American Psychosis

We’ve got to confront our collective denial concerning climate change

| May-June 2010

I recently concluded that whether you drink like Charles Bukowski in his prime or are as sober as a Mormon, you should spend at least two months attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Not only because practicing AA’s 12-step program will dispel any notions that the world can or should revolve around your daily plight—but also because the future of the planet may well depend on whether or not a majority of us can wrap our brains around the central precept of step one: that our lives have become unmanageable.

It is not an easy thing, this act of relentless honestly. Just consider the trajectory of the “debate” over climate change science, which the popular media irresponsibly legitimize (see “Hot Air” on p. 58). According to 2009 data analyzed at The Green Grok, a blog hosted by Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, a majority of Americans still believe that climate change is occurring. But that number is down between 8 and 15 percent from 2008, depending on which polls you read.

In a recent Gallup survey, 48 percent of Americans said the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated, compared to 41 percent a year ago. Most tellingly, George Mason and Yale universities found that 41 percent of those who disbelieve the scientific consensus became “much more sure” during the same period. “If climate were determined by public opinion,” Chameides writes, “it might seem that a global cooling trend ruled the day.”

It doesn’t. “The world is undoubtedly warming,” the Pew Center on Global Climate Change says on its website ( This will cause a “sea-level rise that will . . . increase beach erosion and flooding from coastal storms, changes in precipitation patterns, increased risk of droughts and floods, threats to biodiversity, and a number of potential challenges for public health.”

“I feel like I’m living in a gigantic insane asylum,” Santa Barbara–based activist Fred Branfman says when he is asked to grapple with all of this data. “Not only because there’s a high percentage of people in the general population who simply can’t face reality, but because most of those who do accept the overwhelming evidence are still acting as though humanity isn’t at stake. It’s as if we’re all living in a trance.”

There are a number of theories, most of them generated on the left, as to why some citizens, a majority of whom identify themselves as politically conservative, go out of their way to refute climate change. Some believe it’s simply ignorance, evidence of a failed educational system. Others believe it is a product of blinding greed. Recently, a number of environmentalists have pointed to psychological research indicating that for some, fear of death simply trumps rationality.

5/17/2010 12:00:49 PM

(cont. from below – paragraph 4 of 4...apologies...) Perhaps this is an issue of the Whole (Global Warming) not necessarily being greater than the sum of the parts (all the issues that are quantifiable). What percentage of US citizens acknowledge (finally) that cars kill people and chemicals taint water supplies, are variously tied to cancers, etc.? 100% I’m almost positive. Until the day when we’re all clearly roasting and our coastal cities are under water, I think the all-in-one package of “Global Warming “will never attain a complete consensus. So what? I think reinforcing the quantifiable decisions we can all make day-to-day is the only dialogue that might gain full acceptance and thus, positive change at a grass roots level. The seemingly simplified “Global Warming” as a master-narrative (true or not) comes off to many as too politicized, too agenda-laden at the moment.

5/17/2010 11:59:02 AM

(cont. from below) I’m also more interested – per Bakari ‘s comment – in some of the clear and more palpable consequences of our reliance upon questionable technologies and our expanding ecological footprint: clean water, cancer, total consumption of fossil fuels, 45,000 US automobile deaths per year, etc. Therefore I’m ultimately less concerned with the “wake up America!’ implication of this essay. That is, the notion that individuals in our country hold the key to reform by switching to fluorescent bulbs or building DYI yurts in the wilderness. More importantly, I don’t think it matters whether 42% or 82% of citizens believe the science. How many people still contend that evolution is false? How many people watch Big Brother? I don’t feel that any of these people ultimately have much in the way of representative value. Forty-something percent has elected Presidents after all. If we’re talking about the perils of a Global Warming, this is necessarily a top-down, obviously Global issue. Governments and large corporations/industries (variably influenced by common people) are the only force that can counter such a threat (US emissions are better now in part because many polluting industries relocated to other continents. – the average Joe had nothing to do with that). If we’re talking about more incremental steps to reduce our various footprints to alleviate patently apparent problems – those that Bakari mentions and no one can deny exist – then we should all go to AA meetings

5/17/2010 11:57:54 AM

(cont. from below) As a recycler, public transit user, and LEED accredited professional, I’m certainly not an anti-Warming zealot. I’m just a bit hesitant to accept the paradigm (or “reality” as you will) whole-heartedly. I’m in agreement with some of other commenter points. The climate inevitably changes regardless of human contribution (melting glaciers? Didn’t Kentucky used to be under glaciers long before SUVs?). Certainly we may be hastening such changes but in which ways? Is it too much cattle-emitted methane (indeed one area that has become more problematic over the last 50 years in the US)? Is there validity to the probably partisan IV Group’s concept that the aforementioned Global Cooling was a real trend caused by too much atmospheric pollution and that Warming is the revised trend as the atmosphere has gotten cleaner (simply, more sunlight gets through)?!?

