Showdown at the Climate Corral

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Tompkins Weekly 4-14-14

By Gay Nicholson

At the end of March, lines were drawn in the sand and gauntlets thrown down.  On the same day that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released their latest warning about the rapid escalation of climate disruption and its ever-widening impacts, ExxonMobil came out with a shareholder report assuring investors that it has every intention of extracting and selling their vast oil and gas reserves, and that they doubted any government would be willing to stop them.  It seems we have reached a showdown at the Climate Corral… and its not just ExxonMobil and the IPCC inside that arena.

Maybe it is time we really talked this through – because after all, the climate showdown is something that all of us must face someday.  Sustainable Tompkins is launching The People’s Salon: Conversations that Matter to Your Future with a shared public inquiry into the climate dilemma.  “The Climate, the Market, and the Commons” will be the theme for a series of conversation salons held on Thursday evenings, 7-9 pm, on April 17, May 8, June 5, and June 19 at the Sustainability Center, 111 N. Albany St., Ithaca.

The salon topics will explore four key questions:

April 17:  Why are we stuck in climate denial?

May 8:      Can business and technology save us?

June 5:     Will government intervene?

June 19:    Is it up to the citizenry?

Climate change presents a troubling predicament.  It’s a complex global problem with no easy local solutions.  Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are underway across the planet, and people of conscience are devoting themselves to various aspects of climate justice.  Meanwhile, business as usual is pursued and the majority of people inhabit parallel realities where climate disruption is recognized as a real threat and everyday life continues as if it were not.  Even though we will all pay the costs of climate change to some degree, most people are not participating in efforts to protect our atmospheric Commons.

We need to develop a better shared understanding of why we are so slow to respond, how the structure of our economy both creates the problem and offers solutions, and what (exactly) are we, The People, going to do about protecting our shared future.

Three speakers familiar with various perspectives on each topic will kick start the conversation before the audience is invited to share their own viewpoints, questions, speculations, and proposed actions.  At the opening salon on April 17, Nancy Menning (Philosophy & Religion) of Ithaca College, and Dave Wolfe (Horticulture) and Lauren Chambliss (Communication) of Cornell University, will outline some of our motivations for remaining in denial about climate change, and offer insights into how we might dismantle what seems to be a key barrier to our mobilization for the Climate Showdown.

There are at least three interpretations for why we aren’t taking aggressive action as a species to address climate disruption.  One is that denial is an individual psychological response to the threat of a loss.  We pretend it isn’t happening so that we don’t have to go through a painful inner process.  So denial is seen as the first stage in the grieving process of giving up our version of modern civilization and our memory of the planet we grew up on.

Another interpretation is more sociological/biological in that humans have had to be in constant denial all through our evolution because the world is a risky threatening place and if we allowed ourselves to be constantly aware of all the threats, we’d be paralyzed (not to mention very anxious).  So, perhaps denial is our normal state of consciousness and the challenge is just to make the threat more visible and immediate so we can understand the need to act.

A third common approach is that we are in denial through a rationalistic risk-based analysis.  This is an econometrics perspective that suggests that many have concluded they face a low personal risk from climate disruption so it is rational not to invest time or money in addressing a threat that will mainly hit other people in other places at another time.  Especially if you are making money based on business as usual.

Or is there a fourth possibility?  Perhaps we are participants in the “social organization of denial” and are responding to emotional cues from others that help us collectively maintain a sense of innocence in the face of very distressing information on climate change.  Perhaps our social norms and collective pattern of thinking keep us from disturbing each other with more than superficial small talk about the weird weather.

Probably all these processes are involved and maybe more.  But we should be having a much more public exploration of our shared denial, and how that may be sourced differently among different parts of the population.  If we had a clearer understanding of denial, perhaps we would be able to work together more effectively to overcome it in ourselves and in others.  By starting the salon series with this conversation about denial, we might avoid some false assumptions when we look for solutions to the climate dilemma.

We hope you will join us at The People’s Salon on April 17 and thereafter.  We really need to talk.

(Details about the other salon topics and guest speakers will be posted at

Gay Nicholson is the President of Sustainable Tompkins.

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