Why climate change threatens our inner life and survival


With the outcome of the Copenhagen conference on climate change reduced to a goal-less three-page agreement, I highlight two predictions regarding reactions to climate change:

  • People will hold more tightly to their worldviews -- religious fundamentalists will become more fundamentalist, people will embrace materialism by buying more stuff, and sustainability advocates will become more strident trying to get others to behave like they do.
  • A fearful public will become more easily manipulated and deluded into a false sense of security or salvation, even in the face of forthright presidential leadership.

I make these predictions based on the ideas of cultural anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Denial of Death," identified mortality as the main source of human anxiety, proposing that our defenses against awareness of the inevitability of our own death are often harmful to ourselves, to others and to nature. Ten years later, social psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski extended Becker's ideas with "terror management theory." Now, more than 300 experiments, conducted in various situations and cultures across the world, suggest that making people think about death elicits striving for self-esteem, antagonism toward other groups or even violence toward people who think differently.

How does terror management theory fit with climate change -- or its denial? Awareness of the inevitability of death is the human existential problem. Whether we believe in a literal afterlife or strive for fame and material wealth, we deal with the inevitability of death by constructing a vital lie, perpetuating ourselves in a world of real or imagined objects, and pushing into the subconscious the concept that we are at best temporary and not very important.

We do this by subscribing to cultural worldviews that allow us to see ourselves as important and our existence as meaningful. Belief in a literal afterlife through religion, or investment in symbolic immortality projects like materialism, technocracy or academia are just a few "solutions" we create to suppress anxiety about death. Other solutions include idealization of lovers and leaders.

Does the constant drumbeat of the consequences of climate change have the same effect? Why is it so difficult to respond reasonably to grave threats to human well-being and to the ecosystems upon which we depend?

Within the context of global climate change, the most interesting prediction is that people will continue to resist efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the face of overwhelming evidence of disastrous consequences. First, climate change threatens our very context for "self," particularly in the developed world where prevailing worldviews rely on profligate spending, wanton exploitation of natural resources and access to cheap fossil fuels. Second, news of climate change may make people think about death, which would also cause death-denying defenses to kick in.

If learning about the dangers of climate change makes people think about death, it should cause them to cling to existing worldviews and devalue others based on ideological differences. On the other hand, if climate change threatens a person's worldview, such as would be true if the context for self-esteem is a large house and an energy consumptive lifestyle, the response will be self-esteem striving through climate change denial, worldview defense and outgroup antagonism.

From this perspective, antagonism between climate skeptics and climate scientists is likely to grow as the woeful effects of global climate change become apparent. How we teach about climate change matters, because we cannot count on logic, concern for children and grandchildren or even instinct for self-preservation to prevail.

Janis L. Dickinson is an associate professor of natural resources at Cornell.