No dallying with denial

Will Hutton’s Observer column this week was forthright on the folly and danger of climate change scepticism. “Climate change is already hurting and, unchecked, will turn into a catastrophe.”  Against that statement he points to the intellectual bankruptcy of allowing ideological preference for reducing the role of government in society to somehow justify climate change scepticism. It’s not even as if capitalism is under threat of disappearance.  “Capitalism is not going away: the task is to reform it deploying a more agile, intelligent state.” But taxation and regulation will be part of that reform and the climate sceptics on the right need to come to their senses on that necessity.

Hutton’s was the sort of direct statement we should expect from informed journalists. He notes in passing that the media is often less interested in the evidence that it should be. “It likes a spat: the idiosyncratic brave climate change dissenter is pitched as the David against the Goliath of established opinion.”

The day after I’d read Hutton’s column the NZ Herald’s monthly magazine Element accompanied Monday’s edition of the paper and cheered up my morning. There was no dallying with denial here. Editor James Russell gave voice to the slight embarrassment many of us who worry about climate change probably feel in some company.

I can’t help feeling like an idealistic teenager when I say that tackling climate change and achieving global emissions targets would be the greatest collective achievement of the human race.

He ploughs on:

But, well, damn the begrudgers – I’m saying it anyway.

He goes on to explain that at Element they take climate change as a given and are long past old questions about whether it’s happening and what’s causing it. Instead, he says, their lead story this week explores the phenomenon of those that don’t or won’t believe in climate change, and their possible reasons for denial. “Basic psychoanalysis” he calls it, acknowledging that those in the denial camp will likely find it patronising, even infuriating.

The story “A Climate of Denial”, written by Andy Kenworthy (pictured), works through possible psychological barriers to action on climate change, drawing on a 2010 Report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change.  He focuses particularly on the barriers that relate to our ability to accept the problem exists. The slowness of societies to recognise the seriousness of the issue is puzzling:

Despite a veritable and constant cascade of peer-reviewed and authoritative research all saying the same thing about anthropogenic (caused by human activity) climate change, the numbers of people in Australia and the US who don’t believe is actually on the increase.

What gives? Is the problem simply too big? Too hard to accept? Or is it just that denying the problem provides an excuse not to act on it?

The article goes on to discuss a variety of barriers and how they might be contributing to this state of affairs.  He ranges through such topics as ignorance, uncertainty, mistrust, cognitive dissonance, the undervaluing of future risks or risks to people in other places, and the difficulty of breaking habitual behaviours. Concluding this discussion he observes that “it is honesty, humility and willingness to co-operate that is required to tackle this together for the benefit of all”.

He next considers the denial industry, funded to deliberately promote doubt about climate change. No psychological surmise needed here. Follow the money.

Well, most of the recipients of this corporate largesse are essentially public relations companies that do no scientific research of their own: their job is to get selective information into the public domain to sway public opinion on behalf of those who pay their bills. So misleading information distributed by them appears on many websites, and even in the mouths of pundits who deny climate change is an issue on radio and television.

The tone of Kenworthy’s article is quite moderate, but its intention is direct enough and in some quarters will no doubt arouse the indignation that the editor foresees. There is no need to be defensive in the face of such objection. If emissions are not drastically reduced climate change shows every sign of being catastrophic in its proportions as it develops, heavily weighted with human suffering. One would expect that the media would reflect this fact regularly and persistently even in a country like New Zealand  where government spokespersons manage to avoid even mentioning climate change for most of the time and to little effect when they do.

The media should have been sounding the alarm and giving close attention to the issue for some years now, not lending weight to the campaign of misinformation by treating it as a legitimate alternative scientific source. Things appear to be improving somewhat recently, as they certainly needed to, but there’s hardly yet the sense of crisis that is called for. We need more editors prepared to run the risk of appearing like idealistic teenagers.

24 thoughts on “No dallying with denial”

  1. Thanks Bryan.

    There is no need to be defensive in the face of such objection.


    “Capitalism is not going away: the task is to reform it deploying a more agile, intelligent state.”


    This is why I find the eternal Gosmanesque ‘But: The Comintern!’ objections so bloody tiresome. As I’ve pointed out before, when the world’s most prominent Marxist intellectual – Žižek – says ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the World than the end of Capitalism’ you need not waste your time being concerned that your beloved system of institutionalised inequality is under any serious threat.

    But if it refuses to get smart, we’re all under threat – we get the end of the world, which even Capitalism cannot survive, though some of its adherents are such zealous fools that doubtlessly they’ll console themselves with the notion that its spirit will survive, wherever 2 motes of dust can blow about Free, untrammeled by Regulation…

    Clearly there’s a whole up-and-coming caste of non-idiot Capitalists that will happily run a new, less Stupid, society – making a tidy profit in the process – just as a vast caste of non-Idiot Capitalists rebuilt the world after the second World War.

