Climate Change: A Dangerous Phrase to Use in Some Circles

Regenerative development calls for reimagining, reprioritizing, and reforming social, physical, and economic processes in ways that establish mutually prosperous, equitable, and healthy relationships for all. Likewise, taking up the challenge of addressing climate change requires a collective evolution of thought and action toward significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and bolstering of community resilience to increasingly destructive impacts of climate variability. Indeed, mass regenerative development has the ability to meet and exceed sustainable development goals, including climate action, set forth by the United Nations. The urgent need for such action has never been greater, as climate change continues to degrade the resilience and productivity of our planet’s precious ecological systems and services—upon which social, physical, and economic processes depend. 2017 marked one of the hottest years on record for our planet, costliest for impacts of climate variability in America, and the loss of America’s national climate leadership. This juxtaposition would be laughable if it were not so severely counterproductive. Trump’s vows to leave the Paris Agreement by year 2020 threaten America’s commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 26 percent (below its 2005 level) by year 2025, as well as undermine the legitimacy of federal leadership to sustain reliable long-term commitments to climate action. This legitimacy is also imperiled by America’s mounting political polarization, which drives dramatic shifts in federal approaches to climate change as party dominance in the Executive and Legislative branches overturn.

The substantial body of social science evidence regarding American climate change skepticism/denial draws attention to the concept’s political stigma. Climate change skepticism/denial have been adopted as a core tenet of conservative ideology and the Republican Party’s official platform, which generally frames climate change as a central threat to conservative neoliberal values and the product of liberal extremism. Climate change skeptics and deniers, therefore, tend to defend their climate change views as tightly held principles associated with their political identities. The social repercussions of this are evident in public opinion findings, which indicate that most Republicans do not believe in anthropogenic climate change. These findings are consistent with decades of social science climate research identifying political orientation (party identification and political ideology, combined) as the strongest predictor of one’s climate change views. A number of social science theories and hypotheses have been utilized to explain this phenomenon—all of which boil down to the simple truth that people tend to assimilate information in ways that support or protect their existing worldviews. This tendency toward bias is a dangerous one, particularly when applied within key decision-making processes regarding climate mitigation/adaptation, because it precludes critical thinking for the sake of maintaining status quo. Climate change skepticism/denial embedded within one’s Republican/conservative identity is not easily overcome, nor is the gridlock and divisiveness that has reached a peak in America’s recent political history. In the absence of consistent federal climate leadership, how will America fare in adapting to climate change and meeting mitigation commitments set forth in the Paris Agreement? And what will America’s climate leadership look like in a future of mounting political polarization?

US climate action will largely depend on the ambition, ingenuity, and commitment of subnational actors and local authorities.

Indeed, we have already seen America’s subnational leadership (i.e., cities, states, tribal nations, businesses, faith-based organizations, and academic institutions) catalyzed by Trump’s renunciation of the Paris Agreement. Thousands of American mayors, governors, tribal leaders, and chief executives attended the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn; over 2,500 subnational groups—representing over 130 million Americans and the largest cross-section of the American economy ever assembled (equivalent to the world’s third-largest economy)—signed the ‘We Are Still In’ commitment; and nine states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have opted in to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Although America’s subnational response to Trump’s abandonment of climate leadership inspires hope, questions remain regarding whether the scope and magnitude of subnational climate action will sufficiently meet challenges set forth by our warming planet, particularly amidst America’s increasing political polarization. Further, how will politically-conservative states, particularly those with cultural and economic conditions centered around the production of fossil fuels (e.g., Oklahoma), fare in adapting to climate change? Social science climate scholars are apt to identify and examine the socio-political dynamics that facilitate/hinder subnational involvement in climate mitigation/adaptation.

In 2017, as an environmental sociology Ph.D. student at Oklahoma State University, I completed a two-year study focused on identifying key implications, challenges, and opportunities surrounding climate adaptation measures within Oklahoma’s politically-hostile context. This qualitative research involved conducting and analyzing in-depth interviews with Oklahoma’s key federal, state, and local government officials tasked with addressing impacts of climate variability. Interviews involved my questioning officials about a host of issues surrounding resilience/vulnerability to impacts of climate variability, including their climate change views and perceptions of impacts. What first stood out during data collection were the ways climate change emerged as the-concept-that-must-not-be-named—a ‘Voldemort’ of sorts, predominantly referenced in pronoun, such as:

We don’t talk in terms of what’s causing this. We don’t get into that argument, whether it’s man-made or whether it’s something that man’s contributing to, or if it’s a normal cycle, because that becomes such a political hotbed.

I don’t believe in that one.

This striking observation was a precursor to broader and more insidious themes of avoidance and suppression that emerged through further analysis.

In the end, my findings indicate that lack of climate change discourse, resistance to acknowledging climate impacts, and distrust and disregard for climate science and scientists, have created a climate change spiral of silence in Oklahoma. By excluding climate change from civil discourse, this spiral of silence neutralizes threats to skepticism/denial by upholding a barrier of implicit intimidation—blocking opposing views associated with climate change belief and meaningful climate action.

In fact, one study participant referred to climate change as “a dangerous phrase to use in some circles.” As a result, Oklahoma government officials work to prepare the state for impacts of climate variability via “hazards mitigation planning”—described by participants as a retroactive, piecemeal process of adjusting plans after hazards overwhelm existing capacities, and addressing each hazard in isolation of long-term trends and without reference to climate change (i.e., uniformed by impact science). This approach assumes an oppositional stance toward climate science and scientists needed to inform optimal resilience planning and regenerative development, inhibits the free flow of information among government agencies, and reinforces public misunderstandings regarding causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. In sum, this study serves as a cautionary tale of what potent and self-reinforcing climate inaction can establish when climate change skepticism/denial reigns unchecked by opposing views.

Similar dynamics surrounding climate change have also been observed within America’s federal government under the Trump administration. While presidential term limits may provide respite from climate inaction by the federal government, America’s growing partisan polarization promises ongoing dramatic swings in political approaches to a range of public issues. Therefore, in the absence of consistent federal climate leadership, it is imperative that subnational leaders and local authorities (working directly or peripherally to address climate impacts) overcome socio-political barriers to climate action. Open channels for direct climate change communication are crucial for optimal resilience, and these channels will not materialize devoid of significant change and effort. Without challenging political stigma and the spiral of silence status quo, climate change skepticism/denial will likely remain the socially acceptable public position within politically-conservative contexts, and policies, practices, and norms will continue to reflect these dominant views. Should subnational leaders and local authorities accept the challenge of moving beyond silence or timid discourse—asserting climate change as a very real and serious threat—there may be hope for climate action within politically-conservative contexts.

While this mission incurs risk for subnational actors, it is the only way to redirect (or begin) a bipartisan conversation about anthropogenic climate change before catastrophic impacts do so on their behalf. This will be critical in order to ensure politically-conservative states such as Oklahoma are not left behind as others bolster resilience through regenerative development and other climate action measures informed by impact science.

rachel-gurneyABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel M. Gurney, Ph.D.

(header photo courtesy of

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