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Living in Denial in Norway

Posted on 28 February 2013 by Andy Skuce

Norway is one of the most wealthy countries on Earth, with the very highest levels of human development, it is among the most generous donors of foreign aid and, for a country of its size, makes enormous efforts to promote peace. A former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, has done as much as anyone to promote global sustainable development and public health. The world would surely be a better place if everyone on Earth behaved like Norwegians.

Norway, on the other hand, is also the largest per capita oil producer outside of the Middle East, producing more oil per capita even than Saudi Arabia, about 150 barrels per person per year from its fields in the North Sea. Five million Norwegians also emit 11 tonnes of greenhouse gasses each per year, a little higher than the European mean and twice as high as the global average. The world would surely become uninhabitable if everyone on Earth behaved like Norwegians.

Every other country and community has its own contradictions, of course.  Despite the fact that the majority of Americans and Canadians believe that climate change is a concern, no progress has been made at national levels to introduce the carbon pricing policies that institutions like the International Energy Agency and the World Bank believe to be an essential step in reducing emissions. And neither, generally speaking, have many people voluntarily made the lifestyle changes—like giving up non-essential air travel—that are necessary if we are to achieve a low-carbon future. Concern about climate change is broad, but often shallow. We mostly carry on in our daily lives as if climate change was not happening.

Among the majority of us who recognize the threat of climate change, there’s clearly a disconnection between thought and action. We know that things have to change, but we have a lot of reasons why change is not up to us, or why now is not the time, or why our inaction is somebody else’s fault. The exact reasons will vary from person to person and from country to country, but they all serve the same purpose, to help ease the anxiety and helplessness we all feel, while doing nothing substantial to alleviate the problem. Kari Norgaard, an American and a sociology professor at the University of Oregon, calls these responses “socially organized denial” and has written several articles on the subject (available here) and a book, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life (MIT Press, 2011) based on sociological field work that she conducted in rural Norway. 

Shades of denial

Before looking at methods or results, let’s clarify some terminology. Norgaard recognizes three kinds of denial:

  • Literal denial. This is the outright refusal to believe the facts and to dispute the consensus science, and even to deny the existence of a scientific consensus. Many so-called “climate skeptics” fit into this category.
  • Interpretive denial. This involves not disputing the underlying reality, but using euphemisms and framing to distort meaning. An example of this kind of denial might be the Government of Alberta claiming that it is improving emissions intensity (emissions per barrel) from the oil sands, while absolute emissions of CO2 are increasing rapidly due to growing bitumen production.
  • Implicatory denial. Here, the facts are not denied or re-interpreted, but instead "the psychological, political or moral implications that conventionally follow" from those facts are denied or ignored.  Implicatory deniers accept the reality of human-caused climate change, but they live their lives as if the problem was little to do with them. This variety of denial is the main focus of the book. Most of us who live at a high standard of living in developed countries are guilty to some degree of implicatory denial.

“Socially organized denial” refers to the way in which communities find a way to approach a problem, reconciling it with their standards and traditions, or inventing new ones. It falls somewhere in between politically organized denial, in which organizations deliberately attempt to influence the reaction of the public to an issue, and psychological denial, which is an individual’s response to an unpleasant reality. Rural Norway provides a particularly good study area for socially organized denial, since the people there have been relatively isolated from the deliberate attempts in the United States to influence public opinion and spread misinformation on climate change, as is documented in books like Merchants of Doubt.

It is not possible to summarize all of Living in Denial in a short essay, so I will restrict myself to a few examples. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in how people respond to the climate crisis. Although this is a scholarly book on sociology, it is nevertheless readable, relatively free of jargon and packed with insights and deserves to be read more widely by non-specialists.

The cradle of skiing

Norgaard spent a year living and working in Bygdaby; a fictional name given to a settlement of 14,000 people in the mountains of central Norway.  (There are enough clues in the book to allow the curious to figure out the real name of the town.) Her approach was rather like an ethnographer’s. She lived and worked in the community: observing and participating in the rites of everyday life; engaging a cross-section of the people in conversations; and recording and interpreting the results. The focus of the conversations was on climate change, and how people reconcile the wealth of their society and their county’s status as a major oil producer with their reverence for nature and their modern lifestyles.


