Implicatory denial: the sociology of climate inaction

15 November 2017
Exploring how and why people who believe in climate change choose to ignore it, and how people can be empowered to take climate action.

By Kari Marie Norgaard, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Oregon.

Despite the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally if we are to lower the risks of catastrophic climate change, wealthy industrialised nations persist with a widespread public silence on the issue and fail to address climate change. This is despite there being ever more conclusive evidence of its severity. Why is there an undercurrent of inaction, despite the challenge of climate change being ever more daunting? One element is denial.

The most recognisable form of climate change denial is the phenomenon of “literal denial” through the rejection of scientific facts on climate change by ‘climate sceptics’. However, while climate change denial in the literal sense has become increasingly accepted in political discourse, media coverage, public opinion and government inaction over the past ten years, it is necessary to address the more pervasive problem of what British sociologist Stanley Cohen calls “implicatory denial”. In terms of climate change, the phenomenon of “implicatory denial” can be understood as a failure to integrate one’s knowledge of climate change into their everyday life or transform it into social action.

As it currently stands, the majority of us understand the threat that climate change places on our very survival, and yet this has not resulted in widespread action on individual and collective levels to address climate change. As such, if we are to address climate change, we need to understand how and why the phenomenon of “implicatory denial” exists, and to discover solutions to empower people to engage in climate action.

How and why do people ignore climate change?

My research in Norway and follow-up work in the United States explored how and why those of us who believe in climate change continue to ignore it or fail to take action against it. I found that climate change denial is socially organised through intersecting factors such as emotions, social and cultural norms, geopolitics and economics, which perpetuate the psychological barriers that motivate people to distance themselves from the realities of climate change.

For many of us, thinking about climate change evokes a series of troubling emotions such as guilt, fear, and hopelessness, and while the majority of us may understand the enormity of climate change, many are afraid of it. As a form of protection against the dire realities of climate change, these emotions manifest into a type of inertia that can result in detachment from the issue and from taking the necessary actions to address it.

Furthermore, climate change denial is collectively reinforced by our governments and politicians, who promote the cycle of “implicatory denial” as a way to ensure social cohesion and stability. As governments and citizens of Western industrialised nations heavily rely on natural resources to maintain our present way of life and to establish further economic development, the contemplation of lifestyle change is perceived negatively for most people. The fact that we must restructure our way of life to address climate change is met with feelings of anxiety and the need to avoid the issue, which again manifests into a failure to take action against climate change.

How can we empower people to move away from climate denial towards climate action?

If we are to empower people to move away from climate denial and toward climate action, we must collectively demand political action and accountability from our political leaders. In our current political climate there is a sense that, since nobody else is acting, ‘why should I?’ and a belief that that successful political action against climate change is unachievable given the lack of national and international climate action. But, if we are to break the cycle of inaction, we need to encourage individuals to engage with democracy and demand that our leaders commit to climate action. Although it is not enough on its own, as a first step, individuals can get involved on a local level. Taking efforts to make climate change visible in one’s community, to plan for coming challenges, and to reduce emissions at the community level can assist in breaking the cycle of denial from the ground up.

Additionally, we need to move past the notion that climate change denial is the result of a lack of information that can be solved by finding ways to better educate and inform the public. A sociological understanding of climate change denial and inaction highlights that denial is not the result of a lack of understanding of climate change information, but rather it is our emotional response to that information which leads to inaction. Greater acknowledgment of the underlying social and cultural factors which lead to denial will allow for more practical solutions to addressing denial and inaction. Furthermore, if we are to move forward in responding to climate change, more solutions and approaches to the issue of climate change that draw from sociological theory, insights and research are urgently needed.

Lastly, we must explore how to help people move beyond a sense of helplessness, guilt, or fear of the future and take actions that are in the interest of collective long-term survival. To do this, we must open up discourse on climate change and make such conversations socially acceptable. By encouraging public discourse on climate change, people can talk about climate change and their emotions surrounding it, helping them move past inaction.

Kari Norgaard is a Visting Fellow for ‘Anastasia: Communicating heat & climate vulnerability through performance’ – The SEI’s Pop-Up Research Lab project funded by the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC).

On Tuesday 28 November Kari joins SEI for ‘Beyond the Climate Elephant: From Climate Denial to Public Engagement’ – a public lecture in partnership with Sydney Ideas.

Associate Professor Kari Norgaard (B.S. Biology Humboldt State University 1992, M.A. Sociology Washington State University 1994, PhD Sociology, University of Oregon 2003) is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at University of Oregon. Dr. Norgaard trained as a postdoctoral fellow in an interdisciplinary IGERT Program on Invasive Species at the University of California Davis from 2003-2005 and from there joined the faculty at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, as Assistant Professor from 2005-2011. She joined the University of Oregon faculty in 2011. Over the past ten years Dr. Norgaard has published and taught in the areas of environmental sociology, gender and environment, race and environment, climate change, sociology of culture, social movements and sociology of emotions.

Header image: by Nicole S Glass via Shutterstock, ID: 630429824.