Overheating Seminar: Kari Marie Norgaard
Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon
Author of "Living in Denial - Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life"
Global warming is the most significant environmental issue of our time, yet public response in Western nations has been meager. Why have so few taken any action?
I draw interviews and ethnographic data from a community in western Norway, during the unusually warm winter of 2000-2001 to describe how knowledge of climate change is experienced in everyday life. That winter the first snowfall came to “Bygdaby” two months later than usual; ice fishing was impossible; and the ski industry had to invest substantially in artificial snow-making. Stories in local and national newspapers linked the warm winter explicitly to global warming. Yet residents did not write letters to the editor, pressure politicians, or cut down on use of fossil fuels. I describe the disturbing emotions of guilt, helplessness and fear of the future that arise when people were confronted with the idea of climate change. I then build a model of socially organized denial to describe how people normalized these disturbing emotions through deployment of conversation norms and discourses that served as “tools of social order.”
Most studies of public response to climate change have focused on information deficit approaches. Many in the general public or environmental community have also presumed that the failure to engage is a function of lack of concern about climate change. Instead, this research describes how for the highly educated and politically savvy residents of “Bygdaby,” global warming was both common knowledge and unimaginable. Using literature from sociology of emotions, environmental sociology and sociology of culture, I describe “the social organization of climate denial” through multiple levels, from emotions to cultural norms to political economy. The primary research from Norway is supplemented by comparisons to the United States, telling a larger story behind the public paralysis in the face of today’s alarming predictions from climate scientists. I describe the lack of response as an active process which I call “socially organized denial.” As a result, information about climate science is known in the abstract but disconnected from political, social, and private life, and sees this as emblematic of how citizens of industrialized countries are responding to global warming.