By Stephanie Kaza
Flooding in Louisiana, California wildfires, permafrost melt in Alaska – the list of events made more extreme by climate change is growing rapidly.
There is no shortage of news articles, books, films and blogs on what’s happening with the planet’s climate. Emotions and opinions run strong, making it tough to have a thoughtful conversation among friends.
One of the most frustrating and common phenomena is known as climate denial. (It’s too big! I can’t deal with it! Weather always changes! Technology will fix it!) All these common reactions reflect complex social and communication challenges embedded in addressing climate change.
It is tempting to get caught in arguments on this difficult topic and it seems we’re stuck with the messiness of it all. Psychologists explain climate denial as an example of the human capacity for cognitive dissonance.
People are quite capable of holding two completely different viewpoints in their minds without having this disrupt everyday activity.
In one part of the brain, we respond to weather changes by adapting our clothing or thermostats, making personal self-care choices that are sensible day to day.
Meanwhile, we park climate concerns in another part of the brain where they can be conveniently ignored. Our brains are wired to be able to do this for our own survival.
Climate denial is about avoiding difficult feelings and states of mind. Psychologists who specialize in the study of emotions observe that predictions of climate change impacts make people feel fearful and anxious, despairing and discouraged and other uncomfortable feelings.
No one really likes to have these feelings, especially when there is little sense of personal control.
A few years ago, University of Oregon sociologist Kari Norgaard spent a year living in Norway, talking with neighbors in towns and cities similar to Portland, where people were generally well-educated, civic-minded and well-informed on current issues. They were engaged in their local communities and politically active, yet climate change was not a common topic.
Her study showed that climate denial was actively being reinforced through everyday cultural norms and activity patterns. One thing caught her attention: the absence of appropriate social settings for talking about climate change.
Norgaard found Norwegian political meetings tended to focus on governance concerns related to local budget or policy issues. Recreation spots such as parks, gyms, and bars were seen as places to recover from life’s stresses and not talk about hard things.
In school settings, teachers felt they needed to stay optimistic for future generations and not bring up the scarier aspects of climate change uncertainty.
Where are such spaces to talk about climate in our own neighborhoods? Where do we engage any big and complicated subjects that need in-depth, thoughtful community reflection?
Our everyday conversations are brief typically and, in passing, made even shorter by social media. Talking about climate change requires neutral and inviting spaces for a thoughtful investigation of challenging economic, ethical, political, emotional and social issues.
A group of SE neighbors collaborated last winter and offered monthly conversations at TaborSpace Commons to take a look at conundrums associated with taking action here in Portland and the bioregion.
Another “Let’s Talk Climate” series is planned for January-April 2017.
For more information, see letstalkclimatepdx.org/p/about.html or ask to join the mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephanie Kaza is professor emerita of University of Vermont where she taught for 24 years and most recently served as Director of the Environmental Program. A native Portlander, she has returned home in retirement to add her voice to local climate and sustainability actions.