Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Monbiot's question: What do we do about AGW denial?

There is an interesting counterpoint to the current discussion of Alan Johnson's rejection of scientific evidence on drug abuse, in the ongoing rejection of climate science by the AGW (man-caused global warming) denial lobby.

George Monbiot has an excellent piece in today's Guardian about climate change denial.

Denial in the US has risen from 44% to 74% in the last 2 years. 6 of the top 8 books on global warming are by denialists. He rips into Clive James, showing him to be a sucker, not a sceptic/skeptic. And he points to the Prostatic Problem - evidence that older men favour denial. He mentions Ernest Becker, a social anthropologist who argued that fear of death deives us to protect ourselves with "vital lies".

Denial is a real problem, in that the Copenhagen Climate change negotiations are stalled by a US Congress stacked to the ceiling with global warming denialists. Congress is a ball and chain tied to Obama's ankle, and the EU and UN are pressing for him to show leadership in addressing decarbonisation of the economy.

Monbiot's final question is -

"How do we confront this reaction of denial in the face of annihilation?"

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the classic work in answer to this question as it was posed by patients faced by death. A paychiatrist, she defined the stages of coming to terms with impending death as denial, bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance.

This could be a little depressing in itself, if we have to wait for the denialists to go through three more stages before they come to terms with reality. It is not as as bad as this, as the stages are not in a fixed linear pattern, can come as a mixture, and not everyone has to experience all five stages separately.

The denialists are angry as well as in denial. Anger seems to be the basic leitmotif of conservatives everywhere in all aspects of their thinking, as anyone who has glanced at comment lists on political blogs will know only too well. The bargaining is represented in their tactic of saying "Well, what about this link to Malinkovitch cycles/warming preceding CO2/polar bear population increasing &c" The depression stage is reflected in the well known jump that denialists make from "There is no problem" to "There is nothing anyone can do about it".

The first thing we as climate realists have to do is to recognise that we are dealing with people who have a psychological problem, not a rational problem. Sure, we can point them to places where their questions are answered, such as Real Climate, and we can point out clearly that global warming is happening now. The point about recognising that we are dealing with an irrational problem, not a rational one, will help us to avoid becoming frustrated with their inability to see what we can see. Kubler Ross is clear that the process cannot be rushed.

We should not make too close an analogy between the stages of grief and the predicament that humanity faces with AGW, since individual death is inevitable, but catastrophic climate change is not. The analogy is much closer to a nicotine addict with chronic bronchitis who is rejecting advice from his doctor that he must give up smoking. We know that he can be helped to give up, but we also recognise that the first step is that he must want to give up. Clive James and the other suckers who buy the denial story do not want to give up. They are coming towards the end of their lives anyway, so why should they not spend their children's inheritance on a flight to Disneyland?

Which brings us to the fundamental problem with the philosophy of Individualism, which is the intellectual underpinning of free-market capitalism. Have a look at the wikipedia article in the link, to get a flavour of the religious fervour of the writer. I am pleased to see that there is a Criticism chapter now inserted, and a Neutrality Dispute notice at the head. It took me several attempts to get that put in.

The basic philosophical problem with Individualism (which, interestingly, it shares with Scientific Materialism) is its ethic. There are plenty of ethical individualists, who can make the Enlightened Self-Interest argument: "If I behave in such a way as to allow others to be free, they will also allow me to be free". This is a bit of a step of faith, but it works for some. (We would argue that it works because they are tuning in to humans' social instincts). But there are plenty of others, ranging from sociopaths to Clive James' genial and quasi-amusing buffoonery, who are prepared to say "Blow you Jack, I'm all right".

So, back to the question - how to deal with denialists?

First, we can move the debate beyond the endless roundabout of academic paper-swapping to where it really stands: "What economic choices do we need to make? How does the Cost Benefit Analysis of the two options, decarbonise or Business as Usual, stack up?"

This is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, aimed at pointing out the basic beliefs that underly their position. Their construct is "The case for AGW must be proven with mathematical certainty before I will take my foot off the accelerator". This is a wrong framing of the case, because it is not an academic argument, but an existential one, and the Cost Benefit Analysis comes down emphatically in favour of decarbonisation.

Second, reality will put an end to AGW denialism, just as death puts an end to terminal illness denialism. Something like the Great Flood of London will get the politicians to put their money where their mouth is.

Third, we can keep on keeping on, at a practical household level, implementing the 5 Rs -
Refuse (to buy unnecessary things)
Reduce (the amount we consume)
Repair (things that break)
Re-use (old underpants instead of a new J-cloth)

We can keep on keeping on with talking, writing to papers and MPs.
We can keep on voting Green. Not nearly enough is made of the virtue and influence of the Green vote in causing the grey parties to buck their ideas up.

Fourth, we can start thinking and talking about widespread Civil Disobedience. The people are like an elephant tied to a stake with a bit of baling twine. We can easily break free. This is a serious thing to do, as a loose elephant can be a destructive force, but when the alternative is a 4*C rise in global temperature, it may become necessary. The approach I favour is to give a tiny warning tug on the string with a General Tea Break, a gentle nod in the direcion of a General Strike.

Fifth, we must not give up hope. Schumacher said, "We must do the right thing, and not worry about whether we will be successful, because if we do not do the right thing, we will be part of the problem, not part of the solution".

Green activism is like a parachute on a hang glider - it may or may not save your life, but it sure gives you something to do while you are spiralling out of control towards the ground.


Joe Short said...

I'm so glad I came across your blog.
You have a fine voice of reason and you are rather inspiring. I would certainly be taking the ten minute tea strike each week if only I was actually in employment.! :(

DocRichard said...

Hey Joe, thanks for that, and for the re-tweet. It all helps us to keep on keeping on...

I confess that I have the same General Tea-break problem as you. Retired (most of the time)