Clive Hamilton on Einstein, scientific dadaism and the roots of climate denial

By Bryan Walker 22/10/2012

Clive Hamilton has a riveting essay in a new book edited by psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe, Engaging with Climate Change, which had its origin at an inter-disciplinary conference at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London a couple of years ago. Hamilton’s subject is what history can teach us about climate change denial. He begins with the deep polarisation of US society and the way in which global warming has become a battleground in this wider culture war. The implications of climate change threaten conservative cultural identity. Not that liberals are less likely to sift evidence through ideological filters, but in the case of global warming the evidence overwhelmingly endorses liberal beliefs that unrestrained capitalism threatens future well-being, that government intervention is needed and the environmentalists were right all along. In Europe, the absence of a long and rancorous culture war explains the relative weakness of climate change denial.

The Enlightenment turns out to be a fragile creature when facts quail before beliefs. Hamilton sees a poignancy about scientists who continue to think that inadequacy of information explains the repudiation of climate science. “In fact, denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information.”  The authority of professional expertise has been attacked and undermined by deniers adroitly using all the instruments of democratic practice. This leads him to the gloomy reflection that at least in the US and Australia democracy has defeated science.

“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 united again.”

The work of climate scientists has, unwittingly on the part of the scientists, destabilised the political and social order, threatening powerful industrialists, compelling governments to choose between adhering to science and remaining in power, upsetting comfortable expectations of the future, exposing hidden resentments of technical and cultural elites and, internationally, shattering the post-colonial consensus between North and South. Hamilton sums it up memorably: “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 united again.”

The population at large is not engaged in the attack on science, but practices more casual forms of denial and wishful thinking which enable them to blur the import of the scientific realities.

Einstein’s theory was pictured as a threat to the cultural order, as ‘scientific dadaism’.

It’s at this point that Hamilton turns to history for illumination, starting with a fascinating discussion of the hostility to Einstein and his theory of relativity in Weimar Germany. Conservative newspapers were an outlet for anti-relativity activists and scientists, stoking nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment. Einstein’s theory was pictured as a threat to the cultural order, as ‘scientific dadaism’. His political views were internationalist and pacifist, which only seemed to confirm the suspicion that his science was a threat to societal order. Hamilton draws cautious but credible parallels with the climate science denialism of the US, where conservative news outlets promote the views of deniers and seek to discredit climate scientists in defence of an established order seen to be threatened by evidence of a warming globe.  The campaigns against Einstein’s theory by scientists such as theoretical physicist Ernst Gehreke also bore strong resemblances to those against climate science by climate-denying scientists such as Fred Singer, Patrick Michaels and Ian Plimer. Hamilton instances Gehreke’s dogged resistance to the consensus view, his willingness to trade on his reputation to promote his views in public and his close association with right-wing organisations.

From Einstein Hamilton moves to Churchill’s struggle against wishful thinking as during the 1930s he urged his unwilling country to take the Nazi rearmament of Germany for the real threat it was, and concludes with a consideration of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague portraying a town’s unwillingness to come to terms with the fact that they were in the grip of a terrible pestilence.

In the light of his historical illustrations Hamilton reflects on the vulnerability of populations to the urgings of denial and the lengths to which the desire to disbelieve will take societies until finally the facts can finally no longer be denied.

Readers of Hamilton’s book Requiem for a Species will know that he holds out no hope that humanity will pull back from causing a very high level of global warming. That, he thinks, has to be faced and grieved over. But it doesn’t mean there is nothing more to be done. Vigorous political engagement is needed to build democratic societies which will build defences against a hostile climate, protect the poor and vulnerable and restrain the rich and powerful in the hard times ahead. This is very close to the ‘active fatalism’ of Camus’ character Dr Rieux to which Hamilton draws attention, “a refusal to capitulate to hopeless odds”. Hardly cheering, but nevertheless purposive and vital.

It’s very difficult to avoid pessimism as the years roll by and the governments of the world remain reluctant to respond positively to the climate challenge. The change away from fossil fuel energy is entirely possible, but still remains largely tantalising in the face of entrenched habits and powerful vested interests. Allow your pessimism, Hamilton says, but make it the pessimism of strength, sober and analytical, not the pessimism of weakness, despondent and submissive. Not bad advice to those of us who find optimism elusive as the climate crisis grows.