25 Nov 2013. Talk given at Royal Society of Arts on Disavowal of Climate Change.

My subject is disavowal, currently the most common form of denial of climate change. We commonly think of disavowal as turning a blind eye to a disturbing truth, or ignoring it. With disavowal, we don’t deny the reality; rather we find ways to live with it that cause us the least emotional disturbance. In a state of disavowal, the huge current problem of climate change is made small, far away, unimportant, or a ‘no go area’. Rather than being at the centre of the stage, ways are found to shift it off to the edges of awareness.

Disavowal is a ‘quick fix’, magical, way to try to solve a pressing and disturbing problem. The problem actually addressed by disavowal is not the real external problem, but how conflicted, anxious and disturbed that problem leaves us feeling. Disavowal ‘fixes’ our discomfort by getting rid of it. To do so, it uses wishful and untruthful modes of thought. The way to fix a problem in a genuine way is to address it in reality. When we disavow the problem of climate change, the problem of course escalates, and this is why disavowal is dangerous. The worse the problem gets, the more disavowal may be used to defend against feeling even more disturbed about it. This makes the problem increasingly hard to face. Disavowal tends to lead to a vicious circle. The problem escalates and so does the disavowal.

The book Engaging with Climate Change distinguishes between disavowal and denialism, where denialism is sowing doubt that climate change is real and mainly caused by our use of fossil fuels. Denialism, driven mainly by right wing think tanks and fossil fuel interests, props up our disavowal. For instance, the way the media trivializes, distorts and sidelines news about climate change fits in with and feeds our disavowal. Denialism and disavowal form a collusive relationship.

Facing reality involves facing our feelings about it, and these feelings may include the emotional pain of personal reckoning and facing loss. It is only when our feelings are faced that we can mobilize ourselves to change our behaviour. This is my central message. It is easy to say, but not easy to convey, so I will use an example. Someone we love dies, we struggle to take in and to mourn their death. We have done a fair bit of this mourning when we are faced with the talk of sorting through their clothes to decide which are to be kept, sent to the charity shop and thrown away. Suddenly our grief breaks through afresh, the death hits us as more real, more final. But going through this heartbreak we find we have moved on, are ready to face life in a different more reconciled way, although we could not have known or planned it like this.

We have so much to mourn with climate change. Two extremely difficult things are we have already lost a stable climate, and we have barely begun to take this in. Also, we – and I mean especially those of us in the global North – have already lost confidence in our dominant narrative, the one that says nature will endlessly provide, that we bear no responsibility for how we treat nature and that we can fix anything. We already know all this is false, and yet we minimize and trivialise our knowledge and we stamp on the new narratives already forming in our collective imaginations. To return to the situation with mourning, it is as though in the middle of our outpouring of grief when sorting through the clothes we were told, “you are mistaken. Your loved one has not died” or “rumours of the death have been greatly exaggerated”. Translated this means “the climate is stable and our dominant narrative serves us well.” This is what we most want to hear and it does us the greatest disservice to be told nonsense like this, as it paralyses our capacity to take action and to move from a world of false dreams and wishes to the world of real opportunity, realistic dreams and allowing these to determine our actions.

Disavowal, by blocking out feelings of anguish, dispenses with moral conflict, and it enables instrumental values to flourish: we can take just what we want when we want it, and the consequences are apparently nil or trivial.

So I reach the most central part of the problem with disavowal. It undermines, paralyses, our capacity to care; it immobilizes our love and our concern. It is when we care that we act, as action is the exercise of our moral and caring responsibility. It stops us from having the imagination to think and it stops us from acting responsibly.

We are all subject to disavowal, we live in a culture of disavowal, and it is, in my view, not possible to overestimate the extent of the current disavowal of CC. It is extensive, to be found everywhere – even climate scientists are in disavowal, as Kevin Anderson has recently pointed out. People are currently struggling against disavowal in working for a change in the culture so that our capacity to care and to love can be centre stage and more powerful than the instrumental more exploitative side of our nature.

It is very painful to get to know about climate change in a truthful way, and to get to know about the extent of our own disavowal of the problem, and we need help and support to face the truth. It does not help to avoid the truth, to say it is all too anxiety making and best to bypass it and not mention it. We need support to build the emotional resilience to face climate change.

I end with a further aspect of disavowal. This can be seen in the reporting of the latest IPPC report. No mention was made of how this grim news might leave people feeling and what is to be done about the problem. This leaves people feeling leadership does not care about them in a fundamental way, which is traumatic. We currently see people reacting to this lack of care by mobilizing their caring as well others going into further disavowal.