Satellite image showing major damage to houses, school buildings and St. John Medical Center, Joplin, Missouri, after a powerful tornado spun through a densely populated part of town, 22 May 2011: photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
One of a series of waterspouts seen spiralling up from the sea, near Avoca Beach, New South Wales, as heavy storms battered the area, 30 May 2011: photographer unknown, via The Coming Crisis
One of a series of powerful waterspouts, reaching heights of up to 2000 feet, in the ocean off the coast of New South Wales, Australia, 30 May 2011; strong winds and heavy rain lashed the region, causing flash flooding and traffic chaos in Sydney: photo by CBS News
In the following years, as the articles and documentaries and news items continued to appear, I realised that there was a third explanation –- that people can accept the truth of what is said without accepting the implications.
Hail covers the ground like snow, Australian Gold Coast, 30 May 2011: photo by Isabelle Vallin-Thorpe, via Watts Up With That?
This description is well suited to the current social response to climate change. The ‘knowledge’ of the problem is remarkably well established at all levels of society; the general public (68 per cent of Americans call it a serious problem in polls); the scientists (repeated letters of concern from scientific institutions); corporations (strongly worded statements by the CEOs of oil companies); the financial sector (reports warning of escalating insurance claims); the many heads of government (regular pious speeches warning of imminent disaster).
In the case of climate change, then, we can intellectually accept the evidence of climate change, but we find it extremely hard to accept our responsibility for a crime of such enormity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence of our denial is the failure to even recognise that there is a moral dimension with identifiable perpetrators and victims. The language of ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, ‘human impacts’, and ‘adaptation’ are themselves a form of denial familiar from other forms of human rights abuse; they are scientific euphemisms that suggest that climate change originates in immutable natural forces rather than in a direct causal relationship with moral implications for the perpetrator.
It seems likely, however, that suppression will dominate. In South Africa, many white bystanders who intellectually opposed apartheid adopted a passive opposition. They retreated into private life, cut themselves off from the news media, refused to talk politics with friends, and adopted an intense immersion in private diversions such as sport, holidays and families. In Brazil in the 1970s a special term, ‘innerism’, was coined for the disavowal of the political.
One conclusion is that denial cannot simply be countered with information. Indeed, there is plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify the denial. The significance of this cannot be over emphasised. Environmental campaign organisations are living relics of Enlightenment faith in the power of knowledge: ‘If only people knew, they would act.’ To this end they dedicate most of their resources to the production of reports or the placement of articles and opinions in the media. As a strategy it is not working. Opinion polls reveal a high level of awareness with virtually no signs of any change in behaviour. Indeed there are plentiful signs of reactive denial in the demands for cheaper fuel and more energy.
A second conclusion is that the lack of visible public response is part of the self-justifying loop that creates the passive bystander effect. ‘Surely’, people reason, ‘if it really is that serious, someone would be doing something.’ The Herald article failed to inspire me to activity because I saw no evidence that anyone in wider society was paying any attention. Thirteen years later, we have vastly greater information with scarcely any more public action. The bystander loop has only tightened.
Tornado damage at St. John Medical Center, Joplin, Missouri, with ruins of local theater where two people perished in foreground: photo by Intelati, 26 May 2011
For all these reasons, the creation of a large and vocal movement against climate change must be an immediate and overarching campaign objective. People will not accept the reality of the problem unless they see that others are engaging in activities that reflect its seriousness. This means they need to be confronted by emotionally charged activities; debate, protest, and meaningful, visible alternatives. Simply asking people to change their lightbulbs, plant a tree, or send in a donation, however desirable in themselves, will not build a social movement. These activities alone, although valuable, will persuade few.
Anyone concerned about this issue faces a unique historical opportunity to break the cycle of denial, and join the handful of people who have already decided to stop being passive bystanders. The last century was marked by self-deception and mass denial. There is no need for the 21st Century to follow suit.
The city of Joplin, Missouri is reeling after a powerful tornado spun through a densely populated part of town. This satellite image shows the storm system moments before spawning the tornado that struck Joplin shortly before 6:00 pm CST, 22 May 2011: photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)