Perception is reality does not apply to climate change


When I say that perception is reality does not apply in the case of climate change I’m saying that reality in this case obtrudes – as contested to many other situations in life, where evidence and facts can readily be ignored in favour of varied preferred ways of seeing things.

A book that comes to mind regarding the effects of climate change is Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1999).

Also by way of an update: An Oct. 13, 2013 CBC article is entitled: “Global warming report predicts impacts on different cities.”

The opening paragraphs read:

  • Starting in about a decade, Kingston, Jamaica, will probably be off-the-charts hot – permanently. Other places will soon follow. Singapore in 2028. Mexico City in 2031. Cairo in 2036. Phoenix and Honolulu in 2043.
  • And eventually the whole world in 2047.
  • A new study on global warming pinpoints the probable dates for when cities and ecosystems around the world will regularly experience hotter environments the likes of which they have never seen before.

A Feb. 2, 2015 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Different tack needed for climate change skeptics, study says.”

[End of updates]


The statement that perception is reality applies in many aspects of life, provided that requisite frames of reference are in place.

Climate wars (2012)

As Harald Welzer, co-author of The end of the world as we once knew it (2009), notes in Climate wars (2012, p. 7), it is not objective circumstances themselves that determine how people behave, but the manner of their interpretation. Assuming that objective circumstances correspond with reality, and that interpretation means perception, his observation is another way of saying that perception is reality.

My understanding regarding this formulation, as it applies in to climate change, is as follows:

In the context of climate change, our perception as individuals is generally restricted to the circumstances of our everyday lives. A given person’s frame of reference typically includes a focus on making a living and having a place in a community. The wider frame of reference, which includes the reality or objective circumstance of climate change, currently has negligible impact on a person’s life.

In Climate Wars (2012, p. 16), Welzer highlights the distinction between reality and perception, noting that, “for people in real situations, what is in principle decisive are not the objective circumstances but their perceptions of reality and how they interpret them. Only interpretation leads to a final conclusion, and then in turn to action. Hence an action [he’s speaking in this example of extreme violence] that appears from outside to be totally irrational, counterproductive or purposeless may be highly meaningful for those who perform it, even though they are damaged as a result.”

“This may also give us more insight into the peculiar fact, on the one hand, that there is little scientific doubt about the danger of climate-induced breakdown facing many societies in the years or decades to come, and, on the other hand, that no one really believes it. There are a number of weighty reasons – apart from the remarkable capacity of human beings not to be troubled by contradictions in their behavior – for this curious form of ‘apocalypse blindness’ (Günther Anders).

“The most important is the complexity of modern action chains and the incalculability of their consequences. Zygmunt Baumont calls this phenomenon ‘adiaphorization’:  the disappearance of the responsibility as a results of the division of labour in human action.”

Responsibility for climate change

Such an analysis deepens my understanding of what is at play with regard to climate change.

The topic of responsibility is well worth pursuing in depth. “One prerequisite of responsibility,” Welzer notes (p. 16), “is that the parameters of methodical action are known. In modern, functionally differentiated societies, with their long action chains and complex webs of interdependence, it is in principle difficult for individuals to relate the eventual consequences of their actions to the controlled acts of volition for which they can take practical responsibility.”

He adds (p. 17) that “people can take responsibility only in so far as the temporal relationship between an action and its consequences allow for them to be held responsible.”

A question arises, namely: “But what if the person who brought about the consequences of an action cannot be held responsible because he or she is no longer alive?”

In the case of climate change, the situation involves causes that go back at least half a century and which could not have been foreseen in the state of scientific research at the time.

As well, strategies adopted now to deal with climate change have consequences stretching into the future. “The relationship between action and consequence is here trans-generational and can only be foreseen through the medium of science” (p. 17).

Ethnic cleansing and genocide

The question of how to allocate responsibility in a such circumstance has an important bearing on democracy, according to Welzer: “What does the blurring of cause-effect chains imply for policy decisions and the general development of political awareness? How does the inbuilt lack of responsibility influence perceptions of the social consequences of, and possible solutions to, climate change? Which solutions that are now unthinkable to us will we consider possible in a few years’ time?” (p. 18).

The author pursues, in this context, the argument that ethnic cleansing and genocide may be an integral feature of modernity. He notes (pp. 19-20) that “the social catastrophes of the twentieth century have clearly shown …  that ethnic cleansing and genocide is not a deviation from the path of modernity but possibilities that first arose with the development of modern society.”

The modernization processes that gave rise to climate change may thus also be implicated in the ethnic cleansing and genocide that has occurred in modern times.  It may, as well, be the case that climate change may give rise to ethnic cleansing and genocide in the future.

