Understanding the climate ostrich

Submitted by Charles Frost on Thu, 07/31/2008 - 21:35.

By Kari Marie Norgaard
Whitman College, US


Why do people find it hard to accept the increasingly firm messages that climate change is a real and significant threat to livelihoods? Here, a sociologist unravels some of the issues that may lie behind climate scepticism.

Following our cultural norms of acceptable conversation and emotional expression serves to keep our attention away from that pesky topic of climate change

I spent a year doing interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in a rural Norwegian community recently.

In winter, the signs of climate change were everywhere - glaringly apparent in an unfrozen lake, the first ever use of artificial snow at the ski area, and thousands of dollars in lost tourist revenues.

Yet as a political issue, global warming was invisible.

The people I spoke with expressed feelings of deep concern and caring, and a significant degree of ambivalence about the issue of global warming.

This was a paradox. How could the possibility of climate change be both deeply disturbing and almost completely invisible - simultaneously unimaginable and common knowledge?


People told me many reasons why it was difficult to think about this issue. In the words of one man, who held his hands in front of his eyes as he spoke, "people want to protect themselves a bit."

Community members described fears about the severity of the situation, of not knowing what to do, fears that their way of life was in question, and concern that the government would not adequately handle the problem.

Signs of climate change are visible - but do we want to see them?

They described feelings of guilt for their own actions, and the difficulty of discussing the issue of climate change with their children.

In some sense, not wanting to know was connected to not knowing how to know. Talking about global warming went against conversation norms.

It wasn't a topic that people were able to speak about with ease - rather, overall it was an area of confusion and uncertainty. Yet feeling this confusion and uncertainty went against emotional norms of toughness and maintaining control.

Other community members described this sense of knowing and not knowing, of having information but not thinking about it in their everyday lives.

As one young woman told me: "In the everyday I don't think so much about it, but I know that environmental protection is very important."

Security risk

The majority of us are now familiar with the basics of climate change.

Worst case scenarios threaten the very basics of our social, political and economic infrastructure.

Yet there has been less response to this environmental problem than any other. Here in the US it seems that only now are we beginning to take it seriously.

Ostrich in farm
Emotions of fear and helplessness can be managed through the use of selective attention

How can this be? Why have so few of us engaged in any of the range of possible actions from reducing our airline travel, pressurising our governments and industries to cut emissions, or even talking about it with our family and friends in more than a passing manner?

Indeed, why would we want to know this information?

Why would we want to believe that scenarios of melting Arctic ice and spreading diseases that appear to spell ecological and social demise are in store for us; or even worse, that we see such effects already?

Information about climate change is deeply disturbing. It threatens our sense of individual identity and our trust in our government's ability to respond.

At the deepest level, large scale environmental problems such as global warming threaten people's sense of the continuity of life - what sociologist Anthony Giddens calls ontological security.

Thinking about global warming is also difficult for those of us in the developed world because it raises feelings of guilt. We are now aware of how driving automobiles and flying to exotic warm vacations contributes to the problem, and we feel guilty about it.

Tactful denial

If being aware of climate change is an uncomfortable condition which people are motivated to avoid, what happens next?

Benny Peiser
Read a sceptical view of climate catastrophism from British scholar Benny Peiser

After all, ignoring the obvious can take a lot of work.

In the Norwegian community where I worked, collectively holding information about global warming at arm's length took place by participating in cultural norms of attention, emotion, and conversation, and by using a series of cultural narratives to deflect disturbing information and normalise a particular version of reality in which "everything is fine."

When what a person feels is different from what they want to feel, or are supposed to feel, they usually engage in what sociologists call emotional management.

We have a whole repertoire of techniques or "tools" for ignoring this and other disturbing problems.

As sociologist Evitiar Zerubavel makes clear in his work on the social organisation of denial and secrecy, the means by which we manage to ignore the disturbing realities in front of us are also collectively shaped.

How we cope, how we respond, or how we fail to respond are social as well.

Social rules of focusing our attention include rules of etiquette that involve tact-related ethical obligations to "look the other way" and ignore things we most likely would have noticed about others around us.

Indeed, in many cases, merely following our cultural norms of acceptable conversation and emotional expression serves to keep our attention safely away from that pesky topic of climate change.


Emotions of fear and helplessness can be managed through the use of selective attention; controlling one's exposure to information, not thinking too far into the future and focusing on something that could be done.

Selective attention can be used to decide what to think about or not to think about, for example screening out painful information about problems for which one does not have solutions: "I don't really know what to do, so I just don't think about that".

The most effective way of managing unpleasant emotions such as fear about your children seems to be by turning our attention to something else, or by focusing attention onto something positive.

Hoodwinking ourselves?

Until recently, the dominant explanation within my field of environmental sociology for why people failed to confront climate change was that they were too poorly informed.

Others pose that Americans are simply too greedy or too individualistic, or suffer from incorrect mental models.

Psychologists have described "faulty" decision-making powers such as "confirmation bias", and argue that with more appropriate analogies we will be able to manage the information and respond.

Political economists, on the other hand, tell us that we've been hoodwinked by increased corporate control of media that limits and moulds available information about global warming.

These are clearly important answers.

Yet the fact that nobody wants information about climate change to be true is a critical piece of the puzzle that also happens to fit perfectly with the agenda of those who have tried to generate climate scepticism.


Dr Kari Marie Norgaard is a sociologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington state, US

From: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7081882.stm