Doublethink: doubleplus ungood

By Bryan Walker 24/12/2011


What do New Zealand government members really think about the chasm between their claims on the one hand to be addressing climate change and their insistence on the other that we must take every opportunity to expand our fossil fuel mining industry? I listened to a recent Radio New Zealand interview with Tim Groser, the Minister responsible for international climate change negotiations, in which he discussed the outcome of the Durban conference. He sounded committed to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. He was respectful of the science. He affirmed that the progress so far made was inadequate, but thought it possible that Durban might turn out to have been a critical turning point by getting all the big emitting countries on the mitigation bus. He sometimes sounded the ’real world’ theme, but not to the extent of suggesting that the whole process was doomed to failure. He was positive about renewable energy potential. One might disagree with some of his perspectives, but there was no suggestion that he was not serious about the need for the world to move to low-carbon economies.

Yet back in New Zealand Groser is a Minister in a government which is planning to increase the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels, claiming that they offer immense financial benefits that we would be foolish to forego. These fuels will release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere either in the countries to which they are exported or here. When pressed on the issue the excuses offered include that emissions in other countries are the responsibility of the users of the fuels, not the suppliers, that within New Zealand our Emissions Trading Scheme will somehow result in the satisfactory offsetting of the harm done by the emissions, and that if we don’t mine fossil fuels others will and we will suffer an unfair economic disadvantage.

I find it impossible to mentally inhabit these two worlds simultaneously. A world in which we are working sincerely to a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and a world in which we are vigorously pursuing the extraction of every last bit of fossil fuel we can locate. Am I lacking mental agility?  Or is there doublethink going on in government?

The phenomenon is not confined to New Zealand by any means. I was interested this week to read a Grist article by David Roberts Markets and climate change: A case of cognitive dissonance. He in turn draws on an article by Nicholas Stern in the Financial Times (registration required) which refers to a “profound contradiction at the heart of climate change policy”.  If the world burns even the proven reserves of fossil fuels by 2050 we will have well and truly overshot the carbon budget which gives us some chance of staying within 2 degrees of warming.

If countries are serious about 2 degrees, they must be planning to leave a lot of fossil fuels in the ground. Right?

Apparently not.

…the world’s top fossil fuel companies are valued at some $7.42 trillion (including the top 100 listed coal companies and the top 100 listed oil and gas companies). They are valued at this level because of proven fossil fuel reserves to which they have access. In other words, their valuation carries the implicit assumption that they will burn the fossil fuels available to them.

Markets are assuming that fossil fuel companies will burn the fossil fuels that the world’s governments have, at least implicitly, said they cannot burn. That’s the “profound contradiction.”

Evidently markets are thinking that governments don’t mean what they say, that they aren’t really serious about climate change and they’re going to allow business as usual to proceed.

If that’s the case, Roberts quotes Stern:

… the resulting rise in atmospheric concentrations could eventually mean, with a substantial probability, global warming of 5 degrees or more, to temperatures not seen on Earth for more than 30m years. That would probably transform where and how people could live and lead to the migration of hundreds of millions, as well as to conflict and severe economic decline.

Roberts goes on to look at projections of the resource mix in US electricity markets in coming decades. There’s a significant shift from coal to gas predicted, and a modest rise in renewables, but no reduction in emissions that comes anywhere near the level required to stay within the 2 degree guardrail. It’s not that there won’t be any climate policy, just that it will be at a level that is woefully inadequate. And it’s not that the level of change needed is beyond US capacity. There are alternative courses policy makers could chart if they were serious. But mainstream analysts don’t expect them to.

And yet we do nothing to prepare for the future that inaction is going to bring us! It’s a widespread and increasingly glaring case of cognitive dissonance in the institutions and practices at the center of the modern global economy. One way or the other, it’s going to resolve itself, and I fear the results will not be pretty.

A digression. I used the Orwellian term doublethink, perhaps unkindly. Roberts employs the term cognitive dissonance, coined by American social psychologist Leon Festinger. Curious, I checked them out. If I understand the explanations correctly doublethink is the holding of contradictory beliefs without discomfort (’knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic’ — Orwell 1984 Part 1 chapter 3), whereas cognitive dissonance is a more conflicted process leading to attempts to rationalise the contradictions which disturb the person holding them. In that respect they can be described as opposites. But they are not opposite in their effects when it comes to climate change.

There is no rationalisation which can reconcile this contradiction: we can’t both burn all the fossil fuels the earth holds and avoid the consequences of severe climate change. Much of the remaining oil, gas and coal must remain in the ground and the companies and countries which are counting them as assets must write them down drastically. It’s as simple as that and it’s high time governments gave up pretending otherwise.