Clive Hamilton in Oxford
May 13, 2010
Bishop Hill in Climate: Models, Climate: Sceptics

This is a guest post by "DR".

This is my report of a talk by Clive Hamilton in Blackwell’s bookshop Oxford on 10 May 2010, on themes from his recent book Requiem for a Species. This is a write-up of my hand-written notes. I hope I’ve represented what Hamilton said accurately.  I’ve not read his book.

Hamilton started by describing the upsurge in ‘climate denial’ – describing deliberate attempts in the 1990s by US Republicans to link climate change and left-wing beliefs, he said that climate denial has been absorbed by right-wing populism. However, despite efforts from deniers such as Sarah Palin, Christopher Monckton, the American Tea-Party, and the UK’s BNP, it has become clear that if anything the IPCC AR4 understated the risks, for instance of sea-level rise.

Hamilton listed the scientific findings that have emerged since Climategate but have been ‘buried by confected stories’ and almost ignored by the media. E.g. it’s been the warmest decade on record; glacier disappearance is accelerating; arctic temperatures continue to rise, accompanied by methane release from permafrost.

He then described the paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows (Proc. Trans. Roy. Soc, A, 366 (2008): 3863-3882) – the ‘Budget approach’ to climate modelling – that suggests that the most likely temperature rise this century is 4˚C, even under the very optimistic scenario of global emissions peaking by 2020 and declining by 3% per year thereafter to stabililise CO2 at 650 ppm. He pointed out that in order to achieve this goal, developed countries would have to decrease emissions earlier and more rapidly than this since developing countries can’t.  Such decreases in emissions have not been seen historically – he discussed the examples of the British ‘dash for gas’ (1% decrease in emissions in a decade) and the French adoption of nuclear power (1% decrease/year) – except in the case of the former Soviet Union which did indeed lower emissions by 5%/year in the 1990s but this was accompanied by a halving of the economy and major social collapse and hardship. He said that climate scientists agree that 4˚C is the most likely estimate, and having increased by this amount, the temperature is unlikely to stop there, but will continue to increase due to tipping points. At a conference in Oxford in Sept 2009  he had heard that ‘the only choice is between extreme rates of emission reduction or extreme climate change’.

In the face of such danger, how is one to manage psychologically? How can one manage the emotions that come from this realisation, the fear, anxiety, guilt, and so on?  To answer these questions, Hamilton described three coping strategies that people adopt.

First, the deniers. They do not allow themselves to accept the facts, and therefore do not have to deal with the emotions.  Sceptics actively reject all of the propositions put forward by climate scientists (example: Plimer). The facts conflict with their more fundamental beliefs, so they reject the facts. He compared this cognitive dissonance to a cult that when the world failed to end as predicted, did not reject their beliefs but preached that the world had been spared by their faith. Deniers are more active when the evidence is stronger, for instance, an increase in denial is seen around the time of publication of IPCC reports. It is futile to engage such sceptics on the science – their objections are not fundamentally about science.  As well as these ‘active deniers’, there are also ‘casual deniers’. They avoid information, say ‘science can’t decide’ and find reasons to dismiss the danger. They are helped in this by the right-wing press which exploits the public need for disbelief.

Secondly there are those who adopt maladaptive coping strategies.  This very large group accepts the facts but seeks to blunt their emotional response by minor behavioural changes (e.g. fitting low energy light bulbs), minimising the dangers, blame shifting, or wishful thinking. Benign fictions may be part of all of our coping strategies, but they must be distinguished from delusions.

Thirdly, there are those who accept both the facts and the emotions. They accept their grief and fear, indeed realise that it is healthy to be afraid in the face of real danger. They adopt coping strategies such as finding out more about climate change and developing new value orientations. In the face of grief one may become either more self-obsessed and materialistic, or alternatively more compassionate and outward-looking.  Hamilton had gained insight from Camus’ novel The Plague, in which the townsfolk imprisoned by the epidemic responded with denial, optimism, religion, superstition, drunkenness and hedonism, while the hero, a doctor, adopted ‘active fatalism’ – the determination to work to do good in the knowledge that any victories were minor and short-lived. Hamilton said that he argues in the last chapter of Requiem for a Species that despite our despair and without any certainty of success, we must continue to work for a different and better future.

Some of the audience questions and Hamilton’ answers:

Q: What government intervention is required to bring about sufficiently rapid changes?

A: We’d need a response like the wartime transformation of British industry from making cars to making munitions. It will hurt. The ‘old’ jobs will not seamlessly transfer into ‘new’ ones. The market could respond if governments create the right incentives. I (Hamilton) favour emissions trading over carbon taxes.  If the right incentives are created, changes in patterns of energy production and consumption follow – the government does not need to direct. We need to adapt to a new way of life – we think it would be impossible to give up e.g. air travel, but we can adapt.

Q: You’ve said it is justified to ‘break laws that protect those who continue to pollute the atmosphere in a way that threatens our survival’.  What did you have in mind?

A. The protesters at the Kingsnorth power station site were charged with criminal damage but acquitted by a jury. Democracy in action – non-violent direct action is justified to make a wider point.

Q: What message do you have for institutions (government departments and bodies, NGOs etc)?

A: The hardest question is ‘what should we do?’ There is no general answer. Green groups are desperate for new and successful strategies, but the media takes little or no notice, even of hunger strikes, let alone advertising campaigns. Need a social transformation rather than a new form of marketing.

Q: What can be done about sceptics who hold back groups 1 and 2 and legitimize delay?

A: Sceptics are prepared to lie (for example, Monckton speaking about the Great Barrier Reef). There’s no point in arguing with deniers, though the public can be persuaded by telling them about the science. Scientists must make it difficult to disbelieve. I can’t assess the scientific literature, but I try to decide who is most credible, and for me that is the scientists.

Q: There are uncertainties in the science – we don’t know the precise effects of any particular level of CO2. How do you deal with this?

A: No climate scientist denies that there is uncertainty, for instance in the climate sensitivity, but the evidence is overwhelming. Of course nothing can be proved categorically, but if your doctor says you have cancer, you don’t go and get nine further opinions.  The sceptics’ style of argument is just manipulative.  Many deniers are geologists – one could speculate about links to mining industry and their feeling that the earth has a long history and there’s nothing different now – and almost all are older white men, probably with a sense of entitlement.

Q: Those fighting global warming often contribute to it, for instance by flying to conferences. 

A: Yes, everyone feels guilty and some decide not to fly. But one should not beat oneself up, just try not to consume disproportionately. One can assuage one’s own guilt by ‘green consumerism’ but the problem can only be solved by collective action. Responsibility should not be shifted by governments on to individuals. We can vote to make everyone act in the common interest, but it’s rational not to act individually against one’s own interest before such laws take effect.

Q: What are the prerequisites for us collectively to adopt an adaptive coping strategy?

A: We have to accept that we need to overcome our inner resistance. We need to realise that the future will not be like the present – it’s the end of everything that we understand as progress. People don’t change because of ‘facts’ but because they have an epiphany (an ‘oh shit’ moment). Mine was reading Anderson’s and Bows’ paper in 2008. This led me into depression, which I came through with help, and developed coping strategies. But people can become genuinely terrified and obsessed, which is understandable as dangerous climate change becomes more certain and more scary.

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