Climate Change Denial

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October 30, 2006


George Marshall @ 11:48 pm

The Stern report released today provides yet further proof that information alone cannot create belief in the threats of climate change.

The Stern Review is about as pukka as any report can be: written by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist to the World Bank, commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, advised the former Vice President of the United States, launched at the Royal Society by the Prime Minister etc.

Stern avoids any of that soppy liberal stuff about people and human rights- his appeal is to the interests of the conservative financial elite. The review spells out the catastrophic impacts as trillions of dollars loss, negative growth and undermined investment interests. It recommends a vast new speculative commodity market in carbon as the best solution. Maybe the less said about that the better.

Reading the papers today is an object lesson in climate denial. Large articles, typically spread across two pages, present government endorsed predictions of the imminent collapse of the global economy. This is without precedent during my lifetime so I will say it again…government endorsed predictions of the imminent collapse of the global economy.

But there is not a word about any of it on the business pages where the lead story is that Qantas has put in an order for eight new airbus A380 super jets to add to the thirteen it has already bought. Good news for Airbus, we are told.

Other news today? 20 police forces oppose lower speed limits on A and B roads. Mercedes Benz World has just opened at Brooklands race track – a temple to combustion containing a car museum, interactive displays and race track simulators. The first low cost long haul airline has just been launched offering non-stop flights from Gatwick to Hong Kong for a laughable £75 one way.

Despite high profile coverage for the Stern report, the editorial in the Telegraph reminds us that ‘some scientists maintain that climate change is due chiefly to the cyclical warming of the sun’ and generously adds that ‘given the stakes we ought to err on the side of caution’. It then goes on to argue that the Kyoto protocol exists to serve a left wing agenda and that we could eliminate malaria for a fraction of what we are being asked to spend on compliance.

The Daily Mail rants about green stealth taxes. It gives resident Queen of Denial, Melanie Phillips, a whole page to recycle the tired lies of professional contrarians.

The Times is one of the few newspapers not to mention the Stern Report on its front cover- presumably because it had to make room for a huge banner offering ‘a flight to Europe for every reader. Start collecting your airmiles today!’ Inside it has a special business travel supplement that tells us that air travel is at a five year high, that flying around the world for 60-70 hours on a single airline is now possible, and that Easijet is on the shortlist of the Times Best of European Business awards for ‘opening up Europe to travelers’.

The liberal media indulges in its speciality combination of hand wringing and lifestyle indulgence. The Guardian gives over three pages to pictures of cracked earth and starving Africans. The supplement – no irony intended- is called ‘20 Works of Art to See before you Die’. ‘If you want truly to appreciate a work of art there is no substitute to seeing it in person’ it says. Pollock and Rembrandt in New York, rock art in South Africa, Rothko in Texas, Paris, St Petersburg, Rome, etc. Flying is fine in the interests of art. Fly now die later.

And so on. And so on. I have often heard a naïve argument that things will change when the richest and most powerful individuals and corporations are shown of the threat to their own interests. But people will not believe that they do not want to believe, whoever they are.

[as a postcript, after loading this up, I caught the Newsnight special on the Stern Report. On the panel was Nigel Lawson, former City Editor of the Daily Telegraph, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Energy,Chancellor of the Exchequer, President of the British Institute of Energy Economics, and current Chairman of the Central Europe Trust. In the face of the meticulous arguments of the Stern Report he was adamant that climate change is stil unproven, that most scientists are unconvinced and that any changes are the result of natural variation. It was a staggering performance of faith over reality proving the remarkable energy that powerful and strong willed people will put into denying facts that challenge their world view, however they are posited].

[Another postscript. The next day, when most of the newspapers had given up on the Stern story, the Independent dedicated most of its issue to a full report and summary-the cover (with a picture of a burning sun) followed by nine pages.

There was just enough space left for its motoring supplement which gives glowing reviews to three of the most inefficient and ludicrously overpowered cars ever built:

The 3.2 litre Land Rover Freelander four wheel drive
The 6.12 litre Mercedes Benz Rocket, which can reach 125 mph in 10 seconds and has a top speed of 225 mph
The 6 litre Bentley GTC convertible with a top speed of 195 mph

The Independent is aware of this disconnection so, whilst drooling over the torque, it makes coy references to climate change: ‘the waiting list will give you time to fight your conscience over the CO2 emissions’; ‘we’re not fans of SUVs on this newspaper but if you must buy one…’, and says that ‘you can even salve your conscience’ because £80 of the cost of the Land Rover goes to an offset company.

The issue is not that a newspaper actively promotes the glamour of high carbon living- its job is to sell papers after all. Surely the real dissonance is on the part of the readers, many of whom are clearly confused about where their loyalties really lie].

