Climate Change Denial

October 14, 2013


George Marshall @ 3:19 pm

According to a new report, after 2047 every year -even the coolest- will be hotter than the hottest years ever recorded. This deadline offers an original and potentially very useful new frame for climate change that breaks with the history of environmentalist deadlines and brings a sense of proximity, and a narrative of a journey that leads to an irreversible transformation.

The report (link…) just published in the online publication Nature by a team at the University of Hawaii has a new take on the climate modelling data – they ask how long will it be before every year, even the coldest, will still be warmer than any other in the long term record? They have defined this as the ‘year of climate departure’ and it is, at current trajectories, due to come in 2047 . Three years later will come the year when every month in every year will be hotter than that month has ever been before. The researchers put this year within a range of 14 years either way so the worst case is  2033 and the best is 2071.

I have been wondering why this feels like such an original and effective way to present the modelling data.  I think it comes down to narratives and proximity.

Climate change suffers from ambiguous timelines, and this kind of temporal anchoring is very useful. Scientists usually use timelines that appear on the x axis of a graph- 2050, 2100- which feels abstract and arbitrary. Environmental campaigners try to create deadlines in terms of emissions targets, with countdowns towards some supposed atmospheric tipping point.  Two recent examples from 2007 and 2008 are a celebrity campaign called Global Cool which announced 10 years to ‘save the planet’ and the London based New Economics Foundation which launched the campaign ’100 months to save our climate’.

I fear that these deadlines are so coded with environmentalist language about saving and defending things and the threat that ‘if you do not do what we say then this will happen’ that they do little to engage the wider society and, unfortunately, can easily feed an already well fueled prejudice about greens overstating their case.

These campaigns aim to create a sense of urgency through an impending deadline, but their real weakness is that this deadline feels imposed and artificial. Of course we don’t really blow up in 38 months from today, even though the ticking bomb style countdown on the 100 months to save the planet website implies that metaphorically. The problem is that, come that deadline, it will probably all feel fine, just as we have happily gone through a clutch of previous deadlines.  It is not really 100 months to save the world so much as 100 months before the odds shift into a greater likelihood of feedbacks- which is certainly less catchy.

But this new deadline is much more interesting because, rather than drawing on old and familiar narratives, it creates a new one: that we are about to make a step change into a new world where nothing is like the old world.

Climate change is a process not an event, and this language speaks far better to that reality: this speaks of metaphors of journeys, making a transition, crossing a line, and a stage of no return. It speaks less to the finality of a deadline (which, as the name suggests, I suspect we process subconsciously as a warning of our mortality) than a moment of commitment and passage.

And this speaks very well to the way that we build our understanding of the world on our recent experience: what is sometimes called the hindsight bias.  We all carry a mental scale of past hot and cold weather and this says: you remember that very hot year? From this year onwards nothing will ever be cooler than that. 2047 is 34 years from now- potentially quite a powerful figure because that is close to the average childrearing age (in the UK the average age for women too have a first child is now 30, 32 for men). This allows the argument that we will enter this new era ‘when your children are the same age that you are now’. I say ‘potentially quite powerful’ because there is little  evidence that having children makes people more concerned about climate change: though this may provide a better way of engaging parents who do already care about it.

This approach also reflects the uncertainties of the science far better. It doesn’t matter whether this happens in exactly 2047. Or how much of any individual heat wave is ‘climate change’ and how much is ‘natural’ (a false dichotomy that enables people to deny climate change). What has always been important to people is not what causes what, but how it will feel: and this argues that, from this year on, nothing will feel like anything that has happened before.  That word ‘nothing’ has a bold authority to it that counters the uncertainties of the science very well. This is not a matter of degree- of things being a bit hotter or stormier: this new world it going to be something totally and dangerously different in every respect. This is the natural partner of the emerging language of the ‘anthropocene’: the age when the world is shaped more by human than any other natural or physical force.

There are, as ever, dangers with this framing too. It speaks far more strongly to adaptation (batten down the hatches) than it does to mitigation (stop burning that stuff) . There is the danger that the inevitability and irreversibility of this impending crossing point could feel so threatening to people and therefore less effective than other narratives. Maybe so- but then climate change of some kind is now inevitable and irreversible, so maybe we need to be finding ways to talk about it that reflect this.

The paper itself says that this year of climate departure is coming whatever we do, and that even with a scenario of aggressive emissions reduction we will still cross that line in 2069.  It argues that these additional 22 years could be critical for the survival of many species and ecosystems but this is a technical argument that will not make sense to people’s intuitive understanding of the world. In any case 34 years and 66 years are both already in the category that most people would regard as long term and the psychological research on hyperbolic discounting shows that people are not overly concerned about differences in losses and gains that far ahead.

