Three Reactions to Change (and What they Tell Us about Ourselves)

When faith communities confront outsiders, they respond in three different ways. These reactions tell us a lot about how people are reacting to climate change.

I’ve never forgotten a comment that Robert S. Ellwood, USC emeritus Professor of Religion made about human response to the unfamiliar. He said that when faith communities encounter new religions, people tend to coalesce around three different responses.

On one end, people toss tradition aside and replace it with the new teachings and practices whole hog. On the other end, a second group hardens its orthodoxy and rejects the entire intrusion as heresy.

In the middle, people look for ways to forge common ground by accepting a little of each. These people adapt some traditions to accommodate the new ideas, and the orthodoxy of the foreign religion also evolves.

This is human nature.

Professor Ellwood’s story reflects different ways that people cope with worldviews that challenge the identities they are comfortable with. It also suggests that while some people hold their beliefs to be intrinsically true, others treat tenets and traditions more like symbols of something deeper, or as waypoints in an evolving conversation.

Rarely do we see all three reactions play out in a single news cycle, but it happened on ClimateWire, with the June 13, 2012 edition offering these three headlines:

  • “Canadian Insurer and University Join in First National Plan to Ease Climate Risks.”
  • “N.C. Senate Passes Measure to Ban Planning for Accelerated Sea-Level Rise.”
  • “Americans Prefer Regulation over Market-based Measures”

These headlines tell us that a lot of Americans are treating climate change as a matter of faith or identity, rather than a practical or scientific issue.

In the first, a large business and an academic research team are embracing the new information, accepting its validity, and are making plans to adapt their planning processes accordingly. They seem to accept the National Research Council’s findings that many of the guidelines used in planning are no longer valid in a changing climate.

In the second, a state legislature is doing the exact opposite—hardening its orthodoxy by rejecting the findings of climate science and banning its consideration in policy-making.

The final headline reflects the third approach. Whether they are happy about it or not, those surveyed are working out how they would prefer to accommodate and adapt to the new information.

For some, climate change threatens the deepest sense of our place in the world. The issue challenges traditional themes in the American experience: the endless frontier, limitless expansion, and a feeling that we are blessed with boundless resources.

Climate change tells us that these ideals are not what we once thought they were.

Bill McKibben wrote in 1989 that another ideal died with climate change too. It is the image of “Nature” as something unspoiled that lies beyond our reach. Since the atmosphere touches every place on Earth, McKibben observed, changing the chemistry of the atmosphere means that the human fingerprint is everywhere.

Something very profound might be taking place in all this. As UC Berkeley sociologist Rob Willer explained on Marketplace, we trust nature. He noted that Americans, especially, tend to see the world as just, fair and orderly.

In fact, Earth’s climate has been unusually orderly during the entire 10,000-year span of human civilization. To suggest that nature is becoming unstable and dangerous is to threaten a well-established, yet unconscious element in human identity.

How should we respond to this news? We see all three reactions played out in one day’s news cycle.

For those who see these ideals as symbols rather than literal truths, the news from climate research changes everything and demands our complete attention. For those who live on the other side of the coin, climate science threatens much more than symbols, it threatens “Reality” and, therefore, it must be wrong. And for everyone else, some accommodation must be made because, like it or not, this new information isn’t going away.

We have a long way to go before we fully adjust to these challenges. But they help explain why climate science communications, in and of themselves, have not led the nation to engage in a universal response to the climate threat.

The anti-climate science reaction runs deep for many people, yet these people don’t have to reject all of science in order to reject climate research. There is no need to reject antibiotics, airplanes, or the Internet if those issues don’t displace something central to one’s identity.

Of course, climate change is not religion. Global temperatures are physical realities, not ineffable metaphysical connections to a grand purpose. In other words, how people respond to the deep psychological changes wrought by the changing climate will have very tangible consequences for everyone. It will not be possible to isolate and insulate chosen communities from this unwanted intrusion.

This is why coping with the climate threat—as a practical reality and as a challenge to our place in this world—demands that we acknowledge one another and understand what the challenge looks like to those with whom we might not agree.

Ultimately, coming to grips with ourselves can ease the burden and help us find ways to adjust to a changing world.


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.