Cognitive Dissonance: Why Are We So Complacent in the Face of Climate Change?
By Elizabeth Peredo Beltran
It has rained incessantly recently in the Bolivian Amazon and in the Valleys. The waters that have flooded our territory since January, are thought to be the result of the worst rains in 40 years. More than 60,000 families have been affected—at least 350,000 people have had to leave their homes.
They have lost almost everything they own: their animals, their crops, their daily lives. UNICEF has reported that 60,000 Bolivian children have been affected. Nine hundred schools have had to suspend activities for almost a month due to high risk. More than fifty people have died and some of their bodies have still not been recovered. And we cannot yet tell what the magnitude of the impact on health, food and the ability of communities to rebuild their lives will be as the floodwaters recede and the extent of the destruction is slowly revealed. One small example of how poverty triggers the vulnerability of communities comes from the situation of the indigenous people in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) communities.
Though reports speak of huge losses of corn, rice, potatoes, soybeans, vegetables and livestock—with estimates of more than 250,000 head of cattle missing—it remains to be seen in the next few months what the economic impact of floods will be for these peoples themselves, and what the impact will be at both regional and national levels.
In the face of the dramatic situation presented by this disaster both authorities and civilians across the whole country have mobilized to collect food, medicines and everything necessary to bring help to the affected communities. Above and beyond, these good intentions to come together to provide aid for those affected by the floods in the Amazon region and in the Bolivian valleys, we were far from being capable of confronting the dimension of such a disaster. Rainfalls are also far from being recognized as not an occasional event but rather as climate change events that will only repeat more frequently in the future.
Not far from this region, droughts are hitting hard: in both the Chiquitanía region and the Chaco regions of Santa Cruz and Tarija there have been losses of thousands of hectares of crops, which is resulting in a silent forced migration to the cities. Just some months back the Bolivian Defence Ministry reported 247,000 hectares of land affected by the lack of rain, by snow or by fire. Meanwhile the loss of our glaciers is a sorrow to which we are becoming accustomed.
Climate change is not just a scientific issue, nor is it just something which is of exclusive interest to UN negotiations, nor it is a warning for the future: it is already present in our times, in our territories and it comes with violence. Climate change affects people's lives and it is already claiming many victims.
We share this grief with millions of people across the planet who are suffering the same consequences. Just a few months back more than 11 million people were affected by super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. A million people were without electricity after snowstorms caused by the late winter polar vortex in the U.S. Thousands of people affected in the UK in what was considered the worst flooding in 200 years. Thousands of hectares of forest burned annually in Australia by the alarming drought and heat. Thousands affected in Central America, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay and other countries. Twenty-five million souls were driven into uncertainty by water shortages, the result of droughts and heat waves in California. A deadly landslide with more than one hundred people missing in Washington State, the result of heavy rains. Millions of humans and ecosystems at risk in various parts of the world ... News that nobody wants to hear, but which we will inevitably be forced to confront in our own lifetimes, even though the news appears first as cold statistics in the press.
We need to connect the dots to realise that climate change is a phenomenon that challenges us to overcome short-term visions and the empty rhetoric of "Mother Earth," devoid of concrete actions. Climate change is a consequence of the violent exploitation of nature, of endless economic growth systems based on fossil fuel consumption, understood as an irreplaceable condition for human "welfare." This obsolete idea has been inculcated into our lives on a social, a psychological and on a cultural level.
What can we do to finally get on board that the emissions from burning fossil fuels, of large scale cattle exploitation and of deforestation emissions—both in the North and in the South—are destroying our atmosphere? Where are the effective means of caring for the common goods kidnapped by corporations and the global addiction to unlimited growth? How long do we have to wait till the polluters begin to stop poisoning us and prevent worse consequences? When and how will there be compensation for the damage? (almost 71.5 percent of global emissions are from developed countries where only 17.3 percent of the world population reside). What can we do to avoid the likelihood that the so-called "development" of the global South will repeat that same destructive patterns (disguised by the promises of progress and of happiness)?
Unfortunately—and not only in Bolivia—this theme has become distorted. It became an issue of political and economic interest, rather than simply being recognised as a matter of life or death, a challenge for survival.
The Fifth IPCC report has established in an unequivocal way that climate change is caused by human activity and that it is causing climate chaos everywhere. This report has warned that climate change presents enormous risks related to the access to water, food and livelihood. Some scientists and activists have been highly critical of this report for being—when all is said and done—conservative in nature, especially when it comes to expressing the urgency of the matter. They note that climate change is occurring faster than the IPCC scenarios had indicated, and that the Arctic ice-melt—and its consequent methane release (one of the greatest global threats)—has been underestimated due to pressure mounted by the rich nations and by the oil lobby. Other voices are questioning the possibility that the IPCC report has opened up opportunities for false solutions like geoengineering and unproven technologies, instead of insisting in a stronger way on the restriction of the use of fossil fuels.
Denialism Around the World
In the context of this global emergency, surprisingly, a political/ideological current called "denialism" has emerged. Denialists claim that these phenomena do not correspond to the saturation of the atmosphere as a direct result of human action, rather they claim that it is simply due to the planet's "natural cycles." Denialists, as if we have need of such a service, have devoted their activism to denial of scientific reports. They have become a strong global current that accompanies the rhythms of economical development and investment, blaming environmentalists for creating unnecessary uncertainty. Their position is in essence linked with the corporate oil lobby, large corporations and private capital dedicated to the continued exploration for—and exploitation of—fossil fuels. Their political/industry alliances are indestructible.
