Kari Marie Norgaard, a Whitman College sociologist who’s studied public attitudes towards climate science, says we’re in climate denial.

In a Wired Magazine interview, Norgaard puts it this way: “Our response to disturbing information is very complex. We negotiate it. We don’t just take it in and respond in a rational way.” And that means all of us, not just the classic case, card-carrying climate denier.

So as the scientific consensus over climate change has resolved itself into a resounding “it’s real,” and world leaders consider the aftermath of Copenhagen’s summit on how to avoid climate catastrophe, nearly half the US public now thinks that it’s impossible for carbon pollution to warm the Earth. That’s a gain of 20 percent since 2007 and more than at any point in the last 12 years. In short, the disconnect between the public and scientists has never been starker. Here’s how Norgaard explains the disconnect in Wired:

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  • Climate change is disturbing. It’s something we don’t want to think about. So what we do in our everyday lives is create a world where it’s not there, and keep it distant.

    Most of us in North America don’t have to see the impact in everyday life (though that’s changing). I can read about floods in Bangladesh, or people in the Maldives losing their islands to sea level rise, or whole villages in Alaska that are altered as permafrost changes. But that’s not my life. We have a vast capacity for this.

    In order to have a positive sense of self-identity and get through the day, we’re constantly being selective of what we think about and pay attention to. To create a sense of a good, safe world for ourselves, we screen out all kinds of information, from where food comes from to how our clothes are made. When we talk with our friends, we’d rather talk about something pleasant—or at least more immediate.

    Norgaard argues that since effective climate solutions seem elusive, many people simply don’t know what to do to make a difference. And Stanford University psychologist Jon Krosnick has found that people stop paying attention to climate change when they realize there’s no easy solution. “People judge as serious only those problems for which actions can be taken.”

    Another recent study, Loss and Climate Change: The Cost of Parallel Narratives, by Rosemary Randall, who directs Cambridge Carbon Footprint in the United Kingdom, argues that anxiety can also lead to apathy. She identifies two different storylines in climate discourse. The “problem narrative,” is filled with global gloom and doom scenarios. The “solutions narrative” often calls for small personal steps that can seem insignificant or ineffective—eg. change your light bulbs or lower your thermostat. Combined, the two narratives literally cancel one another out: the problems seem too big, and the solutions too small, and the disconnect creates anxiety. And people can only deal with that kind of anxiety by turning away from the issue altogether—otherwise it’s overwhelming.

    Randall suggests that a real grieving process would translate into real concern and action and better connect the problem to viable, ready solutions:

    In narratives about the problem of climate change, loss features dramatically and terrifyingly but is located in the future or in places remote from Western audiences. In narratives about solutions, loss is completely excised. This article suggests that this division into parallel narratives is the result of a defensive process of splitting and projection, which protects the public from the need to truly face and mourn the losses associated with climate change. Its effect is to produce monstrous and terrifying images of the future accompanied by bland and ineffective proposals for change now. A more sophisticated understanding of the processes of loss and mourning, which allowed them to be restored to public narratives, would help to release energy for realistic and lasting programmes of change.

    In the narrative about the climate change problem, loss is a dominant theme: loss of bio-diversity, loss of habitat, extinction of species; crop failure, water shortage, drought; fuel scarcity, resource wars, illness and famine; loss of livelihood, loss of liberty, mass migration, breakdown of civilization. The losses described are catastrophic but, for audiences in the developed, industrialized nations, they seem remote, either far in the future, or geographically distant. In other words, as Randall puts it (and Norgaard would likely agree), “They will happen to other people, in other places, or in other times. The consequence is that the loss feels unreal, rather like acknowledging in one’s twenties that death is inevitable. It is not a problem for now.”

    On the other hand, according to Randall, solutions narratives tend to be too rosy. High carbon forms of energy are exchanged for low-carbon ones and deliver a future very similar to the one we know now in the West. Economic growth continues, individuals’ lives change little. In what she calls the “happiness tale,” life will change but we will find it preferable. We will be happier because the new low-carbon world will bring us a closer sense of community, more meaningful work and more time to spend with our families—more, better jobs plus no worries about the climate! People don’t necessarily buy it.

    No wonder our brains push one or both of these narratives away. It’s easier to carry on and attend to the more pressing issues in our lives: paying the rent, keeping our job, raising our kids. We don’t like the sound of the worst impacts, but we’re not so keen on asking the tough questions about the solutions scenarios either: will we spend more on energy, will we still be able to go places in airplanes, will we be able to drive our cars, are green jobs really going to employ us or our families?

    The human mind is a mysterious organ—and our job is to recognize and adapt to those mysteries, not to rail against them.  I see three clear lessons that climate communicators can draw from the psychology of climate denial:

    Getting Past Climate Mind Games

    Skip the gloom and doom. Don’t ignore the problem; we need to convey urgency. But scaring people won’t work. Be clear about impacts but offer solutions. Find a balance.

    Offer concrete solutions that scale to the size of the problem. Talk about concrete, personal actions. But don’t leave out the big solutions, such as major policy changes and economy-wide efficiencies, that can make a real dent in dangerous emissions.

    Make it local, make it real. Connect climate impacts to people’s lives—especially extreme weather. Highlight the benefits of energy solutions too—like local jobs and a break from the fossil fuel roller coaster.

    Sometimes it’s easy to trick ourselves into complacency. And while the instinct is to fight complacency with scare tactics on the one hand, or baby-step solutions on the other, that’s just a recipe for more apathy. The trick, then, is to craft messages with a more careful balance: neither too big nor too small, but just right. In a very British way, Randall sums this up nicely: “we need both to stop catastrophizing the future and to stop wrapping the present in cotton wool.”