Why Do Climate Change Deniers Deny Climate Change?

Friday, 15 January 2010 12:05

The English watch the weather all the time. It’s a popular topic of conversation, something to say when you can’t think of anything to say. English weather has always been changeable. Unless you’re a gardener, you mightn’t have noticed any change in the climate. If you live in Bangladesh, you couldn’t help but notice the rise in sea levels that has already inundated large areas of inhabited land, or, if you lived in Kenya where the Korondille reservoir is empty and people and cattle are dying of thirst, you would know that something had changed.

Australia has always had extreme weather, but not so extreme as when is happening now. The website of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology devotes a great deal of space to climate change with regularly updated tables of the measurements of the climate and a section on Special Climate Statements. On December 2 Statement No 19 was updated. This concerns ‘A prolonged spring heat wave over central and south-eastern Australia’. It began,

An exceptionally prolonged heat wave has affected large parts of central and south-eastern Australia during November 2009, resulting in the month being the hottest November on record for many areas. . . . . Few records were set for individual high temperatures, but many were set, especially in South Australia, for the number of consecutive days above high temperature thresholds such as 35 or 40°C.

One or two extremely hot days are not unusual in Australia, but several consecutive days like this are. Australian can cope with one or two days where the temperature is above 35°C, but we find a week or more of such weather very debilitating, especially when water is scarce, as is happening in the city of Adelaide where the water supply comes from the River Murray which is fast disappearing into the sand.

In the days when John Howard was prime minister and friend of George Bush the Australian scientist Tim Flannery set about making people aware, not just of the climate change, but the reasons why this was happening. Howard, like Bush, denied that anything untoward was happening. Flannery proved to be an excellent publicist for his cause, so good that Howard sought to silence him. He used a ploy that the British establishment have often used. Give the troublemaker an honour and he will be so flattered he will cease to be a problem. Bob Geldoff began as a troublemaker, but once Charles and Diana had graced one of his concerts he joined the eccentric wing of the Great and the Good. A knighthood soon followed. In 2007 Howard made Flannery Australian of the Year. That, Howard thought, would shut him up, but it didn’t. It just gave him a bigger platform from which to broadcast his message. The Australian climate change deniers had to work harder to discredit him.

After the Australian Labor Party won the last Federal elections, the Liberal (read Conservative) Party elected Malcolm Turnbull as their leader. Turnbull made a deal with Kevin Rudd PM to get Rudd’s climate change bill through the Senate. Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey then challenged Turnbull for the leadership. Hockey dropped out, and Abbott, a devout Catholic known to his parliamentary colleagues as the Mad Monk, won by one vote. Abbott says that some change to the climate is occurring but it’s nothing to worry about, while a number of his Liberal colleagues deny that it is happening at all.

My friend Annabelle Mark, Professor of Healthcare Organisation at Middlesex University, is in Australia at present on sabbatical. Last night she sent me the following email.

Just come back from the ANZAM Conference Keynote address by Prof Tim Flannery in which he threw aside his original speech and related the following - during yesterday’s voting inside the room Liberals were given the impression that Tim had moved to a new position of environmental and climate change sceptic - based on a comment he made on a late night programme that 1998 was so far the hottest year but we were currently in a lull - which was translated by the Liberals as

1. the earth is cooling

2. our foremost thinker on it is now a sceptic.

All of course a falsification but it tipped the vote - interesting also that they were all required to relinquish their mobiles before entering the room. This was all reported to Tim by a friend in the room....... All fascinating, but I did ask the question of him in the conference. ‘If, as Abbot says, he is hooking Oz to American decisions, what will be the outcome?’ He gave an answer to the effect that we hope will mean a potential reversal of Abbot’s position IF they can secure the Senate vote in the US which Gore thinks more than less likely.

