Dr. Christie Manning is the Director of Sustainability at Macalester College and a Climate Generation Board Member. For the last 12 years she has taught in the Department of Environmental Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul. Her research and teaching explore the cognitive, social and situational factors that influence people’s behavioral and lifestyle choices and how these choices positively or negatively impact ecological and social systems.
In my academic life, I study the psychological distance of climate change: the conscious or unconscious sense that climate change is a distant phenomenon—it is happening far away, affecting distant others, and something we still have time to address.
Psychological distance hinders action by buffering our feelings of personal urgency. Even if we know intellectually that climate change needs our full attention and dramatic individual and collective action now, as long as it feels distant, we will put off any efforts but the easiest and least disruptive to our daily lives.
Sadly, the psychological distance of climate change mirrors the inequity and injustice of our society. Those who live securely and comfortably, as I do, are also least likely to be in direct danger of climate impacts, for we have the resources to protect ourselves and our families (e.g., I live in a neighborhood where the city has invested in infrastructure such as storm sewers that prevent the streets from flooding, my air is not polluted by nearby industrial facilities, I have friends or neighbors with a cabin I can escape to if the city gets too hot, etc.). Comfort and security keep us stuck in psychological distance, believing that simply thinking about the climate crisis is enough, even as the crisis deepens.
It took the shamelessness of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project to dispel the psychological distance and pull me into activism.
I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate that Line 3 is a climate disaster. It is also rife with injustices. Pipelines have a long lifespan. If we stand by and allow the completion of Line 3, we are enabling the destruction and contamination of boreal forests and Indigenous culture in the Canadian province of Alberta. We also lock in the transport of 915,000 barrels per day—every single day for the next 60-plus years—of the dirtiest and most polluting form of oil, heavy crude from bitumen. Greenpeace refers to the tar sands as “the world’s biggest carbon bomb.”
By not stopping Line 3, we guarantee ballooning carbon emissions during exactly the time window science tells us we must dramatically reduce the burning of fossil fuels.
Today we enjoy the comforts of cheap fossil fuels. Tomorrow, our children—my daughters, my students, your children and grandchildren, your students, your neighbors—will feel the slow motion explosion of that carbon bomb.
Even more stark are the injustices of Line 3 here and now. The benefits of this pipeline are financial and flow mostly to those who hold the most economic and political power, such as fossil fuel executives and shareholders. They sit comfortably in their plush offices far away from Line 3, while it destroys ecosystems and threatens Indigenous communities, livelihoods, and culture. Though Enbridge, the Canadian company building Line 3, has touted the benefits for ordinary Minnesotans in the form of good construction jobs and tax revenues for economically struggling rural communities, they are already reneging on their promises and face little accountability from state regulators.
Meanwhile, Indigenous communities along the construction route of the pipeline are engaged in a fight for their treaty-granted rights to hunt, fish, and harvest food and medicinal plants. Research in psychology describes how climate change threatens the personal and cultural identity of Indigenous communities who are directly tied to the land through history as well as lived experience. Construction of the pipeline, carving a gash through forests and wetlands, damages the land in which Indigenous culture and identity is embedded. Even worse is the threat of a leak or rupture – a threat felt intensely by those who are strongly connected. The bond that some people have to the land, and to the ecosystem around them, is difficult to imagine for those of us without this sense of interdependence.
Yet, for those for whom the land is family, it is deep and central to who they are. When the land is harmed, they feel the harm personally.
As I’ve observed the legal process around Line 3 unfold, I’ve become increasingly appalled and disappointed. I watched the Youth Climate Intervenors, a group of young people who objected to Enbridge’s application for a Certificate of Need, along with several tribal communities, argue for their rights. At nearly every legal decision point, the evidence that I considered incontrovertible was overlooked in favor of what I thought were questionable claims made by Enbridge. Along the way there have been individual judges or commissioners who have spoken out against the decisions handed down by the majority, but their dissents were powerless to stop a system designed to speed along industrial destruction.
How can I stand by and watch brave people, like the Indigenous women of the Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging with our Allies (RISE), who do not have the luxury of psychological distance when it comes to Line 3? They are fighting for my ecosystem, my water, my children’s future, my treaty obligations as much as for their own. At some point, I had to put aside my hesitations and excuses (e.g., “This week is too busy, I’ll go next week”, “I don’t know how to do this!”, “I’m more helpful here in the Twin Cities”) and head north.
I am so glad that I did—the experience was transformative. I will be going back. I’d love company. Reach out if you’d like to join me.