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10 responses to “STERN BUT NOT SHAKEN”

  1. Mark Ritzenhein says:

    In all seriousness, and with hope of no ranting replies, I would like to ask whether all the speculation as to impending ecological doom is overblown or unwarranted. I am most assuredly NOT a contrarian, but rather hold to the deepest despair on the matter of global warming and its consequences. However, I am also subscribed to another blog run on a strictly scientific basis (which I do not actively participate in because I am not a climate scientist, nor a scientist of any kind), and the statements and inquires are specific, small in vision, and full of the hesitant observations which honest science demands. This, along with a recently read statement about CO2 levels being incredibly higher at a certain point(s) in the Earth’s history has led me to doubt my own certainty on this matter. I start from a position far-gloomier than one usually reads anywhere else, because my amateur conclusions kept leaving me short of the seriousness of the latest scientific observations. Thus, instead of leaving room for hope with a 2100 AD deadline I’m left with one much closer to our own time, with no hope of overcoming it–circa 2020.
    So, I would be interested in some replies–no harangues or rants, please. What is the worst that could happen–a humid tropical globe, or a desertified globe? If the planet becomes warmer and wetter, then human beings will continue, if the opposite, we will spiral into total self-destruction, taking everything else with us.

  2. Bernd Eggen says:

    I think climate change is one of the topics that, if taken seriously by any individual or group of people, is all-encompassing and has implications on almost every aspect of one’s life. I am not surprised how successful the media and industry etc are in denial or schizoid behaviour. To take in the whole picture may simply be too much for most of us.

    Personally I tend to think along the lines of Thomas S Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions): Kuhn quotes Max Planck’s observation (p. 151) that sometimes “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    Unfortunately, with climate change, we may not have the time to wait for all the denialers (denialists ?) to evaporate, so we may need something like a revolution.

    While I think in the UK and most of Europe we now have some sort of awareness / concern (even if there is still a lot of denial), it’s an altogether different story in emerging economies (I’m thinking of China and India), and I belive a lot more effort needs to go into convincing billions of consumers there (especially the young generation) that drastic shifts in living patterns are required – and who are we to tell them ?

    Still trying to be optimistic (:-)

  3. John L. McCormick says:

    Mark, you asked [What is the worst that could happen–a humid tropical globe, or a decertified globe?]

    I am not a climate scientist but am an avid reader and student of climate change.

    A warming earth means warming oceans, which, in turn, mean greater evaporation and cloud formation. Clouds rain out when climatic conditions are right: dew point, cold front. Where the rain falls is a geographic matter and we can be certain that deserts are expanding so the rain is not falling there.

    I does seem to be falling in the North American mountains less as snow and more as drenching rain. The consequences there are obvious; diminished stream flow and less stored water from reduced snow melt. About 50 million people rely on the waters of the American Colorado River and less snow and early rains spell hardships for farmers and cities.

    Warmer atmosphere means warmer air flowing over mountain glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas. Those glaciers provide melt water to rivers that provide water to farmers and cities in Peru, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir, China.

    Warmer air and oceans are melting the Arctic ice cap more rapidly and extensively than ever witnessed or projected.

    Forest clearing and warmer atmosphere are turning areas of the Amazon rainforest into barren land. Could desertification of the Amazon occur before 2050? Possible.

    Do these examples of some consequences a warming earth represent the worst of what could happen?

    To me, they are a part of a steady progression towards an unpeeling of the ecological systems on which humans and critters survive. And, warming begets more worming via positive feedbacks; permafrost and tundra melting.

    I see the worst case in every example of the impact on our planet of climate change. I see millions of paper cuts happening to us and our children in the future…none being serious enough to bring an end to our civilized life…collectively they have that capability.

    I am where you appear to be Mark. Now, I think more about the kinds of serious adaptation measures that will have to be put into place soon in order to give our children fighting chance to survive the chaos we are bringing to them.

  4. Almuth Ernsting says:

    Reply to Mark:

    What is the worst that could happen? I recommend that you look at a recent discussion between a number of climate scientists:
    I suggest you particularly read what Andrew Watson has to say about the possibility of a runnaway greenhouse effect which will end life on Earth for all times. As he says, the likelihood may be small, and it certainly isn’t too late yet to take action. If you look at the Real Climate website, they will rule runaway global warming out only in models which exclude cloud feedbacks – but we know there will be cloud feedbacks, just not exactly what they will be. And just this week they said that the unlikely event 10% of methane hydrates going into the atmosphere within a few years would be the equivalent of raising CO2 levels ten times (ie it would finish us off pretty quickly, although they don’t spell that out).

    I’d say that climate change is about interfering with Earth Systems in a way which is unprecedented in the history of the planet and we can only partly predict the results – although what can be predicted is horrifying enough. This makes it absurd to see ‘adaptation’ as a strategy. Only steep and fast emission cuts gives us hope a climate to which we could adapt.

    BTW I recommend some caution about high CO2 figures from the distant past (ice core records are good, but go back less than 1 million years). You are looking at proxy records, and the further back you look, the harder it is to get precise time-scales and estimates. Plus the position of the continents would have affected temperatures on land, and remember that the sun has been continuously getting stronger since the Earth formed, so if we had the same level of CO2 now as there was hundreds of years ago it would be quite a bit hotter. However, if the warming spike of the end Permian is anything to go by then you are looking at desertification, not a hot humid planet.

