security, and justice implications of increased drought, wildfire, and storm activity from climate change did not merit attention as a presidential campaign issue until 2008.
We are told we need to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change. But nobody, not movement activists, political leaders, nor social scientists, is offering an actual roadmap of how to get there.
These gaps between information, concern, and social response have been the subject of much scientific study. Why do some social and environmental problems result in people’s rising up when others do not? And given that many people do know the grim facts of climate change, how do they manage to produce an everyday reality in which this urgent social and ecological problem is invisible?
Climate change poses the greatest material and symbolic threat that our society has encountered to date, and fear, guilt and helplessness are common reactions to this threat. We need to pay attention to the role of these troubling emotions on individual cognition, as well as the way that people collectively normalize disturbing information through social interaction.
And although Earth Day serves as a good reminder, we need to measure our ecological impact on more than just one day a year.