Denialists

I’ve just watched a fascinating discussion on a forum. It ran along the lines of:

Person A makes a comment about climate change being a problem.

Person B says he’s a geologist and he can assure the world climate change doesn’t exist.

Person C says it’s a conspiracy designed for the rich to exploit the poor and get richer.

Person D says he’s a mathematician and can make figures do anything you want so you can’t trust the IPCC figures.

I don’t get these people at all.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist – largely because I don’t think the average politician can keep the lid on a teapot, let alone a worldwide conspiracy that’s been running for the past 35 years. A conspiracy that involves thousands of climate scientists in virtually every nation on earth, all peer-reviewing each others’ work, and every government on earth, just goes beyond the realms of possibility in my book. Do people really think island nations like Tuvalu are sinking under the waves just to be awkward? Seriously?

(Did I just say 35 years? Climate change has been predicted and known about for 35 years? Yes, I really did. The JASON report on the LongTerm Impact of Carbon Dioxide on the Climate was presented to the President of the USA in 1979. You can read it here and, in fact, the basic science of carbon dioxide and its effects in the atmosphere have been well-established for a lot longer. Read up on Svante Arrhenius, or John Tyndall, if you don’t believe me. Add them into the timescale and we’re now talking about a conspiracy of thousands that’s been under our oblivious noses for a century and a half. Are we really that stupid?)

Then you have the geologist. If I want an expert opinion, I go to an expert. But I don’t go to an expert cook when I need an expert mechanic, I don’t ask the plumber to check my ingrown toenail, I don’t ask a hair-stylist what’s wrong with my dog. If I was worried about earthquakes, volcanoes, landslips or where to sink a borehole, a geologist might well be the expert I want – but when I want an expert opinion on the climate, I want to hear from a climate scientist.

As for the mathematician who reckons you can make any data set say anything…. I have to shake my head in dismay. Last I looked, two plus two had always made four. If he can make two plus two equal seven, I want to stop the planet and get off. I live in a world where when I look at the thermometer, I expect it to tell me what the temperature is and, if it says it’s hotter today than yesterday, I believe that to be a reflection of what actually happened. I don’t think I live in a world where the basic laws of nature, the laws of physics, can be adjusted to suit people’s preconceptions. As Richard Feynman once said, no matter how beautiful your theory may be, if it doesn’t agree with reality, your theory is wrong. (I may be misquoting slightly but that was the gist of it).

Yet in a way, this demonstrates the scale of the problem. These are people who will not be convinced, are not open to change and who will insist on refusing to accept that there is a problem until it’s far too late to do anything about the problem. They’re not stupid – far from it, some of these denialists have doctorates and masters degrees and other alphabet soup after their names (come to that, so do I – but not in climate science). Under normal circumstances you’d have to say they’re pretty smart people.

Under normal circumstances, they’d probably all agree that for any kind of potential threat to normal life, you should carry out a risk assessment. It’s easy to do – you draw up a little table with how likely the thing is on one side, and how bad the effects could be on another. Assign numbers to the categories – 1 for low, 3 for high, say. Then put your event into the grid where you think it fits – unlikely but bad,likely but not bad, whatever. Multiply together the two numbers that you’ve got on the sides of the table. That number is your risk factor – the higher it is, the worse the risk.

If it’s wildly unlikely and the effects would be minimal, it’s low risk. 1 x 1 = 1. It’s wildly unlikely that a rain of small fish will land on you tomorrow, and the effect of having small fish land on you is not that bad. Free fish supper, perhaps. So you don’t bother doing anything about it, like carrying a reinforced umbrella to fend them off.

If the likelihood is high but the effects are still minimal, it’s riskier. 3 x 1 = 3. The sun will probably rise tomorrow, you may get UV exposure. Sensible people take steps to mitigate the risk – slip, slap, slop, as the Australian advertising campaign slogan goes.

If the likelihood is high and the effects are severe, then the risk is extremely high. 3 x 3 =9. If you throw yourself into heavy traffic without looking, then you are very likely to get seriously hurt if not killed (which brings us to mitigation, of course. Don’t do it!).

Now, here’s the kicker. If the likelihood is low and the effects are severe, the risk is still high. 1 x 3 = 3. Even if you don‘t believe climate change is likely, the effects are so severe that you really should still consider taking action to prevent and/or mitigate it.

As for the position we’re in now, if you’re going to believe the experts (which I do, because everything they’ve predicted would happen already has happened!) then it’s an absolute certainty that climate change is happening and the effects will be severe. The risk factor is off the chart.

So how come all these clever people are refusing to even consider it?

Quite a while ago, psychologists came up with the idea of the 5 stages of grief, and once you’ve thought about these 5 stages, you start to realise that they’re not just about losing a loved one. They can also be seen in human reactions to unwelcome news, to a problem that they don’t want to face. Peak Oil, Peak Water…. climate change.

First of all, denial. There’s no problem. It’s not happening. I’m not going to look and it’ll all go away.

Secondly, anger. It’s all your fault, it’s because of this, it’s because of that.

Third stage, bargaining. If only I’d done this, or done it sooner, or…. If I do this, then please (deity of choice) fix that!

Fourth, depression. What’s the use of doing anything, it won’t work, it’s over.

Fifth, acceptance. Okay, so bad things happen. Life continues. I’m sad, but I carry on.

I can afford to stand back a bit from the denialists. I went through that thirty years ago. I still have moments of anger, mostly at other people who’re still sticking their heads in the sand, but it’s a pretty futile exercise because I can’t change their minds. They don’t want to listen, so they won’t hear, so there’s no point trying.  Deep breath, count to ten, change the subject… Bargaining won’t work – we got ourselves into this mess, it’s up to us to get out again. Or not, as the case may be. Depression? Frequently. This beautiful, wonderful, unique and glorious planet that we share with so many other species, plants, animals, bacteria, viruses…. is the world we’re turning into an inhospitable trainwreck. So, acceptance. We go on, because there is no other choice than suicide, and if all the people who see the problem suicide, then we’re effectively condemning everything else to death in the hands of the denialists. Besides, there’s a chance we can still pull this off and save some kind of future for the planet, our fellow life-forms and our grandchildren.

Moral of the story – do what you can, keep your conscience clean and the denialists, hopefully, will one day (before it’s too late) wake up and see the rising tide gauges, the rising temperatures, the increased wildfires, the droughts and floods and the way pests and diseases are spreading into new environments….

Fingers crossed.

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