Climate Change Denial

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August 22, 2006


George Marshall @ 8:02 pm

This is not a facetious question or skeptic propaganda. I would never dispute that the scientific community is in full agreement that climate change is real, human induced, and significant.

However, ‘believe’ is a powerful and specific word. When we talk of the things we ‘believe’ in we give them a value and an emotional context. We know many things, but it is our beliefs that provide a frame for our decisions and direct our behaviour.

So, to come back to the question- do scientists really believe in climate change? My observation is that many do not. In the course of my work (I am a director of a climate change charity) I often attend scientific briefings and have met many professional climate scientists and have noted the following consistent traits of scientific presentations:

It’s serious, but don’t panic. Gavin Schmidt has written a long review for the excellent Real Climate site on the IPPR report I reviewed in the last posting Schmidt argues that the IPPR authors missed a “huge missing category” of denial, the ‘it’s serious (and interesting) but don’t panic’ repertoire which, he says, ‘is the language most often heard at scientific conferences’.

Schmidt cites as an example a letter to the Independent from Dr Thomas Crowley from the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University, North Carolina. Dr Crowley calls on environmentalists to stop ‘castigating others and raising wild alarms’ and ‘sit down at the negotiating table with industry and conservative politicians and do some good old-fashioned “horse trading”.

The role for scientists is informing the debate. Back in 2000 my friend and colleague Mark Lynas asked a simple but highly relevant question at a public meeting addressed by Professor Mike Hulme, the head of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. “If, as you have argued, the Amazon may burn down adding a further *degrees (I can’t remember actual figure)to global climate, that’s curtains for all of us, isn’t it?” This is exactly the kind of question one is never supposed to ask, and Hulme responded energetically to deflate it. “I do not think it is appropriate or useful for us to bang our drum about this- we need to use this information to generate a dialogue about our future options”. He didn’t answer the question because, dialogue or no dialogue, Mark was right. It is curtains, and scientists are remarkably unwilling to ever say this even when the conclusion could be solidly supported by their own data.

Reluctance to draw out actual human impacts. I recently attended a public presentation by a leading scientist about sea level rise. He was a good speaker and became extremely exercised about the variables- the differences between models and the uncertainties concerning the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. But he was not prepared to talk at all about what these sea level rises actually mean- the loss of most of Bangladesh, Egypt, Florida, the Netherlands and most major cities- or any of the social and political schisms that would result from these impacts. His emotional engagement was with the model. I find this abstraction of the issue is extremely common in scientific presentations.

There are many uncertainties. How many times have I heard scientists say this? Scientists are quite right to be very wary of drawing firm conclusions from uncertain models. However, even as those models have become more and more reliable, and the actual evidence of climate change has become ever stronger, scientists continue to undermine their work by their abiding reluctance to speak with confidence. This has been a gift to professional contrarians who denounce the facts on the media with absolute and persuasive certainty.

I am not qualified to comment. A friend of mine- a social scientist by training- was working in the offices of the British Antarctic Survey and noticed that scientists made no attempt to put together their different and very specialised areas of research to form a single picture. She believes that this is a deliberate psychological strategy. By looking at only one small part of the problem, scientists can avoid facing the overall catastrophic conclusions and can hide behind their specialism.

I believe that many scientists adopt elaborate denial strategies to protect themselves from the extreme seriousness of climate change. They intellectualise the issue and deliberately avoid facing its implications. They define emotional engagement as ‘political’ and irresponsible and castigate those, fellow scientists included, who express fear or despair, or seek to communicate the real urgency to the general public.

Finally, scientists are prone to leave climate change at work and live like everyone else the rest of the time. Whenever I have the chance I ask climate scientists if they still fly for their holidays. Most are surprised that I even ask the question. One admitted to me in the pub after a heated public meeting that he flies three times a year to the Alps and even south America for skiing holidays. He said that his job was very hard and stressful and that he needs the break.

In anticipation of the potential response of scientists I want to say this. Climate change is no ordinary problem. Your own work makes it abundantly clear that it threatens our survival. Under the circumstances it is vital that you clearly and honestly communicate the threat- indeed it is ethically irresponsible for you not to do so. It is entirely appropriate for you to express concern, anger and fear to your colleagues and the general public.

