Emotions can get us into the streets, but can they keep us silent, too? Social movement scholars have paid attention to emotions in recent years, but we still focus primarily on how emotions shape social action rather than how they may prevent it. In the case of public response to global warming, I find the latter to be particularly interesting. Global climate change is not only the single most significant environmental issue of our time, widespread and potentially catastrophic social impacts are predicted from sea level rise and changing patterns of precipitation and disease. As events from Hurricane Katrina and Super-storm Sandy to pine bark beetle infestations in Colorado and melting permafrost in Alaska reveal, changing climactic conditions will increasingly jeopardizes state economic resources, exacerbate social inequality, alter community structures, and generate new patterns of economic and social conflict. For nearly three decades, natural and physical scientists have provided increasingly clear and dire assessments of the alteration in the biophysical world. Yet despite these urgent warnings, human social and political response to ecological degradation remains wholly inadequate.
The main explanation for public silence from the natural scientific community has been that the public just doesn’t understand the seriousness of what is unfolding. But what if emotions, emotion norms, and emotion management play a part in the construction of political silence?
I began my fieldwork in a rural part of Norway more than a decade ago. A high standard of living and high levels of political involvement make Norway a useful place to explore questions about apathy toward climate change. If any nation can find the ability to respond, it must be in a place such as this, where the population is educated and environmentally engaged. As it happened, there was unusually warm weather during the 10 months I spent in the community. November 2000 brought severe flooding. The first snowfall did not come until late January 2001—some two months later than usual. By then, the winter was recorded as Norway’s second warmest in the past 130 years. The local ski area opened in late December only with the aid of 100 percent artificial snow— a completely unprecedented event with measurable economic impacts on hotels, shops, taxi drivers, and others in the area. The local lake failed to freeze sufficiently to allow for ice fishing. Small talk commonly included references to “unusual weather” and to “climate change,” accompanied by a shaking of heads.
It was not just the weather that was unusual that winter. As a sociologist, I was perplexed by the behavior of the people as well. Despite the clear social and economic impacts on the community, there was no social action in response to the warm weather. Nobody wrote letters to the local paper, brought the issue up in one of the many public forums that took place that winter, made attempts to plan for the local effects of climate change, put pressure on local and national leaders to develop long-term climate plans or short-term economic relief, decreased their automobile use, or even engaged their neighbors and political leaders in discussions about what climate change might mean for their region.
People were aware that climate change could radically alter life within the coming decades, yet they did not go about their days wondering what life would be like for their children, whether farming practices would change, or whether their grandchildren would be able to ski on real snow. They spent their time thinking instead about more local, manageable topics.
My research in the U.S. and Norway describes how for many people thinking seriously about climate change evokes a series of troubling emotions. There is fear about a future with more heat waves, droughts, and increased storm intensity. There is fear that our present political and economic structures are unable to effectively respond. And for many there is guilt since Americans are amongst the main contributors to global climate emissions and Norwegians high standard of living comes directly from their oil income. Finally, many people described a sense of not knowing what to do. Ultimately, sufficiently reducing global climate emissions is beyond the level of individual action. But neither national nor international efforts have been successful either. Awareness of this generates for many a feeling of helplessness. Each of these emotions (fear, guilt, and helplessness) are troubling for reasons that appear to be a combination of social (in conflict with emotion norms) and psychological (challenging senses of self-efficacy and identity).
Emotion Management and Political Silence
To say that there are unpleasant emotions associated with global warming is not enough to explain the lack of social movement activity—especially considering that such emotions can also serve as the impetus for social action. For the people I interviewed however, emotion management was used to avoid thinking seriously about climate change. In other words, people blocked out or distanced themselves from certain information about climate change in order to follow emotion norms. And in each community there are collective resources for doing this. Emotion management is cognitive. So for many of the people I observed and interviewed, avoiding the unpleasant and socially unacceptable emotions associated with climate change was best achieved by simply not thinking about the topic.
To avoid emotions of guilt, fear, and helplessness, people in the Norwegian community I studied changed the topic of conversations, told jokes, tried not to think about climate change, and kept the concept off the agenda of political meetings. Community members collectively held information about global warming at arm’s length by following cultural norms of what to pay attention to, what to talk about, and what to feel. When disturbing ideas about climate change entered the conversation, people used a series of cultural narratives to deflect those ideas and to normalize a particular version of reality in which “everything is fine.” For example, they tried not to think too far into the future, tried to avoid scaring one another or being too negative, and often emphasized how “Norway is such a small country anyway” and “at least we’re not as bad as the Americans.” I have since done comparative work in the United States, where many of the feelings about climate change, as well as tactics of normalizing it, are similar to what I found in Norway—except that the bad guys are the climate skeptics and the Chinese.
Emotion Management and Social Structure
The emotions that were uncomfortable to individuals were uncomfortable not just because they reflected a bad situation in terms of climate change, but also because they violated norms of social interaction in one’s community. Although the act of managing—i.e. modifying, suppressing, or emphasizing—an emotion is carried out by individuals, emotions are being managed to fit social expectations, which in turn often reproduce larger political and economic conditions. And in the case of people in the town I studied in Norway, at least some of these emotion norms in turn normalized Norway’s economic position as a significant producer of oil.
Climate Apathy and Movement Non-Participation
Emotions can be a source of information and an impetus for social action but my observations highlight how the desire to avoid unpleasant emotions and the activities of emotion management can also work against social movement participation. Movement nonparticipation did not simply happen but was actively produced as community members kept the issue of global warming at a distance via a cultural tool kit of emotion-management techniques.