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Part 1 – Why are we morally obligated to fight climate change? – was published in BoomerWarrior on December 22, 2014. It ends by asking very important questions about the climate movement:

When climate change is discussed, it is either discussed as a “controversy” or a “problem” rather than the existential emergency that it actually is. Our civilization, planet, and each of us individually are in an acute crisis, but we are so mired in individual and collective denial and distortion that we fail to see it clearly.

While the need for a whole society and economy mobilization to fight climate change is broadly understood by experts, we are not close to achieving it as a society?

This article is Part 2 of  Margaret Klein’s What Climate Change Asks of Us: Moral Obligation, Mobilization and Crisis Communication. Part 2 seeks to answer the question left unanswered at the end of Part 1: “why is there such a gap between what we know – the climate science – and our failure to take climate action?

The Role of Pluralistic Ignorance


How can this be? How are we missing the crisis that will determine the future of our civilization and species? Dr. Robert Calidini, social psychologist and author of Influence, describes the phenomenon of “pluralistic ignorance,” which offers tremendous insight into this question, and into how we can beat the trance of denial and passivity.

In the following passage, Dr. Calidini is not discussing climate change, but rather, the phenomena of emergencies (heart attacks, physical assaults, etc.) that are sometimes witnessed—and ignored— by dozens of people, especially in urban settings. These tragic instances are often ascribed to “apathy”—the hardening of city dwellers’ hearts toward each other. But scientific research shows something very different. Research shows that if one person witnesses an emergency, they will help in nearly 100% of instances. It is only in crowds—and in situations of uncertainty—that we have the capacity, even the tendency, to ignore an emergency.

Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. Is the man lying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? Are the sharp sounds from the street gunshots or truck backfires? Is the commotion next door an assault requiring the police or an especially loud marital spat where intervention would be inappropriate and unwelcome? What is going on?

In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency. What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too.

And because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at those around us. Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a nonemergency.

This, according to [social psychology researchers] Latané and Darley, is the state of pluralistic ignorance “in which each person decides that since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, the danger may be mounting to the point where a single individual, uninfluenced by the seeming calm of others, would react.”

These paragraphs vividly illustrate how denial of the climate crisis is cocreated through the effect of pluralistic ignorance. We look around us and see people living their lives as normal. Our friends, coworkers, and family members are all going about their days as they always have. They are planning for the future. They are calm. They are not discussing climate change. So surely there is no emergency. Surely civilization is not in danger. Calm down, we tell ourselves, I must be the only one who is afraid.

This situation creates an intense amount of social pressure to act calm and not appear hysterical or “crazy.” We all want to fit in, to be well liked and to be considered “normal.” As of today, that means remaining silent on the effects of climate change, or responding with minimization, cynicism, or humor. It is taboo to discuss it as the crisis it is, a crisis that threatens all of us, and that we each have a moral obligation to respond to.

Of course, this pluralistic ignorance of the climate emergency is reinforced and bolstered through misinformation campaigns funded by fossil-fuel companies and the hostility of the few. “Better not bring up the climate crisis,” we tell ourselves, “It’s a controversial topic. Someone might really lose their temper.” However, the responsibility for pluralistic ignorance is widely shared. The vast majority of us—including those of us who believe in climate science and are terrified by climate change—are still, unwittingly, contributing to pluralistic ignorance.

Certainty Dispels Pluralistic Ignorance – A New Way to Think About Climate Change


Fortunately, the research on pluralistic ignorance and crisis response provides excellent guidance for how to overcome this trance of collective denial. The research shows that humans are actually strongly motivated to act in a crisis—as long as they are sure that there is a crisis and that they have a role in solving it. As Dr. Calidini describes,

Groups of bystanders fail to help because the bystanders are unsure rather than unkind. They don’t help because they are unsure of whether an emergency actually exists and whether they are responsible for taking action. When they are sure of their responsibilities for intervening in a clear emergency, people are exceedingly responsive!

Dr. Calidini provides a vivid example of how to apply this knowledge to a personal emergency—if you begin experiencing the symptoms of a stroke in a public place. As you start to feel ill, you slump against a tree, but no one approaches you to help. If people are worried about you, they look around, see everyone else acting calm, and decide that there is no emergency and no need to intervene. People are taking cues from each other to deny and ignore your crisis. How can you call forth the emergency intervention you need?

Stare, speak, and point directly at one person and no one else: “You, sir, in the blue jacket, I need help. Call an ambulance.” With that one utterance you should dispel all the uncertainties that might prevent or delay help. With that one statement you will have put the man in the blue jacket in the role of “rescuer.” He should now understand that emergency aid is needed; he should understand that he, not someone else, is responsible for providing the aid; and, finally, he should understand exactly how to provide it. All the scientific evidence indicates that the result should be quick, effective assistance.

Humans contain a great capacity to help each other, to dutifully respond to the needs of others, and to improve the world around us. We also have a need to feel good about ourselves, and that includes fulfilling our moral obligations. When it is clear there is an emergency, and we have a vital role in responding to it, we respond vigorously.

Climate Change is a Crisis, and it is YOUR Responsibility

Effectively intervening in pluralistic ignorance should be considered the primary goal of the climate movement. Climate change is a crisis that demands a massive collective response. This truth will become crystal clear if we overcome the forces of denial and pluralistic ignorance.

To call forth an emergency response from people, we have to put them in the role of rescuer. We must make clear that (1) an emergency is unfolding and (2) YOU have a critical role in responding to it.

