The idea that a large swath of public reacts with an automatic denial defense mechanism against the ‘too-large-to-comprehend’ global warming crisis is not a brand-new analysis today. It dates to a speech Ross Gelbspan gave over a decade ago.
The headline out of Bloomberg News today is for the “People Don’t Fear Climate Change Enough” article written by former administrator of White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Cass Sunstein.
Sunstein asks at the beginning why nations haven’t done more to stop global warming. Considering the sheer pervasiveness of Ross Gelbspan’s accusation about industry-corrupted skeptic climate scientists, it’s not much of a surprise that Sunstein arranges two answers this way:
Skeptics say that the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is biased and wrong. Companies whose economic interests are at stake continue to fight against regulatory controls.
More entertaining is the answer he offers further into his article about a psychological barrier the public apparently faces:
…we should not disregard purely psychological factors. An understanding of what human beings fear — and what they do not — helps to explain why nations haven’t insisted on more significant emissions reductions. …
…people tend to be especially focused on risks or hazards that have an identifiable perpetrator, and for that reason produce outrage. Warmer temperatures are a product not of any particular human being or group, but the interaction between nature and countless decisions by countless people.
…people sometimes display a form of myopia. They may neglect the future, seeing it as a kind of foreign country, one they may not ever visit…
A nebulous problem where no solution is abundantly obvious. Nothing new about that line of thinking. Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe mentioned the same idea on February 9, 2007 (in the same article where she infamously said “global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers“):
But there are psychological as well as political reasons why global warming remains in the cool basement of priorities. It may be, paradoxically, that framing this issue in catastrophic terms ends up paralyzing instead of motivating us.
… As Ross Gelbspan, author of “The Heat is On,” says, “when people are confronted with an overwhelming threat and don’t see a solution, it makes them feel impotent. So they shrug it off or go into deliberate denial.”
The Goodman article was not the first time Gelbspan said that. He was actually repeating what he said in a June 2000 speech (pg 12 here, 4th-to-last-paragraph):
Confronting an insurmountable problem leaves one with a profound feeling of impotence — which is extremely uncomfortable. And it is a very understandable and human reaction simply to not want to know abut [sic] it.
Consider the critical fault of the psychological argument, no matter when it is offered. For it to work – for us to be paralyzed by the threat of our own human-caused climate peril – skeptic scientists must be incorrect about the IPCC not making its case that we are causing the problem. But where do we see the back ‘n forth debate on that?
What we instead see is the widespread accusation that skeptic climate scientists are fossil fuel industry shills, thus we are free to ignore such crooks. This accusation always spirals back to the same guy ……… who also happened to pose the same psychological analysis of global warming denial twelve years ago that Cass Sunstein offered today.
(h/t Steve Milloy)