And to those scientists who are already doing this- I take off my hat to you. We desperately need your knowledge and guidance.

[Postcript  9th November 2006. There was an amazingly vitriolic correspondance following this posting from people involved in the scientific institutions I mentioned. Sadly, because this was not directed to the site I don’t think that I can share it. What I can share is an article by Mike Hulme published today on the BBC website

In it Professor Hulme refers to this blog when he says ‘I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric’. There is some personal stuff here.

However the article also supports many of the concerns I raised in the posting. Hulme criticises the use of the terms ‘catastrophic’, “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid”, tipping point, and irreversible in connection with climate change. He argues that ‘the language of catastrophe is not the language of science’ and that it ‘hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science’.

However, even as a non scientist, it is clear to  me that this is not true. Of course we could argue the toss about what exactly constitutes a ‘catastrophe’ but it seems to me that its dictionary meaning (an event of extraordinary magnitude and misfortune) is perfectly applied and is very well supported by the science, and, as the Stern review established, the economics too. Hulme is not tolerant of catastrophism even when coming from his peers who he accuses of ‘ softening -up the G8 Gleneagles summit through a frenzied week of “climate change is worse than we thought” news reporting and group-think.’

As I tried to argue in the article, the separation of the scientific data from the moral and emotional response to the impacts is a form of dissonance. Read his article and see what you think]

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  1. Naveed says:

    Excellent analysis. It reminds me of the scientists who worked on the A-bomb. I got the impression most of them also saw it as an intellectual exercise and regreted it only after it was too late and the bomb was used on Japan!

    I have much respect for scientists, but I think sometimes people forget that scientists are scientists – they’re not politicians, cult gurus or bussinessmen (well usually). And in my humble opinion (being a PhD student) the majority are shy introvert who only speak at conferences cause they’re forced into for funding and networking reasons. And they chose to do science because they didn’t like politics or those other subjects on offer!

    But a very good analysis on the subject.

  2. Mike Sparrow says:

    Thanks for raising an important issue. Fairly recently I was astounded to hear an Australian colleague say that he thought physical climate scientists shouldn’t have an opinion on the Kyoto protocol or any future mitigation measures because our role was to inform the decision makers (i.e. the politicians)…

    Now as a climate scientist I do believe that we have a duty to provide information that is balanced and based on the consensus of many different experts working in the field. This does of course make us a rather over-cautious breed but it does mean that one can put a good deal of reliance on the outcomes e.g. the IPCC reports.

    But (and this is a BIG but) as a human being I cannot ignore the big picture nor the scale of the problem. As a human being I think it my right to do my utmost to make sure that politicians and others understand the seriousness of the problem (e.g. by working with Friends of the Earth to try to get the Climate Change Bill passed and talking to the public about the problem).

  3. Henry Spong says:

    Spot on again George

    I recall interviewing a scientist who was at the forefront of an excting development to limit CO2 usage in the UK. He was animated about the potential for the idea, the urgency of its need and its efficacy. But then I asked him aout how he ‘felt’ about the CC issue and he almost shrugged as if he’d not thought about it. I followed up by asking about the atmosphere in the staff room of his [leading CC research] department and again he almost wondered why I’d asked and denied any all pervading sense of doom/urgency.

    But yes – the need for dispassionately presented data is vital too [as a scientist colleague has just reminded me] but as Mike says you’re human beings too! A bit more shouting from the rooftops wouldn’t go amiss.

  4. John Monro says:

    I am placing these comments here at George’s request, I originally wrote them for the medialens site, where George’s article was posted. Thanks for the invite, George, your article was thought provoking, because, whilst I have a great interest in the global warming issue, I do not move in the scientific circles where the subject is being discussed or researched. Your observations about how even those who have the most intimate knowledge about global warming can apparently still divorce themselves from the reality of it, is intriguing, but perhaps not surprising. It is a fundamental tenet of human existence that the human mind is able to hold at least two completely contrary thoughts at one and the same time, and in addition formulate some very persuasive arguments as to why each is correct!!

