Why climate disasters won't wake people up to Climate Destabilization

Among those alarmed about Climate Destabilization there's been hope that Superstorm Sandy will, at last, wake up enough climate change deniers to the truth, that we can begin turning around our self-destructive policies.

George Marshall makes a convincing case that this hope is unfounded for conservative communities. More appealing, simple narratives smother Climate Change ideas.


... on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern ... this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions – especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognize that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.

... in Texas interviewing people in Bastrop where, in 2011, the worst fires in Texas history (by a tenfold margin) destroyed 1,700 homes.

I did six interviews in Bastrop: with the mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the editor of the local newspaper and with three people who had lost everything they owned in the fires.

It was very interesting that not one of them could recall any conversation about anthropogenic climate change in relation to the fires. The mayor, who said he accepted climate science, found that there was little interest or willingness among people to make this connection and it seems he felt it politic not to push it.

But they weren’t really interested in talking about this- what they really wanted to talk about was their pride in their community, the value of their social relations, their resilience and their personal and collective capacity to overcome challenges.

I would argue that the responses in Bastrop are entirely consistent with what we know about the way that people respond socially and cognitively to disasters and climate change.


Disasters can reinforce social networks (and with them established norms and worldviews)


... attitudes to climate change are strongly correlated with political and ideological worldviews (see for example the work of Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project ).  We can therefore anticipate that a stronger cultural cohesion could make it even harder for ideas that challenge existing worldviews to be voiced or accepted- creating even further obstacles for the acceptance of climate change in societies that are currently skeptical.


Disasters can increase social confidence and certainty.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change. And, inevitably, this process of acceptance would generate intense debate and conflict.

Disasters may very well do the opposite and provide proof of the worth of the existing social system- including the existing worldview and lifestyle.  The spirit of pulling together and moving on generates a consensus to suppress divisive issues and support the existing society. Areas of contention or disagreement are likely to be suppressed in the interests of social cohesion or out of respect to people who have offered kindness and generosity. After all, if your current society and economic model has served you well in a crisis you are surely less willing to accept change. [emphasis in last paragraph mine]

Basically George Mashalll said that Germany only found the capacity for self-doubt after being defeated in WWII. This implies that climate deniers will only find the capacity to doubt their comfortable narrative after Climate Crisis defeats the entire country, which will obviously be too late.

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