    But Big Stupid – the entrenched power-base of Industrial Capitalism – is blocking the way, and Big Stupid, like most bullies, is a hysterical narcissist, and would rather destroy the game for everyone than perceive itself as losing anything

    (While we’re on Žižek, here’s a joke he told at Occupy last year:

    A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.”


    1. “Scepticism” resulted in the Gergis et al paper being withdrawn and a new paper will be submitted in July, resulting I hope in better science.

      Do you think that this is a dangerous thing to do?

        1. Do you actually know what science is Bill?
          Wikipedia describes it as “organised scepticism”

          Therefore the “folly and danger of climate change scepticism” could be translated as “folly and danger of climate change science”

          1. That would only be true if climate change “sceptics” were truly sceptical. But they aren’t – they deny evidence they don’t like (or refuse to acknowledge that it exists), and clutch at crackpot theories. Real sceptics examine the evidence, and accommodate themselves to evidential reality. Climate change sceptics don’t do that.

            As a wise man once said, an open mind is a wonderful thing, as long as you don’t let your brains fall out.

          2. Calling yourselves ‘skeptics’ doesn’t make you actual skeptics anymore than the names ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’, the ‘German Democratic Republic’, or even the ‘British Freedom Party’ – Monckton’s new mates – meaningfully describe what they’re attached to.

            Orwell would have simply laughed the moment you clutched that name to yourselves…

  2. “Capitalism is not going away:”

    I wouldn’t be too sure on that matter. What we are now seeing being played out in Greece is just the start of a collapse that will see the whole world economic order, as we currently know it, collapse in a pack of cards. What were viable businesses in Greece yesterday – with orders on their books – and until recently a positive cash flow are now going under. Why? Because they cannot import the raw materials they need. The rot won’t stop there.

    Capitalism will try its best to prop up the system. Greed is the fundamental motive behind the Capitalist economy, but in the end – a system based on individual greed is bound to fail. I cannot say I will be disappointed. The sooner the better. But will humanity have the wit to replace greed with cooperative behaviour? I doubt it.

    1. This is indeed the very fundamental question of our existence, as individuals and as a society.
      Theoretically the galaxy should be brimming with intelligent civilizations billions of years after the big bang.
      But so far it appears not to. There are many hurdles that civilizations must overcome to become stable and long-living enough for us to find and communicate with. Our civilization had a lot of lucky breaks, including finding stored energy in form of fossil fuels. Without that find the industrial revolution would have petered out soon after the last tree was burned in the early heat engines.
      But we know precisely that we have no future whatsoever betting on fossil fuels going forward. We will run out and / or run our climate into the ground within a geological whisker of time.
      The fact that we do not have any immediate evidence of other civilizations in our galactic neighborhood means that either intelligent life is improbable or that intelligent life more often than not fails to achieve a stable and cooperative planetary society.
      Our descendant’s only hope to live a meaningful and sustainable life is the emergence of a planetary society that will live in respect of its ecological bounds. We need to overcome the mindset of the Any’s and the Gosmans of our time to get there. Otherwise this planet too will join the probable others who failed to make that crucial transition from a society of egomaniacs to a society of cooperative and constructive members of a species that has learned to manage its resources and set goals for its future on a scale bigger than the individual, the village or the nation…!
      If we fail that test, humanity too will become a number of statistics on failed civilizations responsible for the Fermi Paradox and the question marks in the Drake Equation, both of which should be taken rather serious indeed in their implications for our future!

    2. Oh, I agree it’s in crisis – it’s always in crisis, but this is the worst crisis it’s experienced since the 30’s.

      However then, and in the rebuilding period after the war, rationality triumphed over zealotry – whereas now, the ideologues insist, if theory and reality clash it’s reality that must give way!

      However, the truly smart money will eventually realise the loons are going to bury us all in rubble – Freedom-Loving rubble, of course – and decide it’s time to adapt again. A lot of people are going to suffer terribly before that happens, of course.

      But that’s only the economy – a human entity that can be reset to ‘Sane’ – the trouble with AGW is that even a Climate Marshall Plan 20 years too late is just that – 20 years too late!

      Cooperative behaviour? Well, judging by those in my First World nation, clearly some can do it, but most appear to be completely unable to transcend the tragedy of the commons. I honestly think most would rather cling to their package holidays, SUVs, and air-conditioners, even if they also understand that this will certainly deny some other entity, today or tomorrow, satisfaction, fulfilment, or even its life.

      As you say, macro, Capitalism is basically selfishness institutionalised, and even recast – exalted! – as a Public Good. We’re currently finding out where that eventually leads…

      Most damning of all is that the majority of the population is more concerned with celebrity gossip or football results than any of this.

      Based on the trajectory of what we can see around us now, by the end of this century many will have got a world that is nothing less than what they deserve. But many a poor bastard, blameless or valiant – or species – will have been dragged down with them…

      1. Hang on a moment here bill. One moment you are arguing that Capitalism is not going to go away as a result of the challenges of AGW and the next you are basically stating that Capitalism is what is wrong and is leading us all to Hell in a hand cart. You can’t have it both ways. Either you think Capitalist concepts and ideals can be leveraged for tacking the challenges of AGW or you think it needs to be ditched in favour of a more ‘eco-friendly’ system.