    I found myself a bit confused by this article at the start. It doesn’t help that the meaning of the second sentence, which actually sets the theme of the article, is not clear, when he writes “I would never argue that the scientific community agrees that climate change is real, human induced, and dangerous”, perhaps he does mean “dispute” rather than “argue” as suggested by DC, but in the next paragraph he asks “do scientists really believe in climate change? My observation is that many do not”, which would directly contradict this second sentence if dispute is really the intended meaning.

    George Marshall then goes on to differentiate between “belief” and “knowledge”, and he points out that “belief” may imply an emotional or non-provable assertion, such as belief in God. It is not a scientific term. Yet one can use the word belief in a more general sense to imply something that is generally accepted, such as the law of gravity for instance. So a generally accepted belief among climate scientists that global warming is happening, is likely to cause trouble and needs dealing with is, I would contend, an acceptable way of putting it. Others call it a consensus.

    George Marshall gives a reference to the realclimate site, and a discussion about the missing denialist viewpoint “it’s serious, but don’t panic”. (By the way, anybody in the least bit interested in global warming, should make realclimate a regular feature of their web-browsing).

    However, I would contend that this is not a very useful discussion, as it is never helpful to panic in any situation. We definitely shouldn’t panic. Didn’t the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have imprinted on the front in big bold letters “DON’T PANIC”. If one was to assert that global warming is serious, but we’ve got plenty of time to deal with it, or it’s serious, but don’t make it an urgent priority, then this certainly would be wrong, but that’s not quite the same as panic. And yet in some ways we are already panicking, the inability of our leadership to frame a coherent debate and policy over this matter is a sort of panic, the result of a knee-jerk and entirely inadequately thought-out reaction to the problem.

    What we should be saying is something like this. “Global Warming is real, it is serious, it will profoundly affect the only planet that we have to live on, it is the single biggest problem facing mankind, and as such is the single biggest issue that should be receiving humanity’s attention – anthing less than this is not acceptable.”

    George Marshall’s chides scientists for not saying this. But of course it isn’t just scientists, it’s politicians, business people, car lovers, the general population, and even people like me, very concerned about global warming, yet I still drive a car,and I’m planning a holiday to Europe next year.

    In fact, it is probably the least fair to chide scientists, because their profession is based on telling what they know and what they can prove. We, the public, pay scientists billions of dollars every year to find out the “truth” about so many things, including global warming. 95% of the time, the truth about so many matters is not contentious, not because it is any more accurate or better researched, the knowledge about global warming is now incontrovertable, but because it has no direct bearing on our way of life.

    Research the physics of planetary nebulae or the effect of gravity on the taxins in plants, continue the search for the Higg’s boson or the forest habitats of the Powelliphanta, publish the results, and who gives a damn. But find unarguable evidence for humanity’s dire effects on the planet we live on, which requires people to actually THINK AND ACT, and you are causing grave offense.

    Global Warming = our responsibilty = no one else to blame = no one else can do anything about it = it will cost us time and effort = deny the problem exists = or deny the problem is bad = or deny we can afford to deal with it = or deny even if we could, it’s too late = DENY THE PROBLEM = make sure everyone else denies the problem.

    However, I am not sure exactly where the ethical responsiblities of scientists lies. I am tempted to agree with George here; in fact, when I first found the realclimate internet site a few months after it started, I sent them an impassioned plea to treat the global warming problem as a personal ethical issue, exactly what George is also asking.

    I got a personal e-mail back from one of the founders of the site, which was thoughtful of them, saying that they had set up their site deliberately not to do this, they desperately needed to have their opinions seen as those of dispassionate, professional scientists, doing the job for which we pay them. They felt that there were plenty of other outlets for a more personal approach or for activism. They wanted realclimate to reflect genuine scientific debate and not the more complicated issues arising from this debate. ( I have a copy of this e-mail on another computer, I will post it later, with their permission)

    I respect this view. A trained scientist is anxious not to step outside the bounds of their expertise, they leave that, as we all do, to politicians and economists. And it is true that much of the misinformation in regard to global warming, so readily pounced on by global warming deniers, comes from scientists who have done just that, stepped out of their area of expertise. Many reading this will be able to think of a few names.