In the winter of 2000, Bygdaby’s ski hill opened weeks later than usual and only with the help of artificial snow. The ski hill is an important part of the local economy and, importantly, skiing is an essential element of the local culture and national identity. Skiing originated in Norway and there is evidence that the people of the region were skiing there in 5000 BC, before the Egyptian Pyramids were built and closer in time to the Younger Dryas than to the date of discovery of oil under the North Sea. Norgaard writes:

During winter, the recreational activity of skiing connects people to the past. Skiing is not only a practice with a very long local history, but also an activity that takes place in the utmark, uncultivated land (usually in the mountains where sheep and cows grazed in the summers). A trip into the utmark is thus an opportunity to review the history of the landscape.

Shortened ski seasons—a result of climate change—threaten, over the space of just a few generations, to disrupt the traditions and sense of identity of a people that have endured for millennia. A response to this, Norgaard reports, is reluctance by many even to consider a link with the unintended consequences of the modern industrial economy of Norway to changes in the climate. She notes also recent trends in the local culture toward reaffirmation of historical traditions and a revived emphasis on cultural links to the past. When the way ahead is uncertain and threatening, looking backwards, it seems, can be more comforting than watching where you are going.

“Norway is a little land”, more virtuous than “Amerika”

Many people who accept the basic science behind climate change, and who acknowledge that serious harm is being done to the planet, may feel both powerless and guilty, often at the same time. The stressful feelings that arise from this can be dealt with either by ignoring the problem altogether or by finding a way of approaching the problem that lets you off the hook. It is even more satisfying if your neighbours readily buy into the same story line.

Norgaard found that a common talking point was that people would say that “Norway is a little land”. By this people meant that a country of 5 million people could have little influence at a global scale. In this view, Norwegians could drastically reduce their carbon emissions and it would just be a drop in the bucket, a meaningless gesture of sacrifice made while the billions of people in China and India are rapidly building power stations and expanding their coal consumption. Nobody could blame anyone—the logic goes—for failing to make a sacrifice that would have no measurable benefit. This has the advantage of being able to declare yourself practically-minded and, most importantly, innocent.

On the other hand, Norwegians take considerable pride, justifiably so, in the leadership that their “little land” has taken in fostering world peace, with important peace-brokering initiatives in Myanmar, Syria, Palestine, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. On the environment, Norway was the first country, in 1989, to institute national targets for carbon emissions; although these targets would later be quietly dropped and replaced with an approach to stabilising greenhouse gas emissions as an international problem, to be addressed through the Kyoto mechanisms. According to Norgaard, these “claims to virtue” helped to justify other actions that, on their own, might appear to be irresponsible.

“Claims to virtue” are reinforced when Norwegians compare themselves to “Amerika”. Norgaard uses the Norwegian spelling to distinguish the “Mythic America” image that Norwegians have of the United States—Norgaard's home—from the complicated reality of that country. The concept of Amerika, she argues, reveals more about Norway than it does about America, with the focus on stereotypes such as Hollywood and Disneyland, while scorning the reckless consumerism and irresponsibility of Americans; maintaining, for example, that 70% of Americans value their cars more than their families. A self-righteous comparison with a partly invented Amerika, allows Norwegians to claim that they are not like them: “We may have our problems, but we are still doing better than that”. 

Norgaard’s observations are made dispassionately; they are neither particularly judgemental nor sympathetic. Her point, of course, is not to single out any one country for criticism. But by taking a hard look at how another culture justifies its response to the challenge presented by climate change, we might just learn something about our own.

A cultural comb-over

Paul Graham, a programmer, venture capitalist and essayist wrote in The Age of the Essay:

I've always been fascinated by comb-overs, especially the extreme sort that make a man look as if he's wearing a beret made of his own hair. Surely this is a lowly sort of thing to be interested in-- the sort of superficial quizzing best left to teenage girls. And yet there is something underneath. The key question, I realized, is how does the comber-over not see how odd he looks? And the answer is that he got to look that way incrementally. What began as combing his hair a little carefully over a thin patch has gradually, over 20 years, grown into a monstrosity. Gradualness is very powerful.

