Climate Change Denial: The Easy Life
Fighting climate change denial is like going to look for Japanese soldiers still holding some atoll in the South Pacific, blissfully unaware the war is over. There is an edgy note creeping in to even the (generally) civilised discourse over at the Guardian, in contrast to the outright bile spewed forth in less restrained environments. This discordance is manifest as a surreal overtone; sometimes it seems reality is buckling a little from the strain of defending such an improbable position. I’ve been writing about climate change for quite a while now. Every so often, I’m forced by a mixture of amazement and contempt to ask myself anew: ‘what the fuck are these people up to?’.
I’ve concocted a few sweeping generalisations over the years to placate the astonished part for a while, and I don’t have time to nurture my contempt into anything worth tooling up for, but here I am again faced with the same uncomprehending puzzle, the same degenerating rationality – and it seems to be getting worse. There is a horrid logic to this escalation, in that it is a proportional response to the escalating problems. The worse the news, the more strident the denunciation, the more irrational the denial. So what are these people up to? Well, if ever there was a fragmented movement, it is climate change denial. In fact, climate change is just a bucket for disaffections, and they range from the petty through political to the rabidly paranoid. In other words, being in denial about problems one cannot face is nothing new. The history of empires is littered with those who didn’t, or couldn’t accept that change is mandatory; unless you embrace change, it will embrace you whether you like it or not. When we lose the initiative, we also lose our ability to manage change. It is striking that climate change deniers, who always portray themselves as victims of some dastardly plot or other, are so markedly resistant to change. Those who support climate change mitigation are, in effect, voting for great change; those who oppose it still seem to believe that it is possible to maintain some kind of stasis, where tomorrow will be like yesterday. It never is of course, and this leads to a kind of disillusion that makes people feel bitter, cynical and powerless, as their age and tired old bones leave them wondering what the fuck life is about.
I have noted a curious thing about climate change deniers, which allegedly is supported by research, not that I’ve seen it. While the congruence between the political right and denial is well documented, the demographic of denialism appears to be confined principally to retired males, middle management types whose children have long flown the nest (and seem to have lost their parents’ phone number most of the time). It fits the empirical data – reading the daytime posts, it seems unlikely that these people could hold down a job too given the amount of time they spend hunting down suitable articles to which they want to add their complaints, their accusations and expose their failure to understand science, even after it’s been explained to them half a dozen times in clear, unequivocal terms.
Those who return to the public discourse a few days later to repeat the same errors, the same unfounded claims in the form of opinion stated as fact – these are the worst of the lot because they are no longer ill-informed, they are egregiously deceitful. The worst of it is that so many spectators – the ‘undecideds’ if you like – tend to seek that which suits a pre-conceived view. In the jargon, it is referred to as confirmation bias, the tendency to find that which one wants to find. This is usually accompanied by a strange selectivity, where that which doesn’t fit the pre-determined view becomes invisible, non-existent. I can offer no other explanation for the way some people read the science and come out the other end having reached a conclusion diametrically opposed to the factual content they read.
In fact, the amount of effort required to be a denier seems prodigious to me. I am merely required to read and remember as best I can what science says on any particular day, it being something of a moving feast because science moves forward relentlessly. Deniers must spend a lot of time working out how to repurpose facts and data to fit their agenda, and it is this phenomenon that induces this sense of surrealism I referred to earlier. For example, over the last few weeks there have been a number of papers released relating to studies of the cryrosphere – the world’s ice – and it is hard to comprehend by what herculean effort deniers can read the reports, then proffer opinions that are the exact opposite of whatever the science says. If the scientists tell us that there is less ice, the deniers say there is more ice. If the scientists tell us the last decade is the hottest in a 150 year instrumental record (which it is), the deniers inform us that the last decade has been cooling – and this despite the fact the ice is melting faster now than it has ever done.
I cannot conceive of a world in which a consensual reality is subservient to a personal one. But let’s face it, if you are so violently and intractably opposed to an idea or a theory you are not prepared to countenance any kind of nuance, any kind of circumspection or cool neutrality, then adamant and incessant propaganda – in all its scurrilous forms – is all you have to work with. There is one common theme binding deniers (and necessarily absent from those who are truly sceptical) and it is their remarkable certainty – a certainty all the more baffling when you consider they never have any evidence in support of their scientific claims, their accusations of fraud and conspiracy, their attribution of motive, their wild fantasies of world government and secretive groups forever wishing to do them harm. In part, I think the rising tide of approbation is a result of this certainty, for it appears now – as unlikely as this seems – that many of them really believed the failure of Copenhagen’s COP15, some intemperate CRU emails and a dodgy date in an IPCC report had put an end to anthropogenic climate change. In the last few months it has dawned on them that their dreams really aren’t coming true, and now they seem even more antagonistic, even more desperate, for they must know that they have picked a fight with two of the most intractable opponents imaginable: nature, and the science that observes it.
It must be hard work being a denier. No – cancel that. It’s the easy option because no research is required, no knowledge demanded. All you need to do is make stuff up, accuse every one of conspiring against you, and be really offended by anyone who disagrees. Perhaps I should plump for the easy life and change sides?
(Dedicated to Eric, who thought I was wasting my time: debunking denialism is never that).