And then, of course it works for me.  I believe in climate change and I think it is at threat. Other people’s views will always be mediated by their worldview and politics and, if they don’t believe in climate change or climate models, I can’t think that this will  suddenly win them over.

Generally though, this is the first deadline I have seen that could speak well to a general audience- grounded in the science, timescales that work well for them, speaking to common experience, and lacking the coding of environmentalism that can sometimes repel .


  1. Linda Winn says:

    I find the opening sentence TOTALLY confusing! Is it saying that ‘even the coolest years after 2047 will be hotter than the hottest year til now’?

    George says: absolutely it is saying that.

  2. Very interesting, George….I have often toyed with using the concept of our children being our age when we hit the middle of the century – which is when most thinkers presume the big changes will go through a threshold. And your piece also reminded me not to feel angry with those doubters who stop good things happening in terms of mitigation OR adaptation, but to try and have a more compassionate approach to people at large because we are not naturally wired to be able to comprehend this stuff, and this – sadly – will be at our own cost. Compassion and effort to change this, will be more effective than pointless and counterproductive frustration and anger.

    I will try harder. Thank you.

    Manda :)

  3. Brian Orr says:

    George, I’m really sorry to have to say, and I do mean this, that you’ve talked yourself into a corner in the above piece.

    You wrote: – “…..climate change is now inevitable and irreversible, so maybe we need to be finding ways to talk about it that reflect this.”

    It would seem the only logical step now is to pressurise the government to set up counselling services on an ever-increasing scale to deal with the emotional devastation that more and more people will feel as the truth seeps out.


  4. Chris Shaw says:

    George, I too was taken with this framing of climate change, and agree it conveys a sense of proximity absent from other ways of framing climate change. As a social scientist I too hope climate change can be resolved by something as simple, painless and manageable as framing. That way my comfort and my lifestyle remains, in the short term at least, protected. All I have to do is play with some words. However, I believe alongside innovative framing it is also necessary to give people true agency, otherwise they remain passive spectators of the frames thought up by researchers. This distribution of agency, the ability to act, or shall we call it power, is something which the whole neo-liberal edifice seeks to deny. So, we can change the framing, but that is only part of the story, the easy bit. People incorporating this storyline without the ability to do anything about it is no progress at all.

  5. Adrian Tait says:

    The Daily Mail reported the University of Hawaii study which George quotes. I was initially amazed, wondering what on earth that paper’s readers would make of it. Then I remembered the denial spectrum (It’s not happening; it’s happening but it’s not us; it’s happening and it’s us, but it doesn’t matter; it’s happening, it’s us, it does matter, but it’s too late or too expensive to do anything about it). Although the study itself recommends emissions mitigation in the interest of adaptation, the Mail perhaps found the “Apocalypse” heading irresistable.

    The Climate Psychology Alliance seeks to widen understanding of obstacles to human engagement with the climate problem and was partly inspired by George’s thinking. Brian: I’d say that we’re mostly concerned with mitigation, but there are are several psychotherapists amongst us and one of our tasks is, indeed, to get this issue into therapy training. There are going to be a lot more scared and anxious people out there, as sure as night follows day. But if only the “Oh Shit” moment would happen soon enough to support real mitigation rather than guaranteeing jobs for us lot, in an ever uglier world.

  6. Vital study and an important analysis. Thank you so much for this. I had studied the data visualizations, they are suffused with information.

  7. Brian Orr says:

    Sorry Adrian – I think I’m going to do a lot of apologising if I’m going to be on this thread for very long – the mitigation pathway is all but closed off – by which I mean closed off for all practical purposes. To state it another way, we’ve left it too late.

    Now here’s a challenge for yourself and the CPA. Your first reaction to my assertion (which I firmly believe based on the scientific evidence – and I’m in good company) is to deny it? This puts you in the same frame of mind of many good people who have reacted to CC in the same way.

    Savour it! This is a good opportunity for you to really feel like the many, basically well-intentioned deniers.

    Now really try to contemplate the possibility that we have sentenced the human race to remorselessly increasing misery of which yesterday’s typhoon hitting the East coast of India offers but the latest foretaste of things to come.

    If you were at all successful you will have had a glimmer of what it will feel like for ordinary people as more and more of them begin to realise that we have indeed left it too late. This will happen soon enough as the scientific community slowly comes round to the drawing the inevitable conclusion from the evidence despite their reluctance to do so and their instinctive caution.

    Here is the issue that needs to be incorporated into CC therapy training.

    You could also give yourself insight into the process of coming out of denial. Start looking afresh at all the evidence on CC starting with the reported broad conclusions of the AR5 IPPC report and see how far you can go in accepting the really dire message that is lurking there. Or does something like our governments couldn’t be so stupid as to prevaricate until it was too late keep intervening in your thought processes?

    One way to put this last thought to bed is to look at the evidence and conclude that our governments have already left it too late.


