Why we’re blind to climate change

For most people in the developed world both the causes and the effects of climate change are essentially invisible.

Hunkered in a mountain cabin in the 1960s, listening to the rain drumming on the roof, Thomas Merton reflected on the dislocation of city-dwellers from the weather, and from the natural world.

Back in the city, he imagined, “the obsessed citizens plunge through the rain bearing the load of their obsessions, slightly more vulnerable than before, but still only barely aware of external realities.” [1]

At the time when Merton was writing, climate change wasn’t well known. But his lamentation about the disconnection between urban people and “external realities” carries a message that’s still vitally relevant.

As I see it, his point is this: When we perceive the natural world just as a backdrop to the real action of our lives (getting an education, finding a job, raising a family) we are quite oblivious to its patterns.

And as long as we segregate these things in our heads — thinking of the environment as a sideshow, rather than the source of our very existence — no amount of goading or guilt-tripping will motivate us to mitigate climate change.


Collective blind spots

CO2 (like its cousin, carbon monoxide) is an invisible, tasteless, odorless gas. Even when we have on board a fairly detailed working model of the greenhouse effect, it’s hard to think of CO2 as a pollutant, and it’s easy to think of the whole thing as simply an abstraction.

Part of this is a consequence of lifestyle. Our daily contributions to carbon emissions are largely invisible to us. We can turn on the light or turn up our central heating without seeing fuel being burned. Technology neatly masks our consumption.

The mobility of the global elite is another factor that leads to ignorance. When you grow up in one place, go to college in another, and take jobs in three or four different cities in the course of a career, you’re unlikely to notice the effects of climate change.

That’s because the effects are clearest in terms of trends on the local level: creeping changes in the timing of spring or, in monsoon systems, the arrival of the rains; gradually drier summers, and winters that are less cold than they used to be.

People in other parts of the world see this more clearly.

A view from Ethiopia

For peasants in Ethiopia, consumption is not invisible. To cook dinner or heat the house, they have to gather wood, or cut down another tree. And it’s plain to see that the forests are getting smaller.

They’re also much better attuned to the ecological tempo and character of the places where they live than we are — they depend greatly on the predictability of the seasons and of rainfall to grow their crops.  When the rains come late, it can spell disaster.

A patchwork of fields in Amhara region, Ethiopia

A patchwork of fields in Amhara region, Ethiopia

The contrast between the keen awareness of these issues among Ethiopian peasants and the blindness to them among Westerners is ironic.

For one thing, the impact that these people have on the biosphere is miniscule compared to ours. [2]

Second, despite the tinyness of their contribution to global warming, they’re in line to suffer sooner and harder than we are.

Third, we’ve had the privilege of extended education; we’ve got access to a dazzling array of information through libraries and the internet.

How come we’re not better informed?

The manufacturing of climate silence

The information we are exposed to is actually part of the problem.

Dependent on mass media for much of our knowledge of climate change, we’re liable to be duped into thinking that the basic facts on the issue are unsettled.

As is laid out in detail in the book, Merchants of Doubt, big business has a long and shameful record of using the media to spread doubt and confusion about environmental health risks. [3]

These efforts have been remarkably successful. It’s largely on their account that public figures can still say, without being laughed at, that scientists are still debating whether climate change is real. [4]

Advertizing meanwhile magnifies the token gestures of big polluters as evidence that they care for the planet.

All of which warps our perceptions. We’re led either into perplexity — thinking that things are still up in the air — or to a false sense of security — feeling that the problem will get fixed through gradual and deliberate change by people more powerful than ourselves.

Smoke in our eyes

Recognizing why we’re blind may be a first step towards improving our vision.

 How, for instance, might we change the technology we interact with every day to remind ourselves of the fact of our consumption, or attune ourselves to the ecological changes happening around us?

Almost a new discipline is required here — at the interface of anthropology, engineering, and product design — concerned with how the design of the things we use every day influences our activity and consumption. [5]

 The crazy, inspired design of a Danish power station indicates what sorts of approaches we could take, to force the connections between power use and carbon emissions into our consciousness.

The power plant will stand in the center of Copenhagen, the tallest structure for miles around. Burning the city’s trash, it will give off smoke not in a continuous stream but in smoke rings — each of them containing precisely 200 kg of CO2! [6]

How will that affect Copenhageners’ energy use?

For me, even the sight of steam coming out of a vent outside my house (visible from our kitchen) makes me think twice about turning the heat on.

Back to nature

Then there’s the challenge of reconnecting with the rhythms of nature.

Short of adopting the lifestyle of an Ethiopian peasant, how do we go about that?

One path is to try to use technology to get to know the places around us better. The EveryAware project, for instance, is developing tools for monitoring air pollution using smartphones. [7]

But there may be no substitute for getting outdoors.

Hunkering down and meditating like Thomas Merton on the exuberant meaninglessness of the rain.

And working to escape the myth we’ve created, before it smothers us.


[1] Thomas Merton, “Rain and the rhinoceros.”  Merton, T. (1966). Raids on the Unspeakable. New York: New Directions. http://www.amazon.com/Raids-Unspeakable-Thomas-Merton/dp/0811201015

[2] “If we in North America want to compare [our impact on the environment] to China or India, you’ve got to multiply our population by at least 20, to get our equivalent impact…. If you want to compare us to Bangladesh or Somalia, you’ve got to multiply by at least 60.” — David Suzuki, 2010, summarizing one of the messages of his book, The legacy: An elder’s vision for our sustainable future. (Vancouver: Greystone). Rural Ethiopians’ footprints would be equivalent to Bangladeshis or Somalis.

Check your ecological footprint!

[3] Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have documented how oil and gas companies (and before them the chemical industry, Big Tobacco, and others) have deliberately worked to muddle public perception of the environmental dangers posed by their business.

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. M. (2011). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming Bloomsbury Press.

[4] Prominent climate change deniers in the UK Parliament include Peter Lilley MP (Conservative, Hitchin & Harpenden), and in the US House of Representatives, Joe Barton (Republican, Texas). Both have financial interests in oil or gas.

[5] For work along these lines see Richard Wilk, “Consuming ourselves to death,” and other contributions to Crate, S. A. & Nuttall, M. (eds.). (2009). Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions.  Left Coast Press. [PDF of Wilk’s chapter here:

[6] The outside of the power station will also serve as a ski slope!


[7] AirProbe mobile application:

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2 Responses to Why we’re blind to climate change

  1. Yihenew says:

    I like this one “Technology neatly masks our consumption”.

    What makes me feel sad is that, as you said, those people who have the minimal effect for climate change would keep suffering the same and may be more than those who are the sources of these changes.

    I also agree that the western Medias are misinforming the reality about climate change and it is sad that as usual money is playing its part here. It is sometimes eccentric that the big western Medias talks about climate change only after serious national disaster that had already claimed the life of their citizens, like the recent hurricane sandy, then seem to forget everything after days. However, at the same time the knowledge of climate change that is already circulating among people in developed nations, knowingly or unknowingly, seems to be ignored by most of these people.

    I remember reading an article stating that most of the hurricanes start their way from Ethiopian highlands. “A lot of hurricanes start out over the Ethiopian mountains. Air is steadily flowing over those mountains and they cause waves in the air.” said Owen Kelley, a NASA researcher. Could this have anything to do with the first contention?

    Jed thanks.

    • jedstevenson says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Yihenew! I agree it’s sad that it takes a disastrous storm to force climate change onto the radar. I hadn’t heard about hurricanes originating in the Ethiopian highlands. Where did you hear Kelley quoted?

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