I keep meeting people who downplay, deny or dismiss the scientific consensus on the extent of global warming, its significance, and its connection to human behavior, especially for commercial or ideological reasons. It is rather unbelievable that amidst all recent proofs that climate patterns worldwide are indeed unusual, some people just remain Professors Sceptozio. As Wikipedia states, the relationships between industry-funded denial and public climate change skepticism have at times been compared to earlier efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine what is now widely accepted scientific evidence relating to the dangers of second-hand smoke, or even linked as a direct continuation of these earlier financial relationships.Aside from private industry groups, climate change denial has also been alleged regarding the statements of elected officials. Are you surprised? Hardly.
I follow closely the climate change debate and love reading well-written articles with solid argumentation on the topic. Among the best ones I have come across are those on The Ecologist. A recent post by Jeremy Williams made me think about the underlying reasons of climate change denial. Are some people programmed to deny just anything mainstream, or is it that scientists have gone wrong in their way of sharing data with the masses, thereby antagonising fiery debates?
Indeed, a couple of recently published books seems to have provoked quite a discussion. First, Kari Marie Norgaard’s Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life from The MIT Press, is a sociological study of climate denial. The book teaches about how people use participation in social groups to manage uncomfortable emotions. There is also the issue of humanity not having evolved to perceive and respond to planet scale threats.
Second, borrowing from Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality, I also think that climate change is a problem perfectly designed to make people do nothing: It happens far into the future; Its effects will be felt mostly by other people; The efforts of any one individual are miniscule.
Add to this the programmed distortion from most of the mainstream press, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Third, Climate Change Denial from ecologist Haydn Washington and the founder of Skeptical Science, John Cook, addresses the phenomenon of climate change denial, and wonders why even ‘as the climate science has become more certain, denial about the issue has increased.’
In the reply to their own question, the authors suggest that denial is a fundamentally human response to things that scare us. It’s a matter of psychology, the shutting out of bad news. As such, it’s a natural and entirely understandable occurrence but it is delusional. And when a delusion leads us to ignore danger, denial can become pathological. Denial is a loaded term of course. Those who disagree with the mainstream view of climate change, that it is happening and is caused by human activity, prefer to call themselves climate skeptics. The authors disagree. A skeptic is a seeker of truth, while much of what is written about climate change is more a case of ‘the denial of a truth one doesn’t like.’ It wouldn’t be fair to tar everyone who disagrees about climate change with that same brush but it certainly applies to a large percentage of the ink spilled in recent years.
To begin with then, the authors recap climate science, talking us through the carbon cycle, the greenhouse effect, the natural changes and the man-made ones. ‘To a certain extent the science is basic’ we’re reminded. ‘We know that the CO2 level is increasing, we know it is coming from fossil fuels being burned by humans and we know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. This means there is an energy imbalance in the atmosphere. Where does that energy go? It stays in the atmosphere and heats our world.’
This is the science as accepted by every academy of science in the world and by 97 percent of climate scientists. That it isn’t accepted by a similar ratio of the general public is due at least in part to a concerted denial movement. Conspiracy theories, fake experts, misrepresentations and cherry-picked data proliferate, much of it sponsored by those with an interest in preserving the status quo. It is well known that Exxon has been a major funder of dissenting climate work, in partnership with the Global Climate Coalition. Koch Industries has since picked up the baton. This is not the truth seeking of true skepticism – it is big business paying millions to protect their own interests, by sowing doubt and kicking up dust. Again, not a charge we can level against everyone who disagrees, but a major factor in undermining climate science and delaying action.
Lobbying and paid experts are the tip of the iceberg. They’re the obvious villains but denial only takes hold because, fundamentally, it is something we want to believe. ‘When struggling with the trauma of change, segments of society can turn away from reality “in favour of a more comfortable lie,”’ say the authors. It doesn’t fit with our libertarian politics, or our free-market economics, or our consumer lifestyle. Governments don’t want to do things that are unpopular. Denial has a ready audience, and it breeds a conspiracy of silence.
At this point, those looking for another excuse to sneer self-righteously at the climate denial movement might get a wakeup call of their own. Washington and Cook are adamant that we are all implicated. ‘We are compelled to conclude that we the people also have something to answer for. We as a society let denial prosper.’ Many of us call on the government to act, while secretly hoping they won’t. We want to keep driving and shopping, so we march and sign petitions. When our representatives fail to legislate, there is no outcry. When they return from another round of failed talks, we don’t protest. We quietly prefer them to pretend. After all, if they actually paid attention to our petitions, they might take away our cars, holidays, and cheap imports.
The book concludes with some strategies for overcoming denial and a whistlestop tour of climate solutions. Above all, it calls for us to face reality. ‘The climate crisis is not a fixed and immutable doom laid upon the world. It is a human-caused problem that has human-created solutions… The key first step is to stop the delusion, to stop denying we have problems that need to be faced.’ Climate Change Denial is a wise and timely book. It is well researched and painstakingly footnoted.
Admittedly, the current headline-driven death cult hysteria may seem perplexing to anyone who does not follow closely the climate change debate. The easiest approach may then be – let’s just keep watching breaking news about natural disasters happening at alarming rate all over the world. That should be a sufficiently clear sign that maybe there is something strange happening out there, something that even the Professors Sceptozio cannot deny.