Bill McKibben, activist founder of 350.org has claimed that if oil reserves recognized by the world stock markets were exploited, this would consume five times the remaining atmospheric carbon budget. A calamity! Meanwhile, denialism among U.S. Republican representatives commands an impressive lobby so that the U.S. doesn't even contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) nor the UN platform on Economic and Social issues (ECOSOC), even more: they promote the "persecution" of their country's scientists who assert that anthropogenic climate change is a reality. James Hansen, a NASA scientists, is one of their favorite targets.
Denialism does have definite concrete political realities as describe above, but the term also describes an attitude in society, a broad social space of indifference to both global and climate change. This attitude holds significant weight in civil society because people find it very difficult to change their lives in order to prevent global disaster. They prefer to close their eyes to the future. In the field of social psychology this is called "cognitive dissonance." Clive Hamilton, Professor at the Australian Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, has concluded that denialism is an expression of the failure of humanity to confront this crisis of global dimensions.
Another form of denialism—although they don't much like it mentioned—is that which comes from governments and from other circles of power and decision-making who disregard the urgent need for action despite the information is available to them. Through their decisions they deny the urgent need to change the current model of development, the energy grid and the management of the response to the crisis of global climate change. The alarming information provided by science is available to governments first hand.
Just remember the Philippine climate change negotiator who moved a global audience to tears during the climate talks in Poland 2013, demanding "an end to this madness," after super-typhoon Haiyan devastated part of his country. Though negotiators responded to his words with minutes of silence and expressions of solidarity, negotiations continued as if nothing had happened. Business continued "as usual," and the production and consumption of fossil fuels throughout the world continued "as usual." Convention agreements fall paradoxically by the wayside; the dictates of the capitalist system are at once stronger and more binding than the multilateral agreements. Negotiators seem to speak in unison: “We can vouch for what we have accomplished in the negotiations, but not for the policies in our own countries." The big decisions—those linked to the economic system, to the energy matrices and to capitalist production, that permanent engine of depredation—are kept in place by regional governments at the territorial and local levels.
Bolivia and the Challenge of Climate Change
The recent floods in Bolivia have brought us one step closer to these big questions. To a greater or lesser extent, our understanding is framed by the controversies that are taking place across the globe. We observe the impacts of the climate crisis: polarisation, crisis, demands, the taking up of positions and proposals that go beyond the scope of the climate negotiations.
In Bolivia this has also brought about controversy. This is mediated by national and regional political tensions. Thus the people from the Amazon villages wonder: “What do we do now? What will sustain our families? Are we less important than cattle?" The tensions unleashed by the floods demonstrate how far we are from responses on the scale that is required. Distancing oneself from that which the government says, from local government demands, from Brazilian silence (motivated by the possible causal effects of recently constructed mega-dams), from the political declarations … what really matters is the construction of a society which is resilient to these global changes, and, therefore, a society able to build a new world based on solidarity and empathy.
There are some lessons that I venture to pinpoint from the dramas that we have lived through in the recent floods in our country:
- We do not need heroes, nor do we need the usual political battles. Rather, we require a long-term view that takes into account climate change and other global changes, seeing the incorporation of cross-cutting measures as critical at every level of public administration and of public life. Nurturing nature and the human rights of the population, especially the poorest people, should be high priorities.
- While negotiations on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) are now the only multilateral scenario for global commitments (though they are near to collapse due to their own inefficiency), today local priorities are more important than ever. This is where we can see whether or not we are making progress in stopping this catastrophe and changing the world to care for and regenerate life.
- Resilience must be considered in a multi-dimensional way, from what it means to meet the challenge of sustainable energy and to restore harmony, to the development of technical skills in agriculture, water management, human settlements, etc. Resilience also means ensuring a healthy social tissue, strengthening solidarity, respect and mutual recognition.
- Resilience means also developing a more complex viewpoint that redefines “development" for these times of global changes. To face properly climate change, states must take seriously the fossil fuels use menace. They have to think how to stop and change “fossilized" economies and societies.
- The care and restoration of nature should become an obsession for all—particularly for governments—learning from the capability of the people (amply expressed in those days of rain) to give solidarity. Learning from Mother Earth itself and from its diversity, from the local knowledge of each people and town from the positive progress of mankind.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
We need to neutralize "denialism" as a collective attitude; it is not an unalterable condition. It is simply because people are unable to change their depredatory habits, because the channels for proactive and restorative activity are blocked by the systems of political power, by energy systems and by the markets that surround us.
There is a growing global consciousness which is looking for ways to activate itself; it is trying to pave the ways to do so and to enable people to build resilient communities not just using technologies and systems, but also in more intimate fabrics—solidarity, love, compassion—which strengthen the possibilities for healthy interactions, and feed the desire to heal nature, nourishing empathy and sentiments for others.
Climate change is challenging humanity. It demands a huge effort from all of us to restore and heal the planet. This requires discipline, rebelliousness and creativity in order to confront a truly global emergency with substantial implications for life and civilization. It is an emergency that by whatever political calculation—from wherever it comes—is simply... unacceptable.
Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán is a Bolivian Social Psychologist, researcher, activist and author. She promotes and coordinates the Blue October Campaign for Water as a Common in her country, Elizabeth belongs the APMM (Mountain People's Association) and is a member of Food and Water Watch' board of directors in Washington DC.
Translation and edition in English: Thanks to Tony Phillips and Monica Stopplemann
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