This ploy to discredit Flannery shows how stupid Abbott and his co-conspirators are. If Flannery had decided that the evidence no longer supported the hypothesis that the climate is warming he would have not only told his colleagues so but he would have set out all the evidence that led him to change his mind. The history of science is the history of abandoned hypotheses in the search, not for some Great Absolute Truth, but for the truth of what is actually happening. Abbott shows that he, like all the climate change deniers, does not understand, not just science, but how human beings operate.

When our species arrived on this planet we were puny creatures faced with a world that threatened them in many ways. Our ancestors had to work out how to understand many things including the climate that was sometimes benign and sometimes dangerous. They had to find some patterns in the climate. They had to remember what had happened last week, last year, and use this knowledge to predict what was to come. Memory is very fallible, so records needed to be kept. Our ancestors, like us, were not content with observing and recording events. They speculated about what caused these events. They created theories, and argued over whose theory was the right one, just as scientists do. Arguments over whose god it was that created the floods and droughts often turned into battles and then into religious wars.

Scientists can have some very bitter battles over whose theory is right, but at least they don’t go to war with one another. When climate change deniers claim to have found evidence that scientists are lying about their evidence, or fiddling the figures to prove their case, what they have stumbled across are the arguments that scientists have about theories. If you read the learned papers written by therapists (please don’t – you’ve got better thing to do with your time) you would find that these supposedly nice people have ferocious arguments over theories. Every branch of science has these arguments. They can be settled in only one way - the evidence, finding what is the truth of this matter. When the evidence becomes overwhelming argument ceases. (Some scientists become envious of their colleagues and squabbles break out that are a version of sibling arguments along the lines of, ‘It’s not fair. He got a bigger slice of cake/bigger grant than me.’ Such squabbles have nothing to do with science.)

A few short years ago, climate change seemed only a possibility. Now it is as certain as anything of which we can be certain. Those scientists who still deny change are not ignorant of how science functions but they are, like all climate change deniers, frightened. They resort to a defence against fear that all of use at one time or another. A terrible truth stares us in the face, and we say, ‘It isn’t happening.’ Alas, closing your eyes never makes a truth disappear.

Climate change is terrifying. What we call ‘the world’s climate’ is an extremely complex entity, not a static entity but one that is constantly moving and changing. We cannot predict exactly what the future will be. Not being able to predict our future always frightens us. We can cope with a degree of uncertainty but not total uncertainty. We can cope with a considerable degree of uncertainty if we believe that we have the skills and the equipment to deal with whatever happens. With climate change we have neither the skills nor the equipment.

We hate feeling helpless. Most of us prefer to feel guilty than to feel helpless because feeling guilty implies that we did have the ability to deal with whatever matter needed to be dealt with but we chose not to use this ability. One of the worst parts of being a parent is the feeling of helplessness when your child, who is attached to you by a hook through your heart, is in some kind of danger and there is nothing you can do to help. This and the fear we all feel when it becomes clear that the future we planned will never eventuate lead people who are largely ignorant of the way science works to dismiss the idea that the climate is changing. Such people do not understand that, when we face an uncertain situation, all we can do is summon up that skill that is the mark of maturity, the skill of being able to tolerate uncertainty. This is the skill of knowing that uncertainty is an intrinsic and inescapable part of our life, and accepting that.

There are some kinds of danger where telling yourself some uplifting lies and fantasies can be useful in getting you through the situation, but climate change is not one of them. It is so vast and there is so much to learn. The lies and fantasies of climate change deniers who have the education that equips them to know better hinder our progress in what needs to be done. There is no point in arguing science with them because they are wilfully ignorant. Their greed propels them to work with those industrialists who do not wish to change their profit-making ways. They not ignorant because they are stupid but because they are unable to summon up the courage to face the truth that the climate is changing. They are like small children squeezing their eyes closed shut to make something nasty disappear. If you have unlimited patience, you might take one or two by hand and encourage them to seek to understand what is going on inside them, the fears, hatreds and resentments that keep them tied to their childhood, but otherwise it is a waste of time to enter into any kind of discussion with climate change deniers. Their lies and greed need to be exposed, but we should not waste time entering into discussions with them. There are more important things to do.

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 05:39