Why we deny climate change

Book Review: Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change by Clive Hamilton

Price: USD$16.47; AUD $24.99; NZD$29.99

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Earthscan Publications Ltd. (May 2010); Allen & Unwin (March 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1849710813
# ISBN-13: 978-1849710817

I think this book has three messages, but two of them resonated strongly with me. Effectively these are the title and subtitle.

The problems presented by global warming are so large we may never solve them (hence Requiem for a Species – us). The more I discover about the science of climate change the more I become aware that if we don’t take protection measures soon the results for our species will be dramatic.

Socially and psychologically we want to deny the problem (Hence Why we Resist the Truth About Climate change). Psychological and sociologically, as individuals and collectively, we are in denial. This inhibits our capacity to take the actions needed to protect us from the results of human induced climate change.

Those messages come through strongly. The third message, ideas and suggestions for getting us out of these problems is far weaker, probably because it is less specific.

No escaping the science

The book provides a brief outline of the science – just to convince us there is a problem. Those wanting a more detailed presentation should look elsewhere.  However, Hamilton does clearly present the problems and the danger to our civilisations. Whatever the reasons for people’s unwillingness to deal with these problems it is not scientifically warranted. As the first chapter puts it – “there is no escape from the science.”

The author also briefly discusses financial aspects of solutions. I found his discussion of costs helpful because his comments help to bring some balance to the public debate. He shows that alarmist claims of high costs by climate change deniers are just not true.

Financial alarmist will quote figures for a 30-year period as if they were annual costs. Huge numbers, billions and trillions of dollars, are bandied about as if they were up-front costs. These alarmists promote dire predictions of starvation in the third world, huge taxation increases and transfer of jobs and incomes from the developed to the undeveloped world. Serious stuff for the average person already concerned about the cost of living, unemployment and taxation.

The book brings the financial costs back to reality. For example, in terms of effects on the projected world gross domestic product (GDP) of taking action on climate change. The worst case prediction of the reduced GDP in 2050 because of action is 5.5%. And most scenarios considered produced predictions of the order of 1%!

Another way of considering this is the delay, caused by action on climate change, in reaching predicted world average incomes. In the worst case scenario considered, world average incomes would double in 2050, only three years later than if there were no costs. The more typical scenario predicted a one-year delay. As Hamilton puts it: A one-year delay in the doubling of average incomes is the basis for the belief that pursuing a safe level of climate protection would be too expensive.”

The financial alarmists of course ignore the costs of not taking action on climate change. The Stern report estimated this would be in the range of 5% to 20% of world GDP.

The political centrality of financial considerations identifies a problem Hamilton sees. It shows that humans have become concerned with models of economic growth, even with the simple dogma of growth. We have a growth fetish.  Consumerism has become part of our personal identities. And, Hamilton argues, our dissociation from nature in the modern world is another problem.

Solutions to our future climate problems require us to battle against our own nature. Rather than do that we go into denial.

Many forms of denial

Denial takes many psychological and social forms. Hamilton spends a chapter considering some of these:

Cognitive dissonance – “the uncomfortable feeling we get when we begin to understand that something we believe to be true is contradicted by evidence.” Hence the urge to deny, or explain away, the evidence.

Bulverism“a method of argument that avoids the need to prove that someone is wrong by first assuming their claim is wrong and then explaining why the person could hold such a fallacious view.” Lays us wide open for the arguments and conspiracy theories of sceptics and deniers.

Green consumerism – this can “transfer responsibility from corporations mostly accountable for the pollution, and the governments that should be restraining them, onto the shoulders of private consumers.” But “climate change is a collective problem that demands collective solutions. In other words, it needs good, strong policies enforced by governments.”

Green consumerism can also foster the illusion that we are doing something and companies can cynically hijack it to promote their products.

Procrastination – the human wish to put things off. This makes us susceptible to the arguments of deniers and sceptics that we should wait until there is overwhelming evidence. That we should wait until it is too late.

Apathy and distraction are common forms of avoiding problems. People will switch off, just not want to know, or avoid knowledge by demonising its sources. We hear avoidance tactics like the putting down of scientist and environmentalists, claims of their “following the money,” Al Gore is fat, etc.

