Climate change can be overwhelming and these feelings have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. People are suffering from ecological anxiety and grief and this can sometimes lead to paralysis or denial. Paralysis occurs when people don’t know what to do or feel there is too much to deal with. People can also deny serious threats as a way of coping with them. In both cases, the end result is that people do not act to avert the threat.
Climate scientist and activist Susanne Moser has proposed an interesting philosophical position that encourages both awareness and action. She calls this attitude “functional denial” which should not be confused with climate denial. While climate denial ignores the urgent need for action, functional denial is defined by the defiant will to act in the face of uncertainty.
In a conversation with Earth Island News, Moser shared her conception of functional denial. She explained both parts of the term as follows: “The denial part is what we all have. It is incredibly hard to look at the realities we have created in the eye. The functional part is that we have to keep going regardless…it’s that simultaneity of being fully aware and conscious and not denying the gravity of what we’re creating, and also having to get up in the morning and provide for my family and fulfill my obligations in my work.”
Moser’s approach is contingent on the fascinating and seemingly paradoxical dynamic between uncertainty and hope. She explains that while the radical right falsely claims certainty, her approach is contingent on uncertainty as a necessary precondition for hope. She explains, there is no need for hope if you are certain that everything is going to be fine, nor is there room for hope if we feel that we are irreversibly doomed. Climate deniers share the former view, while those who succumb to paralysis see only doom.
Moser explains different manifestations of hope and the ways that we push past uncertainty to marshal the energy to keep going.
“One is sometimes called grounded hope, active hope, or authentic hope. That’s where you are not at all convinced that there is a positive outcome at the end of your labors. You don’t know that you’ll be able to achieve that. But you do know that you cannot live with yourself if you do not do everything toward a positive outcome,” Moser said, adding, “with radical hope, you don’t know at all whether the outcome is positive or negative. Neither the means nor the ends are clear, and you have to reinvent yourself completely to come to peace with whatever that new future is. Between grounded hope and radical hope, that’s what we’re going to need for climate change.”
Dr. Susanne Moser is Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, in Santa Cruz, CA. She also is a Social Science Research Fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and a Research Associate of the Institute for Marine Sciences at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Dr. Moser is a geographer by training (Ph.D. 1997, Clark University) here principle expertise is in the human dimension of global environmental change, adaptation to climate change, coastal hazards and management, science-policy/practice interactions, communication, and social change, transformative change, engagement and communication. She is an internationally recognized expert on adaptation – particularly in coastal areas -, on climate change communication, and science-policy interactions. Dr. Moser has contributed to the Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports of the IPCC, served as a Review Editor for the IPCC Special Report on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation”, and she has been a federal advisory committee member and the convening lead author for the coastal chapter in the Third US National Climate Assessment. She regularly works with local, state, and federal agencies and other practitioners on climate change adaptation issues. Dr. Moser has been recognized as a fellow of the Aldo Leopold Leadership, Kavli Frontiers of Science, UCAR Leadership, Donella Meadows Leadership, Google Science Communication, and Walton Sustainability Solutions Programs.