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)?!?

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