Nov 03, 2009
There is no point in denying it:
we're losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious
disease. It exists in a sphere that cannot be reached by evidence or
reasoned argument; any attempt to draw attention to scientific findings
is greeted with furious invective. This sphere is expanding with
A survey last month by the Pew Research Centre
suggests that the proportion of Americans who believe there is solid
evidence that the world has been warming over the last few decades has
fallen from 71% to 57% in just 18 months. Another survey, conducted in January by Rasmussen Reports,
suggests that, due to a sharp rise since 2006, US voters who believe
global warming has natural causes (44%) outnumber those who believe it
is the result of human action (41%).
A study by the website Desmogblog
shows that the number of internet pages proposing that man-made global
warming is a hoax or a lie more than doubled last year. The Science Museum's Prove it!
exhibition asks online readers to endorse or reject a statement that
they've seen the evidence and want governments to take action. As of
yesterday afternoon, 1,006 people had endorsed it and 6,110 had
rejected it. On Amazon.co.uk, books championing climate change denial
are currently ranked at 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8 in the global warming
category. Never mind that they've been torn to shreds by scientists and
reviewers, they are beating the scientific books by miles. What is
It certainly doesn't reflect the state of the science,
which has hardened dramatically over the past two years. If you don't
believe me, open any recent edition of Science or Nature or any
peer-reviewed journal specialising in atmospheric or environmental
science. Go on, try it. The debate about global warming that's raging
on the internet and in the rightwing press does not reflect any such
debate in the scientific journals.
An American scientist I know
suggests that these books and websites cater to a new literary market:
people with room-temperature IQs. He didn't say whether he meant
fahrenheit or centigrade. But this can't be the whole story. Plenty of
intelligent people have also declared themselves sceptics.
such is the critic Clive James. You could accuse him of purveying trite
received wisdom, but not of being dumb. On Radio 4 a few days ago he
delivered an essay about the importance of scepticism,
during which he maintained that "the number of scientists who voice
scepticism [about climate change] has lately been increasing". He
presented no evidence to support this statement and, as far as I can
tell, none exists. But he used this contention to argue that "either
side might well be right, but I think that if you have a division on
that scale, you can't call it a consensus. Nobody can meaningfully say
that the science is in."
Had he bothered to take a look at the
quality of the evidence on either side of this media debate, and the
nature of the opposing armies - climate scientists on one side,
rightwing bloggers on the other - he too might have realised that the
science is in. In, at any rate, to the extent that science can ever be,
which is to say that the evidence for man-made global warming is as
strong as the evidence for Darwinian evolution, or for the link between
smoking and lung cancer. I am constantly struck by the way in which
people like James, who proclaim themselves sceptics, will believe any
old claptrap that suits their views. Their position was perfectly
summarised by a supporter of Ian Plimer
(author of a marvellous concatenation of gibberish called Heaven and
Earth), commenting on a recent article in the Spectator: "Whether
Plimer is a charlatan or not, he speaks for many of us." These people
aren't sceptics; they're suckers.
Such beliefs seem to be
strongly influenced by age. The Pew report found that people over 65
are much more likely than the rest of the population to deny that there
is solid evidence that the earth is warming, that it's caused by
humans, or that it's a serious problem. This chimes with my own
experience. Almost all my fiercest arguments over climate change, both
in print and in person, have been with people in their 60s or 70s. Why
might this be?
There are some obvious answers: they won't be
around to see the results; they were brought up in a period of
technological optimism; they feel entitled, having worked all their
lives, to fly or cruise to wherever they wish. But there might also be
a less intuitive reason, which shines a light into a fascinating corner
of human psychology.
In 1973 the cultural anthropologist Ernest
Becker proposed that the fear of death drives us to protect ourselves
with "vital lies" or "the armour of character". We defend ourselves
from the ultimate terror by engaging in immortality projects, which
boost our self-esteem and grant us meaning that extends beyond death.
More than 300 studies conducted in 15 countries appear to confirm
Becker's thesis. When people are confronted with images or words or
questions that remind them of death they respond by shoring up their
worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it, and increasing
their striving for self-esteem.
One of the most arresting
findings is that immortality projects can bring death closer. In
seeking to defend the symbolic, heroic self that we create to suppress
thoughts of death, we might expose the physical self to greater danger.
For example, researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Israel found that
people who reported that driving boosted their self-esteem drove faster
and took greater risks after they had been exposed to reminders of
A recent paper by the biologist Janis L Dickinson, published in the journal Ecology and Society,
proposes that constant news and discussion about global warming makes
it difficult to repress thoughts of death, and that people might
respond to the terrifying prospect of climate breakdown in ways that
strengthen their character armour but diminish our chances of survival.
There is already experimental evidence that some people respond to
reminders of death by increasing consumption. Dickinson proposes that
growing evidence of climate change might boost this tendency, as well
as raising antagonism towards scientists and environmentalists. Our
message, after all, presents a lethal threat to the central immortality
project of western society: perpetual economic growth, supported by an
ideology of entitlement and exceptionalism.
If Dickinson is
correct, is it fanciful to suppose that those who are closer to the end
of their lives might react more strongly against reminders of death? I
haven't been able to find any experiments testing this proposition, but
it is surely worth investigating. And could it be that the rapid growth
of climate change denial over the last two years is actually a response
to the hardening of scientific evidence? If so, how the hell do we
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