    However at the end of the day, all of us, and this includes the most cloistered scientist, have an ethical duty to our community and our descendents and we most definitely cannot, as George Marshall puts it, forego these reponsiblities by hiding behind elaborate denial strategies.

    There are some things that concerned scientists can be part of.

    1) The IPCC needs to produce yearly reviews, their major reports are too far apart. The IPCC needs to counter anti-global warming arguments deftly, before they gain traction and acceptance, if those arguments are incorrect, and they all are, so far. It needs to point scientists to areas of contention or concern that haven’t been adequately adressed so these can be dealt with during the interim between major reports.

    2) The UN needs to convene a permanent panel of scientists, engineers and economists, who will liase closely with the IPCC, that can advise, on the basis of present evidence, governments, organisations etc .

    how much money is global warming likely to cost us,and how does that compare with the “cost” of dealing with it.

    what planning regulations do states need to employ to reduce their demands for energy or to stop building on vulnerable property, like coastline.

    what states need to do to making the problem worse, eg no more coal fired power stations

    What renewable resources are available in each state

    lobby car makers to markedly improve their performance and states to alter tax structures to encourage the use of fuel efficient vehicles etc.

    act as port of call for interested parties to get independent advice.

    To rank nations according to their efforts in dealing with global warming

    How to mitigate the changes that are already unavoidable, eg water shortages, flooding, soil erosion etc.

    To propose solutions to energy requirements for each nation, taking into account their populations and geography

    To fund research into economic and technical resources to help in the amelioration and adaptation to climate change

    To suggest and design political and economic structures that states can set up or incorporate to help them deal with the problem.

    …….and a host of other matters that you can think of and I haven’t place to put.

    3) Act ethically as their own conscience dictates. Join local groups, appear at meetings, lecture, inform, help others who are trying to deal with this matter, join their local Green Party, rubbish the politicians and business elite who continue to deny the problem etc.

    We are indeed all in this together. It’s been my thought for some years that sending all our political and business leaders for a few weeks sojourn on the Moon, would provide them with a much needed perspective on the criticality of this issue to our continued comfortable existence on this planet. (Of course, leaving them on the moon might be even more desirable, and would certainly be a lot cheaper.) It is this lack of perspective that is so astounding, bizarre really; that there are so many people in the world, and particularly those in a position of responsibility, who cannot understand that there is no set of scales in existence, or that can be devised, that can simultaneously weigh the health of our planet against any other consideration, but especially that of our comfort and convenience. It is a perverse perspective of truly galactic proportion, and millions, possibly billions, will die if it remains uncorrected .

  5. Peter Gingold says:

    A good therapist dealing with patients in denial does not point fingers or make accusations; she does not say ‘you are in denial’. She comes up with empathetic questions that help patients work it through or realise it for themselves. Posing these questions is hard.

    The standard scientific toolkit does not include tools for dealing with findings with ethical or political implications – it stops at publishing the results and hoping that a ‘policy-maker’ does something. My casual review of the categories of next step that some scientists have found it necessary to take includes (a) setting up a new mechanism, such as the Pugwash conference to reflect concern about nuclear weapons, and (b) finding a popular voice, as has Tim Flannery. But this is all difficult territory, with mixed results. It is also profoundly personal; not everyone has the emotional or visceral repertoire to call on, or the gifts to make their popular communications effective. And if they lack the motivation, is telling them that they ought to do it likely to have much effect?

    There is no doubt that the unmediated concern of a respected authority is a very powerful tool, more so than that of the activist or campaigner; an obvious example is the Attenborough out-of-the-climate-closet TV programmes. But frustration or even anger that scientists are not exercising the power that they could does not really get us very far. They need help in finding this voice, not adversarial criticism.

    [George replies:
    Reading your comment- which I agree with- makes me think that the tenor of my piece was wrong. It is true that I am frustrated that scientists do not speak out more, and raised that, but what I was really trying to do was identify the various strategies that I observe that scientists use to distance themselves from the awfulness of climate change. Althought such denial mechanisms are a very human response, they become disguised as impartiality and objectivity. It is true that a good therapist does not confront a patient with their denial, but this was not a piece aimed at a predominantly scientific audience. Surely bringing something into the open is also an important stage in change?]

