No dallying with denial

By Bryan Walker 27/06/2012

Will Hutton’s Observer column this week was forthright on the folly and danger of climate change scepticism. “Climate change is already hurting and, unchecked, will turn into a catastrophe.”  Against that statement he points to the intellectual bankruptcy of allowing ideological preference for reducing the role of government in society to somehow justify climate change scepticism. It’s not even as if capitalism is under threat of disappearance.  “Capitalism is not going away: the task is to reform it deploying a more agile, intelligent state.” But taxation and regulation will be part of that reform and the climate sceptics on the right need to come to their senses on that necessity.

Hutton’s was the sort of direct statement we should expect from informed journalists. He notes in passing that the media is often less interested in the evidence that it should be. “It likes a spat: the idiosyncratic brave climate change dissenter is pitched as the David against the Goliath of established opinion.”

The day after I’d read Hutton’s column the NZ Herald’s monthly magazine Element accompanied Monday’s edition of the paper and cheered up my morning. There was no dallying with denial here. Editor James Russell gave voice to the slight embarrassment many of us who worry about climate change probably feel in some company.

I can’t help feeling like an idealistic teenager when I say that tackling climate change and achieving global emissions targets would be the greatest collective achievement of the human race.

He ploughs on:

But, well, damn the begrudgers – I’m saying it anyway.

He goes on to explain that at Element they take climate change as a given and are long past old questions about whether it’s happening and what’s causing it. Instead, he says, their lead story this week explores the phenomenon of those that don’t or won’t believe in climate change, and their possible reasons for denial. “Basic psychoanalysis” he calls it, acknowledging that those in the denial camp will likely find it patronising, even infuriating.

The story “A Climate of Denial”, written by Andy Kenworthy (pictured), works through possible psychological barriers to action on climate change, drawing on a 2010 Report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Global Climate Change.  He focuses particularly on the barriers that relate to our ability to accept the problem exists. The slowness of societies to recognise the seriousness of the issue is puzzling:

Despite a veritable and constant cascade of peer-reviewed and authoritative research all saying the same thing about anthropogenic (caused by human activity) climate change, the numbers of people in Australia and the US who don’t believe is actually on the increase.

What gives? Is the problem simply too big? Too hard to accept? Or is it just that denying the problem provides an excuse not to act on it?

The article goes on to discuss a variety of barriers and how they might be contributing to this state of affairs.  He ranges through such topics as ignorance, uncertainty, mistrust, cognitive dissonance, the undervaluing of future risks or risks to people in other places, and the difficulty of breaking habitual behaviours. Concluding this discussion he observes that “it is honesty, humility and willingness to co-operate that is required to tackle this together for the benefit of all”.

He next considers the denial industry, funded to deliberately promote doubt about climate change. No psychological surmise needed here. Follow the money.

Well, most of the recipients of this corporate largesse are essentially public relations companies that do no scientific research of their own: their job is to get selective information into the public domain to sway public opinion on behalf of those who pay their bills. So misleading information distributed by them appears on many websites, and even in the mouths of pundits who deny climate change is an issue on radio and television.

The tone of Kenworthy’s article is quite moderate, but its intention is direct enough and in some quarters will no doubt arouse the indignation that the editor foresees. There is no need to be defensive in the face of such objection. If emissions are not drastically reduced climate change shows every sign of being catastrophic in its proportions as it develops, heavily weighted with human suffering. One would expect that the media would reflect this fact regularly and persistently even in a country like New Zealand  where government spokespersons manage to avoid even mentioning climate change for most of the time and to little effect when they do.

The media should have been sounding the alarm and giving close attention to the issue for some years now, not lending weight to the campaign of misinformation by treating it as a legitimate alternative scientific source. Things appear to be improving somewhat recently, as they certainly needed to, but there’s hardly yet the sense of crisis that is called for. We need more editors prepared to run the risk of appearing like idealistic teenagers.