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Will Climate Change Denial Doom the Planet?

If we are to avert catastrophic climate change, we must understand the psychology of the "Elders of Krypton" among us today.
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Government leaders convene in a hearing room, a tableau of probity and power. A lone, impassioned scientist addresses them. He says their planet is in grave danger from catastrophic but predictable changes, some already underway. He cites natural disasters, floods, and the planet's steady warming. Despite this grim prognosis, he argues, there is a solution, one the cost of which is manageable -- but only if they commit to action.

At first, the leaders are shocked. But after a moment's consideration, some begin to titter. Some smirk, others laugh derisively, accusing him of fabricating a hoax. Yet even as dismiss the scientist as having lost his senses, the first unmistakable signs that he is right are taking place all around them.

Al Gore testifying to the Senate?

Far from it. The scientist was Jor-El. The leaders were the Council of the Planet Krypton. And the scene was the opening of the first episode in the television series, Superman.

Superman - the "strange visitor from another planet" - was rocketed to Earth as an infant by his parents, after the Kryptonian leadership ignored his father's warnings of their planet's imminent disaster. It's a famous scene in American pop culture, but also a compelling parable at a time when the Earth is at a similar crossroads due to man-made global climate change. And the parallel, unfortunately, is called to mind as climate science "deniers" in the Congress plan hearings to expose the climate "hoax" and Congressional leadership talks about carbon dioxide as a "carcinogen" with the same kind of derision and denial that came from the cartoonish Council of Krypton.

Jared Diamond's book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, describes several instances in which societies - such as the statue builders on Eastern Island - chose to continue behaviors that would obviously result in their extinction despite obvious evidence to the contrary. But why do they fail to act? Why do they passively continue behaviors that lead to their own destruction?

The answer lies in the psychology of denial, the psychological shutdown that is often triggered by the challenge of new realities. Denial is fueled by intertwined emotions of fear and helplessness, on the one hand, and by frozen ideology and beliefs, on the other. We think of denial at the personal level - the reaction to a loss through death or the ending of an intimate relationship - but it operates at other levels as well. For example, the Elders of Krypton were overwhelmed by dissonance when Jor-El described their fate to them. It was simply not conceivable to them that their planet was anything other than stable and hospitable, and they would be the perpetual beneficiaries of that stability.

Driven by this ideology, the Kryptonian leaders saw little advantage in recognizing the new reality - especially when it meant facing risks, danger, and new adjustments. Instead, they preferred an illusion of security, clinging to the idea that nothing their society believed in would ever change or be proven untrue. In the classic psychological sense, they became "deniers." Many of us have such an illusion. But when that illusion is shattered by evidence or events, powerful emotions of fear and helplessness can arise and drive denial, even aggressive attacks upon reality. While Congressional and scientific "deniers" themselves may have a variety of self-aggrandizing motivations, their pitch to the public is, in essence, an encouragement of popular emotional denial about the scientific reality and the mounting evidence around us.

The phenomenon of denial operates at an ideological level as well. Our capitalist society's ethic of individual responsibility and accumulation, dissected 100 years ago by the sociologist Max Weber, sees these activities as a "calling," and therefore "good." But the despoiling of the planet changes that view - not only can individualism lead to devastation, but only an affirmative, collective decision can remediate the danger. The climate challenge, therefore, undermines the dominant ideology, just as Jor-El's analysis did on Krypton.

America has mastered similar moments before. The Civil Rights movement challenged many Americans' fundamental beliefs and behavior, but over time they learned that fears and resentments could be conquered by acknowledging them and finding new ways to address and deal affirmatively with new realities. Our society's progress was in many ways the sum of many individuals coming to grips with this reality.

Climate change will require a similar transformation, but the seeds of it are already around us. Many of today's business leaders realize that they can increase business success and reduce costs through sustainable practices that head off the prospect of climate change at the front end. Environmental and civic organizations have identified specific actions that individuals, families and communities can take in daily life.

There's no question that facing new dangers and uncomfortable truths, or carrying out new solutions, can feel like plunging into unknown, dangerous territory. Feelings of powerlessness and impotence can be overwhelming, but they can be mitigated by acknowledging them and responding with constructive, collaborative actions. Awareness and action are the antidotes, because recognizing reality and doing something about it shows mastery over the dangers you face, as an individual or society.

If we are to avert catastrophic climate change, we must understand the psychology of the "Elders of Krypton" among us today. The emotional message of climate change is that we must abandon old beliefs and ideologies that no longer fit reality. Proponents of action must convey an affirmative message that we have the power to change our planet's direction if we so choose, and combat not just the scientific "denial" pitched by their opponents, but their emotional denial as well.

Everett Ehrlich is the president of ESC Company, a Washington-based economics consulting firm; he was Undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration. Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Adult Development in Washington.