Story last updated at 4/27/2011 - 1:40 pm
JUNEAU - For the past four decades, Earth Day has been a time for some to reexamine the paths to a "greener" future, and others to feel a pang of guilt for tossing all those AA batteries and mercury-laced "energy saving" light bulbs into the trash. For experts in the field of climate change, eyes turn north, to the future, where the effects of global warming are the most evident.
The Alaska Wildlife Alliance held a talk at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) on Earth Day last Friday, entitled "Climate Change, the Plight of Polar Bears, and the Phenomenon of Global Warming Denial." University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor of Wildlife Biology Dr. David Klein discussed the current situation of polar bear populations, and Whitman College Professor Dr. Kari Norgaard talked about the modern trend of global warming denial across the globe.
Polar bears have become the unofficial mascot in discussions about climate change, given the increased push for drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas north of Alaska. It's certainly understood why, said Klein, an iconic figure in Alaskan arctic research. The North Slope is a significant area for polar bear populations.
"Not only is that an important habitat for polar bears, but we don't know a lot about what would happen if there was drilling there in relationship to the polar bears," he said. "Even if the sea ice is present there in the summertime which it is not now in most of that area."
The news media usually gets it wrong, Klein said, talking about sea ice as being a habitat for the polar bears rather than their access to their habitat, and with a focus on the more "charismatic" critters running around on it rather than the ecosystem as a whole.
There is still a lot of information missing for the bigger picture of the future of polar bears, labeled as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (passed into law in 1973) by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The term "threatened" is often misunderstood, Klein said, and often people think that it means that the polar bears are threatened with extinction; in fact, they are threatened with becoming an endangered species. According to the language of the ESA, species listed as threatened are "likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range."
Media plays a big role in the public perception of climate change, Klein said, in a variety of ways. Polar bears often make their way into headlines, leaving out the larger ecological picture. Complex ecosystems and causal relationships are broken down into easily digestible chunks, rendered into either/or situations.
"It never is either/or when it comes to nature," he said.
Klein said that it's important that journalists are not simply pandering to the perceived wants of their readers.
"They're young reporters, usually, and they're good at seeking out information, and they're responding to what the readers seem to like," Klein said. "They want to hear about the complete catastrophes, big earthquakes and tsunamis ... Climate change? Yeah, they want to hear the bad sides of that. They don't seem to be focused on, well, maybe a lot of people in society are like me, they're frustrated optimists."
The best way forward, Klein said, is learning about the tremendous amount of advancements being made in climate change science in various parts of the world; also important is the education of the younger generation about the kind of environment they live in, and will live in the future, whether they will strive to understand it or deny any knowledge of it.
The term "global warming denial," which tends to elicit a chuckle (and indeed did from the audience at the lecture) from both environmental professionals and dilettantes, is actually more pervasive than might be imagined. Alex Simon, Alaska Wildlife Alliance board member and UAS assistant professor, described an informal poll of students at UAS a couple of years ago.
"Eleven percent of the people who responded said that global warming was not an actual phenomenon, which is kind of alarming when you can see, like, the glacier melting and you have 18-year-old students say, 'Boy it used to be a lot bigger when I was a kid,'" he said. "Which, in geological time ... I don't know how you break that into seconds."
There are several factors which contribute to why people choose to deny climate change, said Norgaard, whose new book, "Living in Denial," explores her sociological work conducted in a rural Norwegian community.
Some credit the general apathy of people towards climate change to an inherent selfishness, Norgaard said, that people are just too busy and wrapped up in their lives to care. There is also the idea that if only people knew more and understood what was happening, they wouldn't deny climate change.
However, like understanding climate science, dissecting how people think about climate change and the phenomenon of denial is not a simple task.
"When I talk about denial, I'm not talking about the idea that people don't believe that it's happening, but that we are sort of numb," Norgaard said. "What looks like apathy is instead sort of this collective difficulty and dislike of thinking about climate change, 'We'll do other things instead. We'll find something nice to talk about or think about.'"
Norgaard described the various types: literal denial ("It's just not happening"), interpretive denial ("It's happening, but human beings aren't causing it"), and implicatory denial.
Implicatory denial - the focus of Norgaard's work - is not about ignorance or manipulation, but rather acting as if something doesn't matter, like putting blinders on to be able to completely ignore something negative, a natural disaster or human rights atrocity. Something incredibly unsettling, like a human-exacerbated ecological crisis, is not what we want to think about, Norgaard said.
"It is disturbing to us," she said. "I do not like to think about climate change. I spend a lot time thinking about it, and I really do not like to. And I don't imagine that there's very many people that enjoy thinking about ... what's going to happen in this community, or what's going to happen to different species that are very disturbing, destructive situations."
Norgaard said that it's easy to be outraged at someone who doesn't believe in climate change, but it is not a productive use of time.
"Just as the Norwegians can say 'We aren't as bad as the Americans', it gives us a way to say the real problem is those who don't believe climate change is happening," she said. "Which I think is the wrong debate to have. We need to figure out how to respond to it."
For more information about this and other Alaska Wildlife Alliance projects, visit the organization online at www.akwildlife.org.