    There is nothing special about scientists in this regard and in a couple of weeks I intend to post an item “do environmentalists really believe in climate change ” in which I will extend the analysis to environmental colleagues and include myself. Maybe I should have done this one first, but I was prompted by the item in realclimate ] 


  6. Jim Scott says:

    Are there any good studies into the psychological make-up of scientists? – for each one of your observations, George, raise questions about that. There is no reason that I can see why scientists should be any freer from denial than anyone else. In fact they may be more prone to it, from being taught that their role should be, and so automatically ‘is’ neutral and objective, and therefore does not need to be questioned. For the same reason I suspect that many people who are not in touch with their feelings are attracted to becoming scientists.

    In my limited experience, from trying to do inter-disciplinary work on housing design, as an architect, working with social scientists – they could not be moved from ‘objective’ studies of residents’ satisfaction, rather than producing imaginative ways of testing the social impacts of design proposals. (Architects also lack the scientific discipline to frame their proposals as hypotheses to be tested scientifically and the confidence to demand the imaginitive tests that they could require of social scientists). When Wright Mills produced his book ‘Sociological Imagination’ in 1959!!!, I was amazed to learn that sociology could be imaginative.

  7. Walt says:

    RE: that’s curtains for all of us, isn’t it?
    Well, you said it yourself, “This is exactly the kind of question one is never supposed to ask.”

    Scientists — at least in the West — are only doing what is demanded of them socially along with everyone else. In the corporate and academic world you cannot express negative ideas with any conviction. You cannot say there is no God, you’ll become an outcast. A Weirdo. A Nutcake. And NOBODY wants that. You have been “socialized” or, as I prefer to say, “domesticated.” Like a farm animal.

    No newspaper would run a headline “Stock Crash Eminent” that would cause a panic, wouldn’t it? So newspapers talk about “possibilities” of “corrections” and bury it all in dull articles on the Business pages. No, a newspaper’s main focus is not on informing the public, the main focus is to keep the public docile, confused and lobotomized for their advertizers, so they can consume gleefully without asking pesky questions.

    And it works. It works so well that Y2K incompatible computers were still on the shelves in the US for sale in June 1999.

    I blame hierarchy — as opposed to working cooperatively — something that virtually nobody in the West agrees with. I could bore the list with 20 pages of arguments against organizing in hierarchies, but why bother. You either see it or you don’t. If I had a thousand pages it would not be enough for the pro-hierarchist because their belief in hierarchy is founded on self-interest, not logical debate.

    But hierarchy seems to be on the winning track because they have what no other organization has: a total lack of moral and ethical understanding — they put their psychopathic personalities, or PPs, in the drivers’ seat. And they have a winning strategy: they kill off the competition. It works, at least in the short term.
    SEE: Custodians of chaos By Kurt Vonnegut RE: PPs

    Hierarchy is poised to dominate the globe, and like climate change, you will not hear dire warnings because dire warnings are taboo.

    I bailed out of academia in 1976 and have enjoyed academic freedom ever since. So I can say things that virtually nobody in the West agrees with — at least it’s better than saying things that I myself don’t agree with. So I don’t have any problem with fatalistic notions (so long as they don’t become self-fulfilling prophecies; excuses to do nothing) and that’s mainly why I posted the article “Peak Oil & Black Holes” to the list; over the years of looking for solutions, what I have been finding instead is piles of evidence that humanity is either designed to self-destruct, or has become so flawed that self-destruction is unavoidable. I simply cannot see a way to turn humanity around. It seems to me like trying to change the tides with a teacup.

  8. Tricia Allen says:

    I remember asking myself the same question 10 years ago when I was working for FOE as a climate campaigner. In the space of 6 months in the job, I had attended enough conferences and read enough literature to piece together a terrifying ‘red thread’ of information about climate change, the punchline of which was a statement from the IPCC that we would need to reduce our CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by * at least 80%* by 2050 if we were to stand a cat-in-hell’s chance of survival (I paraphrase, of course, but you get my gist).