Famous wearers of comb-overs include the English footballer Sir Bobby Charlton and the scientist and writer Jared Diamond.  However, the mother of all comb-overs is the one sported by the American financier Donald Trump. Trump is notorious for his inexhaustible self-esteem and we can be confident that when he looks in the mirror he is pleased with what he sees. Objective observers, though, are more likely to be more amused than impressed by his elaborate coiffure.

Like a comb-over, socially organized denial develops in small increments. It is not a storyline that is plotted and composed by any single author, public relations company or government agency, but a tacitly agreed-upon narrative that gradually emerges from within a community. And like a comb-over, the artifice deceives nobody forever, except perhaps for the person looking at himself in the mirror, who, in most cases, would be happier if others didn’t stare too closely.

When reading Living in Denial, what is striking is not the description of the unusual or exotic aspects of Norwegian culture—although there is that, too—but, on almost every page, encountering attitudes that are surprisingly familiar. After taking Kari Norgaard’s guided tour through the society of rural Norway, upon your return you may never look at your own circle of friends, colleagues and neighbours—especially the way in which they and you respond to the challenge of climate change—in quite the same way again.

A follow-up article Living in Denial in Canada will examine implicatory denial of climate change in that country.

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Comments 1 to 24:

  1. Norwegians have one of the highest per capita incomes and best education in the world. They could do plenty if they invested a good portion of it in the manufacturing of solar power.

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  2. villabolo @ 1.


    They'd be better off going for wind power in the North Sea as Scotland are.  The sun is under the horizon for a big chunk of the year in Norway.

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  3. Just want to point out that Norway produces pretty much 100% of their electricity from renewable sources namely Hydro. Most of their emmisions come from industry, oil and gas production and transport Link.  I think this article is a little misleading in that respect. 

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  4. Norway's electricity is almost entirely hydro

    From Wiki

    Of the total production in 2007 of 137 TWh, 135 TWh was from hydroelectric plants, 1

     Oslo has an extensive public transport network. The Trikken, or "Trikk" as it is known ic tram system, with 6 lines and 99 stops

    The main oil company is Statoil, which has a majority state ownership.

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  5. HH @4

    It is certainly a bit of a conundrum, but if you want to known more, check out the The supply chain of CO2 emissions

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  6. Re: "like giving up non-essential air travel"

    I think air travel is unfairly singled out.  If I remember the math right, a modern jumbo jet uses about as much fuel per person*mile as an average car loaded with 4 people.  So, while non-essential travel may be a talking point, I don't see that non-essential air travel is particularly different from non-essential travel by car.

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  7. I think the book was written when Norway - and Europe in general - had some poor ski seasons. This one and the last few years have been pretty good snow years

    The central pyrenees as several ski areas closed at the moment becuase they are buried under snow

    Obviously, if global warming causes less snow then the ski industry will suffer. Conversely, if global warming causes more snow, they will prosper. SInce I have been told that the latter is true, it is good news for me, as a skier.

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  8. Cornelius @ #2:

    Perhaps I should have reworded my comment. I was referring to Norway's manufacturing sustainable energy products like solar panels and wind turbines for export to other nations. It would be an investment in the future for their nation.

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  9. Hyperactive Hydrologist @3

    You are right that oil and gas production and industry account for large chunks of Norway's emissions, but I don't think it is misleading to include them in the total of the country's per capita emissions, any more than it would be misleading, say, to include Canada's emissions associated with the oil sands or China's emissions that arise from manufacturing.

    Thanks for that link.

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  10. North Sea oil and gas is approx 50/50 split across UK and Norway, (I am guessing, but it is probably close).

    Noway has 4 million or so people, the UK has 65, so the "per capita" is a somewhat misleading statistic based on Norway's low population and large oil fields

    If Scotland bacame independent from the UK, a similar situation might arise there, although they won't have any wealth

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  11. Andy S @10:

    Norway produces nearly twice as much oil and well over twice as much gas as the UK.  The Norwegians benefit from a huge maritime territory with a hydrocarbons-rich continental shelf that stretches all the way into the Barentz sea.

    But I agree the basic point that per capita national CO2 emissions is a poor yardstick to measure Norwegians' behaviour by.  Norway burns very little of the oil and gas that it produces.  If you cut out the offshore oil and gas industry, Norway would look like a shining example of how to run a wealthy low-carbon economy.  