Some will promote a “brave” face by adopting an “anti-PC” approach. Purposely ridiculing and rejecting messages and actions of concern. Cutting off their nose to spite their face they will celebrate Earth Day by turning on every light and electrical appliance in their house!

Blame shifting – “our actions won’t make a scrap of difference. It’s the fault of the US and China – they have to solve the problem.” This is popular in New Zealand but of course ignores that collective action by the world has trade and political results for rogue countries who unilaterally decide to opt out.

And, more seriously, we have those who adopt an anti-science attitude. That makes it easy to ignore scientific facts. We can see that with those who adopt a post-modernist attitude towards reality or, more commonly, fundamentalist religious people who prefer to take their “knowledge” from their “holy” scripture. It’s no accident that many evolution deniers are also climate change deniers.

Role of political conservatives

Also no accident is the fact the more active opposition to climate change science comes from conservative groups and think-tanks. The book argues this is the case for the USA. But we can also see this in New Zealand with the active role of the ACT Party and the Centre for Political research, and their connectiosn with climate change denial groups.

Hamilton describes how with the collapse of communism in 1989 US conservatives had to find a new enemy – and they did. “President George Bush . . . and fellow conservatives recognised that after the Cold War a new threat to their world view had emerged. Germany’s environment minister at the time: ‘I am afraid that conservatives in the United States are picking “ecologism” as their new enemy.’” And, being part of this conservative movement the fundamentalist Christian and anti-evolution groups eagerly engage in this new war.

Interestingly, it’s easy to see this analysis confirmed in the writing of climate change deniers. For example, Ian Wishart in his book Air Con presents a fanatical right-wing argument about a conspiracy of capitalist, communist, greenies who are setting the UN up as a World Government. This One World Government intends to redistribute wealth from the west to the developing countries and “bomb humanity back to the stone ages.” (See my review Alarmist Con). Scratch a little below the surface and you will find this argument is common to most climate change denial groups and the think-tanks behind them.

It’s not surprising that organisations with a strong free enterprise, anti-interventionist, libertarian ideology should be willing to promote climate change denial. After all, measures to protect the global climate will involve restricting the unbridled freedom of large corporations to pollute at will. Examples of sceptical left-wing groups, however, did surprise me. The book details involvement of the UK Revolutionary Communist Party (a Trotskyite splinter group) in The Great Global Warming Swindle,” a 2007 denialist documentary.

Requiem for a Species details to formation of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think-tank. Initially devoted to defending Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars programme), it later became involved in defending the interests of tobacco companies, and then attacking climate change science.

Scientist sceptics

Typical of such think-tanks this institute “amplified the message of sympathetic scientists.” Hamilton describes the role of three climate science denying physicists who founded the George C. Marshall Institute – Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg. He says “Among the characteristics of elite physicists like the trio is an intellectual arrogance that leads them to believe, as one close observer put it, that global environmental problems are ‘trivia that can be handled by a good physicist on a Friday afternoon over a beer.’ Being the stars of the science, with a rigour others want to emulate, gives them a sense of intellectual superiority and permission to be contrarian.”

Many physicists will object to this stereotyping and we should not forget the role of conservative political ideology. But it is interesting that some of the activist climate change sceptics are physicists. Hamilton mentions the example of Freeman Dyson, who has been a vocal sceptic despite freely admitting “he knows almost nothing about climate science.”

It is also interesting that some of these conservative think-tanks, and climate science-denying physicists, actively support developing geoengineering projects. These are last-resort measures, such as injecting aerosols into the atmosphere, aimed at reduced global temperatures. They have possible disastrous side effects and do not solve the causes of climate change. More, they postpone these effects making them more dramatic when they do come. And they could introduce huge political uncertainties as countries take independent action to influence the global climate in a manner that may disadvantage other countries.

Mind you, such projects probably appeal to conservatives who are trying to torpedo global action and see profits in geoengineering. The technology probably also appeal to the inflated testosterone levels and wishful thinking of some conservative physicists.

The solutions

Hamilton briefly considers some of the solutions to human climate change that have been promoted. He finds carbon capture and storage to be far from practical at this stage. Nuclear power has some problems and cannot be introduced widely enough rapidly. It may offer some long-term solutions with successful development of new so-called fourth generation nuclear power.  Movement from coal to renewable sources and natural gas has possibilities, together with increased energy efficiency.

