Climate of denial

  • Tim Lydon


We're a nation in denial. Record heat waves and shrinking snowpacks surround us, yet our appetite for fossil fuel remains unwavering, and, incredibly, some still doubt that it's a threat to a stable climate.

Witnessing this from southeast Alaska, where I work as a wilderness ranger, is a trip right into this odd realm of denial. My vantage is unique: Although being a ranger means working in remote areas, I also spend time aboard tour boats, spending half a day answering questions and connecting people to our public lands. Glaciers are a prominent local feature, so I talk a lot about climate change.

The boats are on weeklong tours of the Inside Passage, carrying as many as 300 passengers. They are generally well-off baby boomers who come from across the country to see Alaska. I can't help but think that their responses to climate change reflect national trends.

Surprisingly, I frequently encounter a complete lack of interest, the most elemental reflection of denial. With the ship drifting in front of a wasting glacier, I point to where over a mile of ice 800 feet deep disappeared during the last six years. I highlight other signs of rapid melting and explain the implications for rising sea levels, global food shortages, or the big-eyed harbor seals nursing pups on nearby icebergs.

I don't expect passengers to start panicking, but I do hope for some discussion. Instead, I commonly receive blank stares or questions about the brand name of my boots. Perhaps people on vacation just don't want to be bothered with heavy topics. And there's no doubt that the massive food intake on the boats induces a stupor. Nevertheless, I believe the flat response reflects a disengagement on a national scale.

Another common response is a kind of fatalism. As the boat glides between ageless mountains, some passengers blithely shrug and say the problem is simply too big. They say it's the will of a supreme being or that we shouldn't worry about it, because the rocks, birds and fish will outlast us anyway. Maybe this type of denial touches on something evolutionary, as our species has seldom needed to plan beyond the requirements of those alive at the moment. It's a short-term focus enshrined within the free-market economy that governs our lives.

Then there are the skeptics. They listen to me talk about climate with scrunched-up faces that reveal a mix of disbelief and annoyance. They often assert that today's changes only reflect natural cycles.  Some of them, though, are asking an honest question, so I briefly explain that scientists have found a link between carbon dioxide and global temperatures, and that today's CO2 levels are driving a dangerous and perhaps unstoppable warming.

Oh, boy. To some people, that statement is a political affront rather than a scientific fact. They either walk away disgusted or let me have it, with terse questions that often spiral off-topic toward personal criticism of Al Gore. This level of denial reflects strong ideological persuasions.

But perhaps most intriguing is what I call The China Syndrome. Essentially, victims of the syndrome believe the United States should not act on climate before the Chinese do. It's common knowledge now that China has bumped the United States into the Number Two position among the world's top polluters. For Americans, that fact has both moral and economic resonance. "Why should we carry the burden of reducing carbon when the Chinese burn so much coal?" some resentfully ask, while others lecture me on the supposed economic disadvantages of embracing clean energy.

In this case, denial approaches delusion. After all, the current moral indignation about China's environmental record is ludicrous when we consider that, per capita, Americans remain the Earth's greatest polluters, past and present. On average, we burn more than the massive Gulf oil spill every day. We also help drive China's pollution by buying most of our goods from that country.

Meanwhile, the economic argument dodges that we have no choice but to move beyond fossil fuel, and that the first nations to do so will be best positioned to compete economically. That's probably why China is investing so heavily in clean energy -- $34 billion last year, or twice the U.S. commitment, according to the Seattle Times.

I've encountered other symptoms of denial, including people who will write a check to the Sierra Club to make it all better or who absolve themselves from responsibility because they diligently recycle. Each demonstrates the colossal challenge of reversing our present trajectory toward disaster. But I try not to worry about that. As the tour boat recedes and I relax at camp alongside a fading glacier, I'm already thinking of new ways to navigate through the climate of denial the next time I visit a boat.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a wilderness ranger in southeast Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

climate of denial
Oct 12, 2010 05:10 PM
I sometimes think that even those of us who don't deny the reality of human-caused climate change (I always add the "human-caused" when I talk about climate change now because of several arguments I've had along the lines of,"...well, it might be happening but it's part of a natural cycle blah blah...")are quiet because we're beaten down - outshouted and outspent- by the hardening (and very well funded - read Jane Meyer in the August 30 New Yorker about David and Charles Koch and their millions) political opposition to it on the part of the American right wing. But we should keep talking whether they make you feel like a fool or not. You've got to out-talk all the Becks and Limbaughs and Kochs. It appears likely that if the global effort to forestall climate change fails, much of the blame for it can be laid at the feet of the Republican party. Can we really let them do that?
Climate of Denial
Roger Meeker
Roger Meeker
Oct 12, 2010 06:34 PM
Your commentary about climate change deniers is depressingly reflective of a huge swath of American public opinion. The efforts of the right-wing powers that be -- in both the fossil fuels industry and the media -- have not only persuaded millions of Americans to "doubt the science", but have also had the devastating effect of paralyzing politicians and policy-makers in this country. Solutions to avert the worst of this looming crisis are indeed available, but little is going to be done until the United States has a leader who's got the political courage to say what really needs to be said to educate Americans on the issue, to pull the veil back on the culprits who are funding the denialism propoganda and selling our collective future for near-term corporate profits, and to finally lead the international community in addressing the crisis. We've tragically lost an entire decade due to the efforts of the deniers, and the planet is changing for the worse before our very eyes. Obama -- or someone -- needs to step up, and step up soon. Very, very soon.

Roger Meeker
Kapoho, Hawaii

River of Denial
Mark York
Mark York
Oct 12, 2010 10:51 PM
Yup. That's about the size of it. All the various stages of climate denial, and the intricacies of the science, are found here:, described by one denier I know as "a bunch of lefty scientists." That may be true in some respects, but the scientific facts they work so diligently to acquire are unassailable.
Climate change
me rave
me rave
Oct 14, 2010 03:06 PM
I love it when the wilderness ranger or guide is an active agent for environmental education. I used to do that too. Though it isn't a bad thing to do,I became aware that just telling people about environmental neglect isn't actually doing anything about it. Even my own particular lifestyle isn't enough to turn it around (even though it feels like a great start!)
Beyond that, our (and our scientist's) abilities to accurately grapple with causal relationships is unfortunately dwarfed by our abilities to observe the simultaneity of various events. Thus, we leap to join the bandwagon of climate change. I personally feel the spectre of resource depletion is a far more compelling and more provable assertion. That said, the potential for irreversible escalating disaster is too great to do nothing.
Until we grapple with how to change millions of peoples awareness and desire to change their subsequent voluntary actions, it feels as if our energies are wasted (ie just trying to change, while still keeping our cushy jobs and supporting the current power/economic structure, isn't going to save us or the millions of species on the planet).

- the (nearly) global question looms, if I truly want to make a difference, what is the (my) next step?????
Right on the mark
Matthew Ebert
Matthew Ebert
Oct 15, 2010 09:08 AM
Thank you, Tim, for writing this. You have succinctly described the problem we face-- a mixture of apathy, disbelief, irresponsibility, denial, and rationalization. I really have nothing to add, just that there are others like you out there trying to influence the greater consciousness, one boat load at a time. Keep fighting the good fight.

Matthew Ebert
Friends of Black Rock High Rock
ranger tim's 'climate of denial'
Oct 29, 2010 08:18 PM
greetings, pilgrim......

Tim, i wonder if you know the progressive populist picked up your denial essay and published it in their nov 1 issue? right alongside work by hightower, bacevich, amy goodman, huffington. not bad bud.


to you and your bride: have a sweet winter in the powder snow and sunshine.

    --shep and jo on lena beach