At What Levels Is Denial Really Holding Us Back?

Denial is not just an individual issue when it comes to climate change.

  • We need to work collectively to understand climate change and start making changes in our communities.
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  • What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming by Per Espen Stoknes'
    Photo by Chelsea Green Publishing

In What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015), Stoknes not only masterfully identifies the five main psychological barriers to climate action, but addresses them with five strategies for how to talk about global warming in a way that creates action and solutions, not further inaction and despair. The more facts that pile up about global warming, the greater the resistance to them grows, making it harder to enact measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare communities for the inevitable change ahead. It is a catch-22 that starts, says psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes, from an inadequate understanding of the way most humans think, act, and live in the world around them. With dozens of examples—from the private sector to government agencies—Stoknes shows how to retell the story of climate change and, at the same time, create positive, meaningful actions that can be supported even by deniers.

Is denial as a psychological concept applicable beyond the individual? Does it influence what is going on even at the national level? Or international? Perhaps so, but many social scientists prefer to avoid the denial issue and skip the individual level of analysis. To understand why so little progress is being made, they say, answers should rather be sought on the international, national, organizational, and cultural levels.

Internationally little happens, political scientists argue, because countries choose to compete and disagree rather than cooperate. If the world’s countries were acting for the common good, they would quickly agree on a global price of carbon—and stark regulations and enforcement procedures to go with it. However, most countries seem more eager to grind their own mills. The poorer nations want to grow faster, and the old industrialized countries want energy security and continued growth. The oil-rich countries want to continue to sell their black gold.

Each nation is acting rationally if seen from a narrow self-interested point of view. But take a look at international climate summits. Even if there’s no end to all the good words and phrases and intentions, by the end of each event the only thing everyone can agree on is to have another meeting next year. Participants’ self-interest works destructively on the common level. What’s rational for each country by itself creates collective madness.

According to this view, countries march collectively toward the “tragedy of the commons.” That means moving inevitably toward overall climate disruption of unknown extent. Even if no single country wants that to happen. The mad logic is: Better that my nation-state doesn’t lose in the short-term race than for all of us win in the long term. No delegation representative wants to come home and explain to his or her citizens that they have committed to more seemingly expensive obligations than other countries have.

But if international negotiations don’t work well, then surely at the level of countries, each nation-state can do something. The national governments are powerful, right?

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