    It is hard for Norway to provide fossil fuels for the rest of Europe without pushing up their CO2 emissions.  But even in the offshore sector, Norway is exemplary in its energy efficiency and environmental standards.  They have one of the world's largest CO2 capture and sequestration projects at the Sleipner gas field complex, for goodness sake. 

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  12. Chris G - while travelling in a full plane isnt particularly inefficient (J/km per person) compared to car, the issue with air travel is the potential for moving a vast no. of kms. So living NZ, and excluding embodied energy, an average person might use 68 kWh/d/p.

    A single flight to the other side of the world adds 57 kwh/d/p to that usage.

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  13. AndyS@10

    If we consider Norway as a rich country as measured by GDP per capita, as is referenced in my first link, then I don't see why it is misleading to quote the barrels of oil per capita as a metric, particularly when oil and gas makes up 21% of the GDP and 50% of the country's exports. In any case, Norway is, in absolute terms, a major producer of oil and gas, regardless of its population.

    To be clear, the purpose of Norgaard's book (and my article) is not to single out Norway as a particular villain because of its contribution to climate change. Rather, it is to examine the way in which ordinary people in that country reconcile their great wealth—a large part of which comes from producing climate-changing fossil fuels—with their identity as globally responsible and nature-loving people. My next article will be on similar attitudes in my own country, Canada

    Norwegians are also relatively immune from the misinformation coming from people like the Kochs, Anthony Watts or Christopher Monckton and this helps isolate their form of denial from the literal climate denial that we spend most of our time at Skeptical Science trying to rebut.

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  14. In Canada, as I'm sure you'll mention, attitudes differ depending on the location.  How much variance is there in Norway?

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  15. Chris G #6

    Do I detect some self-justification? 

    The point is that it's only by air that a couple can fly 5,000 miles to New York for the weekend "to do a bit of shopping and to take in a show". It's the ease of the 'concentrated' burning of fossil fuels, at minimal financial cost, that makes flying so environmentally damaging. If aviation fuels were taxed to reflect the emissions produced, flying would perhaps not be such an easy target for environmentalists. 


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  16. numerobis@14

    Norgaard's study was done just in one small town. It was not a representative sample of the whole country but a focussed look at the attitudes and culture of one community, at one time. I am not aware of any kind of Norwegian equivalent of the Six Americas study but I am sure that somebody has done something like that. Norgaard used a magnifying glass, rather than a telescope.

    There will, of course, be huge variations in attitudes within any society, in time, in place and between different social sub-groups. Nevertheless, there will also be common human reactions and social responses to similar challenges in different societies. The value that I drew from Norgaard's work was not how different the people she studied were from people I meet, but rather how similar they are.

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  17. Aren't there quite a lot of sceptic scientists at the University of Oslo?

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  18. Chris G @ 6

    Would you drive to the other side of the globe for your holidays?

    Neither would anyone else...

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  19. Interesting post, indeed. Pre 2010 I'd say that Norwegians as a whole were rather concerned about climate change, as they had seen the effects from approx. 1989. However, once the Arctic circulation patterns changed in the winter, due to the rapidly warming Arctic and collapsing sea ice, cool winter weather made a return, and the previous concern turned into hard core denial, not only among the general population, but the MSM as well. Very little is reported on the rapidly increasing number of climate related disasters around the world, and basically not a word about the extreme Arctic warming or disappearing sea ice. As a result, the general population is kept in the dark, as they are not able or willing to do the proper research themselves. Norway has, without a doubt, the highest number of climate deniers/disinformers per capita in the world. The misinformation and outright lies these disinformers are allowed to get into print in the major newspapers on almost a daily basis is mind blowing, while the replies to the disinformation from real (some top notch) scientists are often censored, causing a huge denial/disinformation bias in the media.

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  20. My favorite quote:

    "Of all the adaptation schemes,  the least effective is denial."
                   - Psychotherapist Dr. Betty Merton

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  21. Esop @19

    I wonder if you exagerate a bit there. Can you provide some links to support your assertions, especially

    "Norway has, without a doubt, the highest number of climate deniers/disinformers per capita in the world"

    I agree that press coverage is dismal. But I find talking with folks that they have noticed the weather pattern changes, although they may not put it yet into perspective.


