Conference article

Understanding Climate Change as an Existential Threat: Confronting Climate Denial as a Challenge to Climate Ethics

Tim Christion Myers
Departments of Environmental Studies and Philosophy, University of Oregon Eugene, Oregon, USA

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Published in: Proceedings from the 50th Societas Ethica Annual Conference 2013. Climate Change; Sustainability; and an Ethics of an Open Future. August 22-25; 2013; Soesterberg; The Netherlands

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 98:3, p. 25-39

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Published: 2014-04-24

ISBN: 978-91-7519-289-5

ISSN: 1650-3686 (print), 1650-3740 (online)


Climate change cannot be managed by experts and politicians alone. Consequently; climate ethics must take up the challenge of inviting public responsibility on this issue. New sociological research on climate denial by Kari Norgaard; however; suggests that most citizens of industrialized countries are ill-prepared to cope with the ethical significance of climate change. I draw upon Martin Heidegger to offer a new reading of climate denial that suggests viable responses to this problem. I argue that the implications of climate change are largely received as an “existential threat” to the extent that they endanger the integrity of everyday existence. In other words; the implications of climate change for everyday life unsettle what phenomenologists call the “lifeworld.” Should basic lifeworld assumptions; which cultures rely on to makes sense of the world and their purposes in it; come under serious question; anxieties surface that most people are profoundly motivated to avoid. Hence; the ethical obligations entailed by climate change are “denied” in the form of protecting lifeworld integrity for the sake of containing anxieties that would otherwise overwhelm people. Finally; I submit that existential approaches to climate denial can empower a confrontation with “climate anxiety” in ways that open up ethical reflection.


Climate ethics; climate denial; existentialism; phenomenology; anxiety


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