5/17/2010 11:55:19 AM

Off hand I would think that reasons why a large portion of the US population discount the literature about Global Warming might include acknowledgement of the infamous “Global Cooling” debates in the 1970s (National Geographic, December 1976, as a primary example). As another example, Al Gore’s film which relies a bit too heavily on flippant animations of frogs with little to no focus on the graphically startling yet utterly ambiguous charts tracking warming trends since long before we had anything like sophisticated temperature records (I haven’t read the book but am told it’s manifesto-like approach equally lacks any clear scientific rigor). As this essay clearly focuses on the United States – or with “Americans,” then perhaps the whole hemisphere – there’s also the small issue that the release of pollutants in all main categories has dropped consistently since 1960 within the US (I recently saw government issued charts in the prodigious and presumably non-partisan Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings tome which is in its 11th edition). So for a decade or two before the supposed “Global Cooling” epidemic and long before “Global Warming,” our country had been cleaning up quite a bit. I suspect Western Europe is mostly in the same boat...

r cree
5/13/2010 12:20:49 AM

A previous article on global warming action in the UTNE electronic version said that meterorologists are too unscientifically trained like their stupid viewers to understand global warming. Now, you are attacking the people that will have to pay 100's of billions for your beliefs on the urgency of global warming by saying they are alcoholics and should get serious psychological help. Given those attitudes, it will be a cold day in hell before anyone in developed countries are going to spend a dime on global warming--especially based on climate data that could be forged, manipulated or viewed with a political agenda in mind. Since environmental concerns have come up in the 1960's, we have seen psuedoscience and factoids develop based on data that has been manipulated. Please read Edith Efrom's book, The Apocalyptics: Cancer and the Big Lie about the scientific misrepresentations on asbestos and other potential carcinogens and the politics surrounding the data. Plus, ever hear of the dire predictions of the Club of Rome in the 1970's--those people were dead wrong. Just because you have more data--doesn't make you right especially with psuedoscience practiced so much today. If you really want climate change, look at a recent Wired magazine article on the U.S. Department of Energy Secretary's ideas on global warming. By having the largest economies reduce green house gases, you don't have to call us stupid or psychologically flawed.

eduardo schroder_2
5/12/2010 6:52:05 PM

The ONLY global solution for climate change, lack of water, environmental contamination, biodiversity loss, lack of food, natural resources depletion (oil, metals, etc), etc is to have LESS HUMANS (?) on Earth. Persons having more than ONE child should be penalized (heavier taxes and other methods).

bakari kafele_3
4/21/2010 11:51:07 AM

The exclusive focus on "human-caused climate change" makes it easy for people to write off environmentalism, because the science is not, in fact, conclusive as of yet. It also encourages the idea of using technology to "solve" the issue, with potentially unintended consequences. And it completely ignores all of the other real, urgent, indisputable problems that our lifestyle has created. Whether it turns out humans are accelerating climate change or not, our course of action needs to be the same: One way or another, the earth will eventually get warmer, and people need to be ready to adapt. One way or another, the American lifestyle is destructive and unsustainable, and we need desperately to downsize our extravagances: give up the car, stop flying, eat vegetarian / organic / local, cut electricity use, buy less stuff, shop locally (when its necessary), waste less water, and live in locales that are naturally hospitable to humans (ie not the desert) We can either focus on gradually changing those things now, voluntarily, or we can ignore them and have them changed for us in the future, in which case the change will be very unpleasant, and likely include violence. Addressing climate change does little to address any of those issues, and where it does it is only incidental. While I understand the good intention behind keeping environmental issues on the forefront of everyone's minds, I believe that the single-minded focus on global warming is actually counter-productive.

bakari kafele_3
4/21/2010 11:47:24 AM

...Regardless of climate change, our driving and electricity usage cause air pollution, which in turn causes cancer, asthma, acid rain, and many other air quality issues. Drilling for oil and mining for coal (or uranium) causes massive destruction - when things are running as they should, never mind the occasional catastrophic accident. Vehicle manufacture itself takes an enormous amount of raw material (as well as energy) all of which must be mined/refined/transported and which carries an ecological price tag. Driving cars is the number one killer of all people below 40 and remains one of the top causes of death all the way until old age. Their is evidence that the lack of exercise associated with driving is the number one factor in the obesity epidemic. The fact that we consume far more energy than we can produce domestically puts us at risk, both politically, economically, and militarily. All of these problems would remain if we switched to electric (or fuel cell) cars. Most would remain even if we discovered cold-fusion or some other unlimited supply of cheap energy. And all would remain if humanity decided to combat global warming with a grand geo-engineering project...

bakari kafele_3
4/21/2010 11:45:09 AM

I run a certified green hauling business. I modified my delivery truck to get 30mpg (from 15mpg) and run it on 100% biodiesel made from recycled veggie oil. I also work part time supporting people who bicycle to work (at a business which runs at a loss because our main service is free). I live in a 250square foot home and use less than $5 worth of electricity most months. I also have some background in science, including degrees in earth science and biology. Having read arguments on both sides, I am not at all convinced that humans are significantly contributing to climate change. While I admit I haven't kept up with the latest research over the past few years, I have yet to see several points addressed: 1 Geologic data suggests the climate naturally goes through cycles of extremes. The current climate reflects roughly where it is expected to be. Our methods of determining past temperatures are not precise enough to tell us the rate of change over small periods of time in the past. 2 Geologic data suggests that in past periods of climate change, temperature has always changed first, with CO2 levels changing as a result of temperature change, not the other way around. This does not necessarily indicate it is what is happening this time, but it could account for what we are seeing. 3 Climate predictions are only as good as the models they are built on, which in turn are only as good as the computers that run them. We simply do not have computers powerful enough to accu

bakari kafele_3
4/21/2010 11:43:35 AM

...urately model something as complex as the earth's climate. Last I heard, in order to reduce complexity to a manageable level, most models omit details such as water vapor (arguably the single most important variable) all together. 4 Human caused climate change is frequently referred to (particularly in liberal media sources) as having "scientific consensus". According to Pew Research center 86% of scientists concur. While 86% is clearly an overwhelming majority in a democracy, in science 14% is too large a minority to simply ignore. But here's the thing: It doesn't make one bit of difference if humans are contributing to global warming or not. Whether we are causing it or not, its happening (that doesn't take predictions, just measurements - its happening) Therefor we should be prepared for it. Even more important though - independent of global warming, our lifestyles are harming the ecology of our planet. And even if an individual feels no moral reason to care about life other than humanity, we are totally dependent on other life for our own survival.