16 December 2011

Why do people still deny climate change?

Dear readers, apologies for the silence. I have to spend too much time writing proposals and don't have enough enough time to write papers and blogs.

In any case, in a post-Durban-Climate-Change-what-does-it-all-mean mode (and see my IDS colleague Matthew Lockwood's insightful analysis here) I was browsing salon.com and came across this post by Gene Lyons which led me to this fascinating paper by Clive Hamilton (actually a year old) entitled "Why we resist the truth about climate change".

It's a question I often ask myself, wondering what it will take to change people's minds.

Hamilton's paper argues that climate deniers are those whose cultural identity is most threatened by the implications of climate change (in the US this means white, male and conservative).

He states:

"Those on the left are as predisposed to sift evidence through ideological filters; but in the case of global warming it happens that the evidence overwhelmingly endorses the liberal beliefs that unrestrained capitalism is jeopardising future well-being, that comprehensive government intervention is needed, and that the environment movement was right all along. For neo-conservatives accepting these is intolerable, and it is easier emotionally and more convenient politically to reject climate science."

It is a paper full of troubling (but gorgeous) quotes:

"In these circumstances, facts quail before beliefs, and there is something poignant about scientists who continue to adhere to the idea that people repudiate climate science because they suffer from inadequacy of information. In fact, denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information."


"Deniers have adroitly used the instruments of democratic practice to erode the authority of professional expertise, including skilful exploitation of a free media, appeal to freedom of information laws, the mobilisation of a group of vociferous citizens, and the promotion of their own to public office. At least in the United States and Australia, democracy has defeated science."

and more

"Innocently pursuing their research, climate scientists were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order. They could not know that the new facts they were uncovering would threaten the existence of powerful industrialists, compel governments to choose between adhering to science and remaining in power, corrode comfortable expectations about the future, expose hidden resentment of technical and cultural elites and, internationally, shatter the post-colonial growth consensus between North and South. Their research has brought us to one of those rare historical fracture points when knowledge diverges from power, portending a long period of struggle before the two are once more aligned."

Hamilton then draws parallels with Einstein's publications on the General Theory of Relativity pointing out how his scientific views were conflated with his political views (internationalist and pacifist) and how strong forces were quickly lined up against his ideas (the One Hundred Authors Against Einstein has eerie parallels to today's petitions from climate "skeptics").

Final quote

"The success of climate denialism in its various guises reveals how shallow the roots of the Enlightenment sink. When superstition was swept away by science and reason, our penchant for self-deception merely lost its cover. In the most vital test of our capacity to protect the future through the deployment of rationality and well-informed foresight the “rational animal” is manifestly failing."

And if you doubt the success of climate denialism, check out the race for the Republican Presidential nomination where candidates are taking pot shots at frontrunner Newt Gingrich for having once spoken in favour of Cap and Trade.

Hamilton reminds us that it is not the fanaticism of the active deniers that is the real worry, but the susceptibility of the rest of us to wishful thinking. It something is uncomfortable or threatens the current order, best to think it will not happen or if it does it won't affect me much. It is the "desire to disbelieve" that is the threat and this "deepens as the scale of the threat grows, until a point is reached when the facts can be resisted no longer."

So when can the facts no longer be resisted? The paper is silent on this.

For me the paper reaffirms the reality that knowledge is inevitably wrapped up in power and politics--how it is constructed, when it is used, how it is used--and that behaviour is guided by identity. And incidentally it is not behaviour that researchers are immune to (not enough researchers actually change their mind about something on the basis of new evidence).

For those of us invested in knowledge driven change, it is a sobering reminder of the need to influence politically on the basis of research that is done as apolitically as humanly possible.


Alice Bell said...

I assume you've seen Naomi Klein's Nation piece on similar issues...? http://www.thenation.com/article/164497/capitalism-vs-climate

Long, but worth the read. She also did a follow up discussion with Andy Revkin on his NY Times blog.

Anonymous said...

Or, Merchants of Doubt (book).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lawrence, and for all your fine contributions this year - I hope you'll still find enough time between the very important business of writing papers and proposals!
Knowing what is clear from Hamilton, etc - no real surprise.. how do we activate the intermediary processes to move from science to more positive political response? Who,why,when? Mayan long calendar or no, perhaps there are few things to talk about in 2012...

Lawrence Haddad said...

thanks all... no I had not seen the Klein piece or the Merchants of Doubt book-but I will check them out...

and I am totally ignorant about the Mayan long calender!

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