However his conclusion is pessimistic. “Sadly the national and international political institutions that must bring about changes are too slow, too compromised and too dominated by old thinking to mandate the energy revolution we must have to guarantee our survival.”

Hamilton concludes that humans are not mature enough to handle the power we have unleashed. Hence our denial. His solution is to move beyond today’s thinking and ideologies. To work through what he sees as a stage of hopeless deception resulting from the grief of hopelessness. Here I find him rather vague and to some extent I felt he was presenting personal wishes which are perhaps not practical. He laments our disconnection from nature and criticise human tendencies to celebrate technology. At times he almost seems to argue for a religious solution suggesting the current popularity of atheism may be “a Homeric burst of pride before the fall.” At the same time, though, he stresses that our knowledge and technology are “our only means of saving ourselves and staving off the ravages unleashed by our hubris.”

Hamilton finishes with appeals to action, although these are vague. He describes how humans have two sides to their character – one leading to support for free-enterprise and the other supporting social cohesion in common action. He believes that solutions stressing the possibility of free enterprise can be counter-productive and that we should, in contrast, stress solutions stressing common interests and action. I can see his point. However, I still feel one should not steer away from, or ignore, those solutions involving free enterprise. We are not going to easily change that part of our character and it should be enlisted where it is positive. And there are many examples where companies, for their own selfish reasons, have adopted and supported new technology, etc. with positive environmental outcomes. Perhaps we should be stressing these when we also criticise other examples of free enterprise like green washing, corporate selfishness, etc.

I don’t think this book will be useful for the solutions it proposes. But it is effective in underlining the seriousness of the climate problems we face. And highlighting the psychological and sociological reasons we find it difficult to solve those problems. In the end these could be our downfall.

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One response to “Why we deny climate change

  1. Watching the Deniers

    [Warning, speculation follows]


    Great review. Having read “Requiem for a Species” (RFaS) as well I came to the same conclusions about his book.

    Hamilton is right in one very important respect: given the current state of the debate and lack of action around the globe some of the nasty impacts of climate change will most likely come to pass. You are very correct to point out that his “call to action” contains very little in the way of concrete suggestions. Actually, I think Hamilton believes there are no real concrete solutions.

    The core message of RFaS is that we accept our loss, grieve and then try to live in a world changed by climate change. Clive is giving us some “tough love” here.

    Personally, I prefer Bill McKibben’s “Eaarth”.

    He comes to the same conclusions as Hamilton (AGW is going to happen and prompt a combined food/energy security crisis) but offers more practical solutions. McKibben suggests we “think smaller” and look to build resilience amongst local communities. This entails building up local food networks and localised energy grids so that our “system” can take heavy blows without the whole thing crashing down (and thus bringing down entire nations in the process).

    My other recommendation is “Life Boat Cities” by Queensland academic Brendan Gleeson who pursues the same line of reasoning as McKibben but stresses the important role of cities and suburban areas in preserving our civilisation. Gleeson argues we are an urban species, thus we should acknowledge that reality. Cities will be our “life boats”, where the concentration of services and resources will provide a bulwark against the impacts of climate change.

    Let’s also assume we stay on a high emissions path for a few more years, well past the time we should (i.e. IPCC AR4 model A1FI). We’ve 2c of warming in the pipe by 2030 no matter what we do. People are now talking about a complete loss of Arctic sea ice by 2040 (Gareth over at Hot Topic). Let’s say we hit 4c by in the later half of the century (2050-2070).

    What then? And what can we do?

    Be mindful of the two powerful forces will shape the political landscape of the next 50-100 years.

    Political devolution will follow climate disruption. I see the (re)emergence of the “city-state” as an important political unit in a “post-climate world” (but not the only). Countering such devolution will be the necessity to maintain state collective security forces and expensive militaries.

    The trend for devolution

    The disruption to international trade networks and strain on national economics of continually rebuilding, retreating and mitigating the impact of climate change will see decision making (and thus power) devolve to smaller political units. It’s easier to service a population and co-ordinate resources on a smaller scale. I suspect local communities will demand this, as they become less concerned about “those people” on the other side of the world/country/hill.

    “No taxation without representation!” will be the cry, as local communities will want to see funds and resources invested where they can see it.