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  22. Thanks, Andy, for this well written, insightful book review and essay. For some time now I (too) have been reading pretty extensively and trying to think my way through the concept of denial of climate change in a systematic way. As your essay and Norgaard’s book acknowledge, of course there’s a large, complex causal chain of factors for denial, and this chain likely differs significantly across different countries. I think from my perspective that the problem with so many discussions of approaches to denial—especially in comments arising in blog postings—is the way individual chain-links, or sub-parts of them, are brought up and touted usually as the critical one pretty much to the exclusion of all the others. I like to think of it as a viciously multi-factorial causal knot.  And that’s one of the reasons I found your essay insightful with its discussion of socially organized denial, politically organized denial, and psychological denial. I think that sociology as a discipline has some advantages in its ability to acknowledge and grapple within this complex multi-level causal structure. It perhaps isn’t as strong at the individual level of the psychology of denial. In that regard, I recently read the collection of essays on denial of climate change edited by Sally Weintrobe entitled “Engaging Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives”, and I must say that reading it has given me many profound insights into denialism. There are many essays contributed by a host of differing disciplines, not just psychoanalysts, and I found them are all worth reading and thinking about. You may also.  I note, specifically, that Norgaard’s concept of ‘implicatory denial’ appears to be the same as the psychoanalytic concept of ‘disavowal’. [Succinct definitions of disavowal are ‘seeing it, but only with one eye’, or ‘knowing and not knowing at the same time’.] And importantly, psychoanalysts have both thought about and worked with that concept for a considerable period and the discussions around it in this volume were very useful to me.

    At the risk of appearing to hoist myself up by my own petard, I’d say that my own bias right now is that more attention paid to this psychological level might offer the most benefits. But it’s important to realize that even within the domain of implicatory denial/disavowal, there’s a lot of heterogeneity as well and that too has implications for how to approach it.

    Thanks again for this essay and I hope to see more from you. I had a pretty good idea myself last night after attending a program, “A Conversation on Climate Change with Cynthia Hopkins”, that audaciously charismatic talent and creator of “This Clement World”. [Alas, it’s too long to fit into the margin.]

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  23. #19 (gws): A disproportionately large number of the worlds most active climate disinformers are Norwegians. Example: in the case of one the last denialist WSJ Op-eds, a huge percentage, I seem to remember that more than 10% , of those who signed it were Norwegians. That number is quite large considering a population that makes up less than 0.1% of the worlds population.

    Some of the most vocal deniers are Norwegians: Giæver, Humlum, Stordahl, Solheim, Ellestad, Brekke, Segalstad, and the list goes on. When the newspapers run specials on climate/weather, these guys are often called on, and rarely the real experts like Benestad, Drange, etc.

    For the general population, the winter of 2010 was like pushing a lightswitch. Pre 2010, most Norwegians had good understanding of the problem. Post 2010, climate change has become somewhat of a standing joke, despite increasing floods, etc. Cold winters in 11/12/13 as well as cool and rainy summers, with the MSM reporting next to nothing on the causes of the change has eroded that previous understanding almost completely. Polls have shown that Norwegians are way more skeptical than our neighbors in Sweden and Finland.


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  24. I agree with Esop @19 that the return of cold winter weather has affected the opinion in Norway. Cross country skiing, which requires cold winter weather, is still a part of the national identity for many Norwegians, myself included.

    Norway is a young nation, and polar explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen were important for the national identity both before and after Norway was separated from Sweden in 1905. Nansen tried to reach the North Pole in an expedition that lasted for 3 years. They did not manage to ski all the way to the Pole, but he and his men survived, and they were heroes when they returned home. Most Norwegians know about the expedition and the hardships that the men went through in the Arctic ice. An ice free North Pole may therefore change people's opinion. In 2010 a modern Norwegian explorer sailed around the Arctic in a small fiberglass sailboat, and he got much attention in the media. It took Amundsen 3 years to sail the western part of this route and 2 years to sail the eastern part of it, despite his vessels were designed for the pack ice. I assume that someone will sail to the North Pole in a small fiberglass sailboat soon, and that this will have a greater impact on the opinion in Norway than anywhere else.

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