Climate change presents a troubling predicament.  Unlike the ozone hole, which was addressed relatively quickly, the threat of global warming continues to advance while humanity remains strangely paralyzed in responding to the various risks of climate impacts – even as those risks become certainties.  Maybe it is time we really talked this through.  

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.

Lautrec salonWe face a complex global problem with no easy local solutions. Even though we will all pay the costs of climate change to some degree, most people are not active in efforts to protect our atmospheric Commons.  How can we change this dynamic?

Perhaps the place to start is to talk with each other and try to address some of the complexity we are facing.  We need to develop a better 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.

At the salons, three speakers familiar with 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 mobilizing to slow climate change.

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