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<nettime> George Monbiot: Why the sudden surge in climate change denial?
Patrice Riemens on Wed, 4 Nov 2009 22:03:29 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> George Monbiot: Why the sudden surge in climate change denial?

Bwo Sarai Reader List/ Jeebesh
With usual apps for X-posting

dear All,

Here is an arresting essay by Monbiot on the climate change denial.  
It's an intriguing reality. Climate change is going to displace  
millions and put substantial ethical pressure on ways of living of  
people used to certain form of material life. This is not going to be  
a simple conflict less process.

Species survival is at risk :)



"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  
past two years is actually a response to the hardening of scientific  
evidence? If so, how the hell do we confront it?"


Why the sudden surge in climate change denial? Could it be about  
something else altogether?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 2nd November 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 which  
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 astonishing speed.

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 past few decades has fallen from 71%  
to 57% in just 18 months(1). Another survey, conducted in January by  
Rasmussen Reports, suggests that, due to a sharp rise since 2006, US  
voters who believe that global warming is the result of natural causes  
(44%) now outnumber those who believe it is caused by human action  

A study by the website Desmogblog shows that the number of internet  
pages proposing that manmade global warming is a hoax or a lie more  
than doubled in 2008(3). The Science Museum's Prove it! exhibition  
asks online readers to endorse or reject a statement that they have seen  
the evidence and want governments to take action. As of yesterday  
afternoon, 1006 people had endorsed it and 6110 had rejected it(4). 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(5). Never  
mind that they have been torn to shreds by scientists and reviewers,  
they are beating the scientific books by miles. What is going on?

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 is 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.

One such is the critic Clive James. You could accuse him of purveying  
trite received wisdom, but not of being dumb. On Radio Four 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."(6) 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 manmade 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(7)) commenting on a recent article in the Spectator.  
"Whether Plimer is a charlatan or not, he speaks for many of us"(8).  
These people aren't sceptics; they are 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 is caused by humans or that it is a serious problem(9).  
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"(10). 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. Over 300 studies conducted  
in 15 countries appear to confirm Becker's thesis(11). 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(12).

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 death(13).

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 for people to  
repress thoughts of death, and that they might respond to the  
terrifying prospect of climate breakdown in ways that strengthen their  
character armour but diminish our chances of survival(14). There is  
already experimental evidence suggesting that some people respond to  
reminders of death by increasing consumption(15). 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  
past two years is actually a response to the hardening of scientific  
evidence? If so, how the hell do we confront it?


With thanks to George Marshall


1. http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/556.pdf


3. http://www.desmogblog.com/2008-stats-global-warming-denial-blogosphere

4. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/proveit.aspx

5. http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search/ref=sr_nr_n_8?rh=n%3A266239%2Cn%3A!1025612%2Cn%3A57%2Cn%3A278080%2Cn%3A922416&bbn=278080&ie=UTF8&qid=1257145116&rnid=278080

6. Clive James, 23rd October 2009. A Point of View. BBC Radio 4.http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00n9lm3/A_Point_of_View_23_10_2009/

7. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/09/14/answers-come-there-none/

8. http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/5332261/an-empty-chair-for-monbiot.thtml

9. http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/556.pdf

10. Ernest Becker, 1973. The Denial of Death, pp47-66. Republished  
1997. Free Press Paperbacks, New York.

11. Tom Pyszczynski et al, 2006. On the Unique Psychological Import of  
the Human Awareness of Mortality: Theme and Variations. Psychological  
Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 4, 328???356.

12. Jeff Greenberg et al, 1992. Terror Management and Tolerance: does  
mortality salience always intensify negative reactions to others who  
threaten one's worldview? Journal of Personality and Social  
Psychology, Vol 63, No 2 212-220.

13. OT Ben-Ari et al, 1999. The impact of mortality salience on  
reckless driving: a test of terror management mechanisms. Journal of  
Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 76, No 1 35-45.

14. Janis L. Dickinson, 2009. The People Paradox: Self-Esteem  
Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change.http://www.ecologyandsociety.org:80/vol14/iss1/art34/

15. T. Kasser and K. M. Sheldon, 2000. Of wealth and death:  
materialism, mortality salience, and consumption behavior.  
Psychological Science 11:348-351, Cited by Janis L Dickinson, above.
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