    That figure was startling – that was the alarm bell that seemed to me like a logical starting-point for political decision-making. Demonstrate an eco-limit and set policy according to it – simple huh?! Needless to say, international political negotiations didn’t follow suit as I naively expected them to back then.

    But I’ve never personally understood how the vast majority of scientists, who issued these figures in the first place, could not end up motivated, enraged, panicked and driven to ensure their warnings were properly heeded by anyone who had the influence to make enough of a difference. I still don’t really understand, even though I’ve met some of these scientists along the way, and they don’t seem psychologically deranged, and seemed to have no trouble sleeping… So thanks for going some way towards answering a question I’ve never heard properly discussed. Perhaps some of your answers indicate an interesting direction for some novel campaign strategies?

  9. Thinking of George Marshall’s piece in a recent ‘Big Issue’, I have to say I agree only in part about incentives for change – including shifting deniers. My experience of moral philosophy, sociology, and the like suggests to me that the big stick really does have its place. In this case I would plump for the biggest stick of all – talking about mass extinction; starving to death because your food supply can’t be maintained and so forth. Roger Scruton liked to point out that death is not necessarily the bottom line as we may die for our loved ones or a cause we believe in. But death on that scale even wipes out anything you can die FOR, or any memory you may wish to leave behind.
    As for scientists themselves, I would like to hear more of what people like Richard Lindzen who swears he is not funded by the oil industry (although he admits to US government funding) actually say in support of their doubts. What is their evidence if any? Clearly combating climate change denial must include answering the arguments which deniers put forward.

  10. Stephen Thomas Howe says:

    I came into this thread late. But I find myself in near-complete agreement with the tenor – and specifics – or Mr. Marshall’s scold to classic ‘ivory tower’ science.

    The integrity of one’s scientific method is critical, but most scientists, and climatologists especially, need to realize that informing the debate and the decision-makers is indeed important…but informing the public is much more critical. And alarming results justify alarming rhetoric.

    As a journalist, I share much of the criticism directed toward the popular press. But ‘intellectuals’ need to shed the priesthood language of pseudo-intellectuality, and learn to distill their research points for the public as efficiently as they distill an abstract up front on their research papers.

    As biologists and ecologists know, change is inevitable, it is the SPEED of climatic change, and the lack of elbow room for ecosystem shifts, that is a very, very pressing and immediate problem for mankind.

    To cloak inaction in linguistic obtuseness and ‘scientific’ detachment isn’t just irresponsible and immoral, it’s not true science. It’s the difference between a true scientific community, and a priesthood.

  11. plover says:

    There are scientist willing to put their reputations on the line and their heads above the parapet. In Australia Professor Barry Brook, Chair of Climate Change at Adelaide University is one such brave soul. I think the bloggers on this site would do well to visit the Prof’s blog – it has many interesting and provocative posts and also a series of 6 lectures about climate change and also addresses the sceptics myths. You can download the podcasts and the PDF powerpoint presentations. Incidently he is much loathed by the deniers and the right wing media commentators in Australia.

  12. depressed climate scientist says:

    I’m doing research about what would encourage or enable people to cut their carbon footprints, at a UK university. I teach students and I also occasionally give talks to the ‘general public’ about climate change, and I always seem to end up having conversations about climate change at any social event I’m at, whether a bell ringing practice, a singing course, or a Christmas party. I would count myself very broadly in among the ‘climate scientists’ being talked about here – well, as a social scientist. I haven’t flown for years, don’t drive, etc etc. My research is not just a ‘head’ thing, it’s a gut and heart thing for me, and I often wonder how come it only seems to be a ‘head’ thing for many colleagues. I believe we should be bringing feelings into the issue. So I’m probably not very much one of the people you’re talking about here, and agree with a lot of what you say, George. *However*, I want to put another point of view on a couple of things.
    Firstly, the Prof Hulme response to Mark Lynas’ question at a public lecture. Yes, if Hulme was to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, he should answer the question directly and just say “yes, curtains for us in that scenario”. But despite the fact that I think this, if I was in the same situation myself, I might well make the same kind of response as Hulme. Why? Because fear and anger are not good motivators over the long-term. Because I’d be giving the lecture not just to convince people of the truth of the situation we face, but in the hope of encouraging them to do something about it. And saying “yes, good chance of curtains” wouldn’t do that, I don’t believe. I wouldn’t lie, but I think it’s quite sensible to divert and say, in effect, “let’s not go down that road, let’s instead use this info to think about about what we’re going to do”. People love watching disaster movies, but present them with real-life disaster threats that seem huge and that they *cannot* control, let alone solve, in any way at all on their own, and they will avoid the issue next time it’s around. Why would a scientist who cares about the truth do something that is likely to lead people into avoidance? So I suggest that sometimes, the truth and nothing but the truth – but *not* the *whole* truth, is what’s necessary. I hate to say this because it sounds all wrong and appears to go against other beliefs/values I hold, but there it is. I would have then hoped for chance to speak to Mark Lynas afterwards to explain my evasion.
    Secondly, the issue of why scientists detach and don’t speak of their fears, and why there isn’t a pervasive air of doom and gloom in the coffee room, as one respondant asked. I think about climate change almost every day. I worry about it most days. I feel despairing about it quite a lot of the time, and every so often I think seriously about taking my own life at some point in the future when climate change has made the world too shit a place to be worth struggling on in. Seriously. Sometimes I even think about taking my own life in the near future because worry about it all means that even now my world is too shit a place to live in – and then I think about doing it in Downing Street and sending my suicide note to be published, laying the blame on everyone who won’t take the whole damn thing seriously. Now, is that really a good way to be? Does it help anything? Would it be useful of me to encourage my colleagues to be more like me? If they cut their carbon footprints down to mine, that would be good, but I wouldn’t want anyone to feel as depressed about it as I sometimes do. So I’m quite deliberately trying to detach somewhat. I’m glad I don’t have to drink my tea through a miasma of gloom. Today I turned down a request to facilitate a discussion at which people would be dealing with their feelings about climate change – I’m just overburdened with it. If someone were to press me in private conversation about how I feel, I might well say “if I were a betting person I’d bet we won’t solve this problem and within my lifetime I’m going to have to witness unimaginable suffering as a result, that possibly within my lifetime, and very likely in the lifetime of any children I might have, the world won’t be worth living in, therefore that’s one reason I don’t have children, and worst of all, that I will have to live through it knowing that I have been part of causing that suffering, so yeah, I feel a bit sad”, so then you’d have your feeling scientist – but what good would it do? Particularly in a public lecture? So my question is, how could I carry on if I was in touch with these feelings all the time? The detachment mechanism will perhaps ensure our collective downfall if it causes us not to deal with the problem in time. But it exists to ensure our individual survival – detach and avoid suicide.

  13. Josie says:

    George, I am aware that this thread is very old and this blog in general appears to be dead now.

    …But I stumbled upon this article via Google and was deeply startled by the figure you give. The Amazon burning would add 3 degrees of warming? I wasn’t at the lecture and I don’t know what Mike Hulme said (An aside: I’m not much of a fan of Hulme and I don’t think it is a good idea to take him as representative of ‘climate scientists’).

    However, I looked for papers on this, and as far as I can tell you are out by an order of magnitude. I found 0.3 degrees.

    Here is a quote: “The trees of the Amazon contain 90-140 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 9 to 14 years of current global, annual, human induced carbon emissions”

    –that clearly isn’t 3 degrees of warming!

    I have now chased up about 20 different ‘doomsday’ things like this, and they all turn out to be bad things that I would far rather didn’t happen (who wants to lose the Amazon?) but not obvious doomsday scenarios. I cannot see how you can get ‘curtains’ out of any of them without extrapolating hugely beyond the evidence and/ or talking about extremely low probability events.

    I absolutely support action on climate change. But I can’t the Armageddon narrative from any of the science, and neither am I convinced that it is particularly helpful.

    If I’m wrong please do point me at what I am missing; I am not an expert, only a layman who has done some reading.

    [George writes Dear Josie- you are absolutely right. I was reporting from memory and do not remember the entire context for the figure. I have changed the piece to reflect that.]

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