  8. L Edwards says:

    I think the messaging needs to be more nuanced than “we are about to make a step change.” What it really is, is a milestone reached through incremental change. However, it is a tangible milestone, in comparison to 400 ppm or 2oC, and therein lies its power.

  9. I agree- step change is weak language, but there is something stronger in here concerning the idea of a total transformation- what Joanna Macey calls the Great Turning.
    400 ppmv or two degrees are intellectual abstractions, as, sadly, is 350 ppm, the intellectual basis of one of the few movements that gives
    me some hope.

  10. hugh says:

    My own theory to the causes of “climate change denial” is that it has not only to do with livelihood (ie if your livelihood is threatened by acknowledging a view that threatens that livelihood then you refuse to acknowledge it) but also with a view of the future as a Dystopia which is consistent with a lack of self- worth. So pervasive is the abuse & destructiveness concerning ocean-life, agricultural land & mountain top removal that a collective guilt shouts down any revelation about what is really taking place around us by the use of fossil fuels. Our collective livelihoods have become so utterly dependent on the comforts of autos and central heating that the easiest route is to disbelieve any research that threatens those comforts.

  11. Adam Corner says:

    Hi George,
    I’m not sure that the way the paper currently phrases the concept of 2047 being the point where a ‘new normality’ begins is the best way of expressing it BUT I do think that there is something important in reframing uncertainty about when something will happen (e.g., 80% chance of happening by 2050) to saying ‘this will DEFINITELY happen, the only question is when’ which is what the upper limit estimate of when the climate shift will occur is about. This transfers the uncertainty from being a question of ‘will it happen’ to ‘when will it happen’, which is an equally valid way of thinking about most climate impacts.

    Steve Lewandowsky and I are working on a study to see whether this would be a better way of expressing the uncertainty of climate impacts!

  12. Vivienne Simon says:

    A number of thoughts, fresh from reading this, so without the benefit of sitting with it and re-reading.

    I agree that the more concrete and honest the descriptions of what is happening and what is coming, the more direct and immediate people’s experience of reading or hearing the information.

    This is not something that may, or will happen in the future, it’s happened! This past summer, for the first time, rather than seeing climate extremes hit a number of places around the planet, we saw extreme occurences all over the planet. Rather than parts of the system going out of control, this time we saw the entire system engaged in a shift, as a system. It’s a done deal.

    It will never again be about “when” it’s going to happen. It’s now about how we respond and who makes those decisions.

    There has been vague references all along about when the “tipping point” will happen, ie, when the “new normal” will take over. This implies that there is only one tipping point, a single moment in time when the line of not return has been crossed.

    What’s happening can better be understand as a series of tipping points, and 2047 is one of them. It has a very particular time frame and activity associated with it that be described. There are others, and they can also be both predicted and measured: melting of ice caps and sea level rise; acidification of oceans and death of fisheries and reefs; weather system feedback loops that permanently change weather patterns; radioactive poisoning of our world as the poisoned waters work there way into our water tables, etc.

    I think it would be useful to speak about these separately, in the same way that 2047 is described, the ones that are happening the soonest having the greatest capacity to open people’s eyes to the reality we are facing.

    I think there will be tremendous mental health repercussions as chaos hits more and more people personally. You only need look at new orleans to see the legacy still facing those from the destroyed and displaced communities.

    We are in the new normal and I think it would be helpful to point that out in as many ways as possible as a present reality, not something that is coming. What’s coming will simply be a more frightening scenario, as more and more tipping points are crossed.

    My greatest hope lies in the strength and creativity of local communities that are increasingly taking action around energy, food, transportation, etc., and the people doing work on the local level around the globe creating and dissemination low-tech solutions. If there is any good coming out of the multinational discussions, it’s pitifully inadequate.

    Thanks for posting this George, and to all for the thoughtful comments. Looking forward to your book!

  13. Adrian Tait says:

    Brian – perhaps my post wasn’t clear, but I can’t see how it led you to see me as involved in denial. When not involved in organising meetings to give a platform to top quality speakers and activists like George and for climate scientists to engage with others on the problems of climate communication, I’m involved with the Transition movement in Somerset (in an area badly affected by flooding by the way)…developing responses along the lines advocated by Vivienne.

  14. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Very illuminating article.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  15. Dr Bob Rich says:

    George, the trouble with deniers is more subtle and deeper than what this kind of analysis can address. In order to be able to deny the obvious, they need to be able to dismiss the basis for the evidence.

    This projection is based on climate science. If deniers were open to a rational examination of climate science, they would not be deniers.

    So, this is part of what I call Sumo wrestling: forcing the evidence on them. The evidence is organised somewhat differently, but it’s the same stuff.

    Instead, we need a judo approach. Move their opinion without directly challenging their irrationality. Of course, this needs to be done ethically.

    I have organised a webinar on how to do this.


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