    The impacts of climate change will obviously differ across regions. For countries such as Russia, Australia, the US and China whose territories span large geographical regions with diverse topographies and climates, local mitigation and adaption strategies will by necessity vary. This will have a profound impact on national politics, shaking confidence in the concept of the “nation state” for some.

    In Australia, states like South Australia are the most vulnerable to water security. A great deal of their farm land is marginal already, thus AGW will see a flight of famers from once productive land (after a few years of trying to fight it with mad irrigations schemes and denuding the water table even further). Further north, precipitation will increase but so will the incidence of flooding. Cites such as Melbourne will have to deal with the multiple stresses of a growing population, water/food security, sea level rise, more hotter days (i.e. more days over 35c) and increased bushfire risk.

    How will communities dealing with very different aspects of climate change adapt? Again, the most logical “unit” is the city-sate. As global warming starts to “bite” people’s focus will naturally narrow to the issues right in front of them.

    To borrow a much abused phrase, our global economy may be “too big to fail”, but is going to take a battering. Indeed, global warming will wind back some of what globalisation has achieved.

    This will have profound ramifications for our global civilisation.

    The effects will at first be imperceptible, but build to a crescendo that can’t be ignored.

    >> Insurers will hike premiums in those areas judged too marginal, thus seeing a slow but steady retreat from coastal regions and fire prone areas where people and business will find it hard to get insurance. It won’t be the rising sea levels and burnt forests that will prompt the flight of the population, but the invisible hand of the market. The industry has been pleading for action for over a decade now, and have noted the increase in “weather” related disasters since the 1980s. We will have to retrain and resettle this first round of “economic” climate change refugees. Where? The cities, the cities…

    >> Food prices will start to creep up then sky rocket. Decreased food production globally may be offset by additional farm lands opening up, however this assumes that trade networks and the necessary infrastructure will remain operative and running smoothly. Their will be a push for local communities to become more self-sufficient. Again, the city-state unit is the most logical “nexus” for food services (production and distribution) is the city state.

    >> Large industries such as commercial aviation will collapse in response to increased energy/oil costs. Here we should also make at least passing mention to “peak oil” and it’s impact on transport and agriculture. Within a few decades, fuel costs will severely curtail cheap flights for the masses. As a strategic commodity, oil and it’s derivative products will become the preserve of military. The impact on the cost of food production – oil is a component of most modern fertilizers – will push local autarky.

    Thus, the forces of devolution.

    The collective security trend

    Climate refugees will prompt an increased focus on border security (and security issues generally).

    The first few really big disasters will see an outpouring of support and aid to countries in the front line of climate change (Bangladesh, sub-Saharan states), however as the years go by and things “cant be fixed” and populations start to shift there will be a hardening of hearts. Security concerns will be the one thing that holds nations states together, as maintaining an effective military/security apparatus is an expensive proposition. Fears of inter-state conflicts will help solidify existing nation states. After all, one of the compelling arguments for Australia’s federation was military security. Fear of a rising Japan pushed Australia’s federation.

    Indeed, the “nation state” of the future will be best thought of as a “commonwealth” or “federation” of powerful city-states that manage resources at the local level, while national governments primarily concern themselves with security issues and “foreign policy”. Of course, one could argue that impacts of climate change may lead to a concentration of power at the national government level. I think that will also happen in places, but dictated by population, cultural cohesiveness and political traditions.

    The Guardian state

    What will emerge will be a patch-work of new political entities: city-states, failed states, highly centralised one-party states, a few surviving “liberal democracies” of the classic model and hybrids incorporating aspects of each.

    The underlying “tension” driving intra-state political debates will be between the needs of local populations and broader security issues managed by national governments.

    I suspect, the severity of climate disruption will dictate the political landscape, as political institutions will be moulded by local communities to best reflect their mitigation and adaptation strategies.

    The model of the state will vary (city-state, nation or even tribe). However the “state”, once the vehicle for war, economic growth, education, health and foreign policy will be first and foremost a guardian state, sheltering it’s population from the impact of climate change as best it can. Gleeson calls it the “guardian state”, and I tend to accept his thesis.

    One still needs to ask the question “What action can the individual take?”

    Help build resilience at the local level; get involved in local politics and grass roots movements; become part of your community.

    We’ve a decade or two in order to prepare.


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