  5. Mark Ritzenhein says:

    I am beginning to understand the earnest myopia of the scientific community and the resultant hesitancy to draw broad conclusions. I feel that I have a basic if superficial understanding of planetary life systems, and I do understand that it is hard to separate the data noise from a real trend. I would say that, from my perspective, there is no time left to argue about whether something is actually happening right now, but that collective action must take place in the next four years or it will be too late. I base my thoughts primarily on the close correspondence between CO2 levels found in ice cores and average Earth temperature; if CO2 is 300ppm or 750ppm, then the average temp will rise accordingly. As a lay person, this seems to be the only “fact” which I can fully rely on.
    Still, my recent confusion is not allayed. I have read extensively popular books on these matters for twenty-five years (the detailed scientific accounts would be a little too tedious for me, really). I wonder if the too-close focus as found on RealClimate is simply not useful at this point, at least for the matter of how human beings should respond (but a very timely article posted right now there). Bad policy can be built from sloppy conclusions, however, and we shouldn’t think that this is not possible with GW. Example: iron filings in the Antarctic Sea–does anyone really want to implement such an idea? I think such broad swipes at planetary systems are very dangerous but politically appealing because of their simplicity. So, I must caution myself against my own hysteria.
    No one really knows what will happen, precisely, and only fools predict the future (I’m a fool, thus). Still, Life has persisted on this planet through many tribulations, and I wonder if it won’t survive the coming one–with or without us present (I suspect without, by necessity).

  6. Chris Shaw says:

    Ok, well I am with you Mark, and orientate towards worse case scenarios. Look what the people in charge have done to Iraq and then extrapolate from there. I think science has ceased to be useful on this topic – enough measuring already! Further, scince is based on the notion of knowing the world that it might be managed by humans for short term gain. It is a way of being in the world that has brought us to this crisis very quickly (300 years or so). I’m a ‘noble savage’ utopian, a ‘future primitive’ if you will, and see no problem with jettisoning the ideology of progress.

  7. The most common way of denying global warming is to argue about how bad it will be if and when it happens. This is rather like the press constantly speculating about what might happen should Iraq have a civil war. Millions of very real human beings, insects, fish, animals and plants have died since human caused global warming began, at least twenty-five years ago, when I first brought it to the attention of my history classes. (I am 71 and a retired high school history teacher who taught for 42 years.)
    Concerning denial – global warming is a result of human production and consumption. These are incredibly daunting to reverse, as anyone knows who has tried – successfully or unsuccessfully – to give up cigarettes. In the case of global warming, as with cigarettes, the producers actively work to frustrate and obstruct success. Those in command of international finance today know that it is far, far too late to reverse global warming. Therefor their aim is to accelerate it while enhancing their own chances of survival. Their assumption is that the survivors will make up an extremely miniscule percentage of the human population today. Where they make their biggest mistake (of many) is in their failure to realize that, for the most part, starving people do not conveniently die. They just get sick, and the financial structures they are depending upon fragment and shatter. As I am in an inexcusably uncharitable mood, I am tempted to say, “Good enough for them.” I won’t say it, because when the chips are down I believe in charity.

  8. chris smith says:

    Lawson was perfect on Newsnight! Just what’s needed. Why? because he came across as being nutty, old, posh and weird. Completely out of touch and entirely self interested. Telling the former chief economist of the world bank that he’d got his numbers wrong and that his conclusions were ‘with the birds’. Perfect.

    The naysayers can be left alone to roll around in their pit of weird eccentricity. Don’t rise to it, just patronise them, ignore them and sideline. That’s far more powerful.

    Harmless old fools……. bless.

  9. My own speciality is social science and history rather than what used to be called ‘natural’ science. A few comments on that basis – first, the Stern Report is explicitly intended to scare the financiers and corporations and appeal to their interests, and since nowadays most of us have pension funds, bank accounts, etc., as well as buying the consumer products the corporations sell, that really means almost everybody in affluent societies. But will it work? Second, with all respect to Chris Shaw, it seems to me that the stuff about progress and Western ‘liberalism’ has always been a misconception – if we look at who actually denies climate change we see that it’s actually opponents of liberalism and progress (as those terms are normally understood) who provide the numbers. Obviously, if climate change is as drastic as it appears it will be, the issue is survival not progress. But the orthodox critic of what historically was (so far as ideas are concerned) the legacy of the 18th century Enlightenment is someone who relies upon tradition and social authority as their basis, and so cannot handle radical change even when that comes from a desperate attempt to survive, and not from dreams of a future utopia.
    All by way of saying that the 19th century ideologies most of the political class, and also journalists and intellectuals, are bred on, are quite unsuitable for what we need to think in terms of now.

  10. david price says:

    You need not be a climate denyer to realise theat the Stern report is alarmist and unscientific. Reading the websites most climate scientists think a doubling of co2 will lead to a temperature increase of 3degC. Stern goes far beyond this.
    In fact one can detect Gordon Brown’s hand in this. Every time he wants to raise taxes he commisions a report that tells him what he wants to hear. Stern was his masters voice.

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