        1. No, I didn’t. Try reading with your blinkers off, for a change.

          Stupid Capitalism will go away, or we all will – unfortunately the latter is a more likely eventuality at this stage, a process that is facilitated by people like yourself who are more committed to the maintenance of your beloved phony Free Market Economy than the maintenance of a habitable planetary ecosystem.

    3. You guys just can’t decide on what it is your are fighting against. One moment it is trying to stop emmissions of Greenhouse gas rising and the next it is the evils of the Capitalist system that encourages over consumption. No wonder the anti-AGW campaign is in disarray. Having to rely on the examply of Greece as an example of the impending collapse of Capitalsim is really sad by the way.

      1. You’re the one whose ideological commitment is impairing coherent thinking, Gosman.

        To repeat myself, Capitalism, while being exploitative as hell, and creating an army of witless consumers who are so self-obsessed that we probably simply cannot get out of this situation, is clearly not going to go away, and if we have to wait for some sort of I-don’t-know-what revolution to solve the problem we’re all toast. (In Australia, and much of the Anglophone West, in the event of a major upheaval something resembling Fascism – without the more blatant Stupidities – is more likely to result than Socialism, so you can relax, your Capitalist privilege and hierarchy will be maintained…)

        So, I’m in favour of using the non-Idiot sections of the existing Market structure to try to lever our way out of this, and ending the era of idiot deregulations forthwith. Oh, and international cooperation in achieving such ends. Anything that’s likely to yield an actual result, really.

        But rigid, Libertarian ideologues and the Big Industrial Masters – the unholy alliance between Just Plain Stupid and Big Stupid, if you like – represent an almost insuperable obstacle of determined, fervent Idiocy.

        The Right has absolutely lost the plot at the moment – austerity in a recession, science denial, pornographic salaries and profits, blatantly propagandistic corporate media; hell, some bunch of clowns in the US has just made it illegal to consider future projected AGW-related sea-level rise!

        So, what do you suggest we do with you all? Seriously, instead of harping on at us about a bloody Cold War that ended 20 years ago, where’s your vital campaign to create a truly sustainable Market?

          1. Yes, Thomas, the we-deliberately-delayed-meaningful-action-so-long-it’s-too-late-to-do-anything-now-anyway Adaptationist argument is looking very shaky indeed – for example here and here.

            And then these imbeciles say ‘oh, you can’t guarantee we’re going to get more of that’ as though strict interpretation ‘doubt’ was a trump card, and not the human condition!

            Seriously people, we’re running the most radical experiment our economies could hope to create on the one atmosphere we possess, and you’re claiming the burden of proof lies with those who think that’s, um, dangerous?

  3. I think in retrospect historians will regard this period as a time of very rapid change to new conceptions of ourselves and the planet. It just seems slow and irritating right now, but consider the level of debate even 5 years ago with understanding now.

    By the time the teenagers who walked out of the Rio plus 20 summit are in positions of responsibility as business people, judges, and politicians the thinking will have moved on considerably again – partly forced on us by circumstances we have failed to avoid, but also because the idea of planetary limits will be ingrained in their thinking and be part of all of their decision-making.

  4. Chief corporate denier “Exxon Mobile” CEO Tillerson said that Global Warming is a “manageable problem” and carries on to say:

    “There are more people being dramatically affected because they don’t have access to fossil fuels to burn. They’d love to burn fossil fuels, because their quality of life would rise immeasurably”

    and that fossil fuels for cooking should replace traditional sources such as animal dung for the poor…!

    Financial Times:

    How smug from to top of a company of a sector that receives billions of dollars in tax payer subsidies for its oil production annually! (tell that to those complaining about public investment in alternative energy technologies…!)

    “Chief Executive Officer Rex W. Tillerson and four counterparts defended $21 billion in U.S. tax breaks that Democrats are seeking to recapture to reduce the federal deficit. “

  5. Those energy company CEOs are off the scale.

    Don Energy CEO of Solid Energy made a very similar alternative-universe-reality comment at the June 2011 Victoria University symposium on coal. Elder was defending the Solid Energy lignite development plans. Elder justified extracting and using the lignite because there were millions of people in the developing countries suffering from fuel poverty and we owed it to them to oxidise the carbon from the lignite on their behalf!

      1. Christ I hope not! Fairfax was always the proof that a for-profit media could have standards that made it genuinely liberal / tolerant / representative of the community, and not just a political mouthpiece for its owner… imagine, the land of Murdoch and Rinehart and Abbott… the once famously egalitarian and progressive nation now a stronghold of Big Stupid and Bugger You Jack…

        The Barbarians truly are coming.

        If you’re as repelled as I am, here’s the AVAAZ petition.

Leave a Reply