“As as Michael Mann shows in an extensive study,” Welzer  comments, “ethnic cleansing and genocide are closely linked with modernization processes, even though one would not think so at all from their displays of seemingly archaic violence. The same might be said of Islamic terrorism, which is a reaction to modernization and therefore closely, if negatively, bound up with it” (p. 20).

Climate change and environmental change

Adrian Parr (2013) offers what I see as a cogent discussion of the political philosophy of climate change. Her text is more wordy than is helpful to the reader, and would benefit from copy editing, but her argument is well worth a read.

Parr distinguishes between climate change and environmental change:

“I prefer to use the term environmental change rather than climate change except when dealing directly with the issue of CO2 buildup in the atmosphere. When I use the term climate change, I am specifically referring to the long-term warming of the earth as a result of GHGs [greenhouse gas emissions] entering the atmosphere because of human activities” (p. 6).

She adds that the changes that the term environmental change refers to includes changes related to greenhouse gas emissions, through thickening of the earth’s COs blanket, as as as “the broader environmental changes wrought by modernity and the free market,” such as:

  • the privatization of the commons
  • landfills
  • freshwater scarcity
  • floods
  • desertification
  • landslides
  • coastal and soil erosion
  • drought
  • crop failures
  • extreme storm activity
  • land degradation and conversion for agriculture and livestock farming
  • urban heat-sink effect
  • polluted waterways, and
  • ocean acidification


Our perception as individuals is that climate change is a matter of minor importance, given that we have other day to day concerns. Within a larger frame of reference, however, this perception is not reality. Climate change is of major concern for each of us as members of the world community; the current scientific evidence indicates the problem is real and will have major and likely destructive consequences.

Addendum: Belief and concern about climate change is increasing

A recent CBC news report (Dec. 14, 2012) indicates belief and concern about climate change is increasing:

“Nearly 4 out of 5 Americans say temperatures are rising, global warming a serious problem.”

I wrote the blog post before I read the above-noted article. The acknowledgement of climate change appears more widespread than I assumed when I wrote the post.

Harald Welzer’s observations are of interest.

What social scientists have to say about climate change, he notes, is as important as the observations of natural scientists whose “professional competence covers the physical, not the social, aspects of the problem. Climate change … is an object for natural science when the question is how it came about and how it is likely to develop. But its consequences are a question for social and cultural theory, since those consequences are nothing other than social and cultural” (p. 28).

This Jan. 14, 2013 New York Times article notes that 2012 can be characterized as setting new records in weather extremes, while this one discusses rises in sea levels. This Jan. 22, 2013 Globe and Mail article discusses the potential infrastructure and health impact of global warming. A Feb. 9, 2013 Toronto Star article discusses the effect of climate change on a country such as Bangladesh.

A Jan. 29, 2013 Toronto Star article describes a study that suggests Toronto must overhaul aging infrastructure to meet dramatic climate change projections. A Feb. 8, 2013 Atlantic Cities article discusses Toronto’s plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead. A Feb. 5, 2013 Atlantic Cities article highlights changes that climate change is likely to entail for Boston.

A Feb. 23, 2013 New York Times article focuses on the value of data gathering – that is, the acquisition of reliable evidence – regarding climate change.

A March 16, 2013 Toronto Star article discusses the role of climate change in the 2011 famine in Somalia. A second March 16, 2013 Toronto Star article poses the question: Did climate change plant the seeds of war in Egypt and beyond?

A third March 16, 2013 Toronto Star article is entitled: A rural exodus as drought takes hold of Syria. “Nowhere,” the article notes, “is the connection between climate change and conflict more apparent than in Syria.”

An August 27, 2013 New York Times article about climate change is entitled “Mutually insured destruction.”


3 replies
  1. Oma
    Oma says:

    You state: “Climate change is of major concern; the current scientific evidence indicates that the problem is real, is increasing in scope, and will have major, and likely destructive, consequences.” Please provide evidence and proof.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Good to read your comment.

    With regard to current and potential future consequences of climate change, a good overview can be found in Climate wars (2012):

    The latter study summarizes the available evidence for climate change and outlines two possible outcomes of current trends. Chapter 11, What can and cannot be done – 1, offers a best-case scenario. Chapter 12, What can and cannot be done – 2, is less hopeful about the long-term consequences.

    For a detailed overview of the scientific evidence for climate change, a good resource is The atlas of climate change (2006):

    Also of relevance is Climate change: What it means for us, our children, and our grandchildren (2007):

    A more recent overview of the evidence is available in The hockey stick and the climate wars: Dispatches from the front lines (2012):

    A quick overview of the evidence for global warming can be found in this December 2012 New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert :

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Also of relevance with regard to a quick overview of climate change:

    The above-noted article refers to What we know about climate change (2007). The book is brief and covers the ground well, in my estimation:

    A more recent edition of the book is also available, as a reference text at the Toronto Public Library:


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