Watch for Part 3 of What Climate Change Asks of Us: Moral Obligation, Mobilization and Crisis Communication

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  2. I agree completely with what Klein is saying. But I also believe that in the case of climate change there is another human reaction that keeps us in denial and moving very slow and that is the disease of free enterprise. It is the developed world that is going to have to do the major actions to thwart climate change, but it is also the developed world that is inflicted most heavily with this disease. It is a social disease in the sense that the symptoms are more obvious in the behavior of the human collective and not so much by the human individual.

    The human collective is a person, an alive eating breathing person. And right now she is very sick, she is addicted to wealth. even when she doesn’t have it. That addiction is so strong that she can not see the trail of destruction she is leaving behind her. It is equivalent to the behavior of an alcoholic. He keeps drinking and saying it’s OK, not because he wishes to continue being stupid, but he deny’s SO HE CAN KEEP DRINKING! We in developed world deny climate change so we can keep 3000 sq. ft. homes and shop at malls three days a week. So yes as a collective species we are like a deer with its head in the lights, but at the same time we are also a deer who is so busy eating grass it can’t see the lights coming at it.

    • Margaret Klein does an excellent job of explaining the psychological state we find ourselves in. Yes we know that climate change is serious, it’s real, it’s bad and so on. And yet, we are waiting for someone else to solve the problem. There’s a disconnect between what we know to be true and the need to take action. Her examples of group behavior in a crisis situation are quite easy to understand.

      Another Klein, Naomi Klein, in her book “This Changes Everything” goes to great length to deal with the “social disease” you refer to Danny. Capitalism and globalization make up our prevalent economic paradigm. Our primary economic model is based on the unsustainable extraction of resources from the earth to feed the monster of perpetual economic growth for a consumer-gone-mad civilization.

      So now that we understand the gap, what are the next steps? And there are many.

  3. Yeah Rolly we got a double whammy going on, we naturally fall into denial as a collective, or in groups, and then we also are battling the force of capitalism that has become quite instinctual as well. These are huge obstacles to overcome. At this point, the victory will come simply by grabbing the bull by the horns while at the same time surrendering to the forces of our own demise. It’s a fight and surrender thing.

    The surrender is finally letting go of the lifestyles we’ve become addicted to and saying we can’t do this no more. The fight is to rethink and to rebuild what a human being is. It’s a crossroads deal we’re at. Either we come to utopia by our own choice, or we come to it by force of nature, this is our collective choice. But see, it has to be a collective choice, it has to be the will of a super majority of human beings.

    This thing will not come to fruition through the current political process. It’s like Klein talked about, this is an emergency, and one of geologic scales at that. In truth, the WW2 analogy doesn’t fit it, it’s a scale we’ve not seen before. So the only thing to do is get off our ass and do a Hale Mary and change into something completely new who’s end result are citizens willing to give total support to the collective well being of planet earth. This is not about ideology or some earth worshiping gig, and it’s not about “seeking” utopia, it’s about saving our collective ass from being killed. It has gone that far, we have changed the planet, we have set many traps towards extinction, there is no way we will get out of this through our current systems of politics, governments, markets, these are puny bugs in sight of a giant boot coming own on them. We need something new, something more powerful, we need an abrupt evolution of the human species. And hey, I don’t even want it, I’m just as addicted as any body in the developed world. But that’s what’s called for, like it or not that’s where we’re at. We’ve run it into a corner, see, and we’re scratching every tool we got to keep what we have, but we don’t realize we lost that battle a half century ago.

    So Rolly you ask “what are the next steps?” Step one, surrender the old life. Step two, fight for new life.

    • Danny – There’s little I can add to your comment. We’re on the same page.

      The prospect of every one of us doing a “hale mary” (your expression) and turning our lives around 360 degrees in order to save ourselves is non-existent. At best, our species will adapt to climate change as our governments begin to adopt carbon pricing and as we shift to a low-carbon world by 2050. But even that will not be enough. Renewable energy will not save our species even if it could replace carbon-based energy. That’s only part of the problem. The other challenge of course is mast consumerism and overpopulation regardless of our energy source, carbon or non-carbon.

      Our species is pretty well f*#ked.

  4. Generally speaking, humanity has become inured to most terrible things in life, whether it be terrorism, crime, disease or climate change. It is not just a case of pluralistic ignorance, but a definite choice to turn away from obvious situations that require their action. Why???

    Well, one answer is, that to speak out, to raise one’s voice to say “this is wrong and we must change it” is to stick one’s head above a parapet and suddenly become visible in an invisible society. This actually scares some people… they might find that they become a target for a maniac, the government, or some judicial process. In the situation of trying to help someone overcome an emergency, they might worry that they do the wrong thing and become liable for any further damage that occurs.

    And there is some truth in that fear… many people do find themselves in jail, or penalized in some way for actions that they might consider helpful or heroic. History is full of people who have “stuck their neck out,” but they are the ‘few’…and some have paid the price with their life!

    The ‘many’ are hidden and largely silent and insular, telling no-one their true thoughts. It doesn’t help one little bit, but sadly it is a reality of the human condition.

    • The “big” environmental movement has raised our awareness and provided direction on what needs to be done to save our species. We know what our civilization needs to do to survive. We have the technology. But Big Environmentalism has limitations.

      What I’m encouraged by is a new phenomenon which has been coined by the Tar Sands Blockade group – “Blockadia”. This refers to the resistance,to the death if need be, by groups opposing projects which are threatening their very existence. There are dozens of examples of this starting right here in Canada with the blockades at numerous pipeline projects by native groups who have vowed to stop the destruction of the their local-regional way of life. The same is happening in the US along the Keystone XL proposed route. More of the same in Brazil, the UK, Greece, Romania and Siberia.

      This new grass-roots environmentalism holds a lot of promise, and yes hope. In this context, hope becomes an action verb and not just a passive expectation that something will come along to solve this for us.


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