Nov 4, 2009

In climate denial: this is not scepticism

We're losing the battle against climate denialism. Much of the skepticism is fuelled by ideology, but the real driver of denialism is an emotional inability to accept that we’re in serious trouble.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

I don’t say this often, but there’s a very good piece by The Guardian’s George Monbiot, about how we’re losing the battle against climate denialism. Monbiot is usually my exemplar of the right-on people’s-poet lefty who has stepped straight from The Young Ones and into The Guardian’s op-ed pages. But on this he is dead right. Listening to Malcolm Turnbull being assailed by a febrile Alan Jones on Monday -- the transcript of which remains unreleased by Turnbull’s office, perhaps understandably -- it was easy to laugh as Jones peddled the line that climate change was a hoax intended to cover up a plot to establish one world government. Yes, Jones is listened to tens of thousands of mostly geriatric Sydneysiders, but world government? He may as well have been condemning the communist plot of fluoridation, publicising the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or reading the entire contents of Foucault’s Pendulum. Fortunately, "Pastor" Danny Nalliah of the lunatic Catch The Fire sect has come out today to support Jones with a press release warning "One World Government is nearly here!" Both Jones and Nalliah rely on the views of Christopher Monckton, or "Lord Monckton" as he apparently prefers to be known, a British classics-trained former Conservative adviser who is so extreme in his claims about a world government conspiracy that he was criticised by arch-conservatives Glenn Beck and John Bolton during a recent US trip. Janet Albrechtsen, the dimmest bulb in the conservative chandelier, wasn’t going for the world government angle just yet, but today was insisting, like Jones, that "ordinary people" are beginning to question the science of climate change. Are they right? Before we proceed, we should perhaps have a terminological discussion. The majority of people who do not accept climate change should not be classed as "sceptics". Scepticism is one of the cornerstones of western culture. It is honourable and important. Far too many of us are not sceptical enough. But genuine scepticism accepts the possibility of being convinced by evidence or argument. The alternative, embodied by most of those who reject the science of climate change, is denialism. People can jack up about the alleged Holocaust implications of the word all they like, but there’s no other word for a reflexive dismissal of something regardless of the evidence for it or the compelling logic of it. As Monbiot correctly notes, the idea that climate denialism would be defeated by evidence and rigorous argument has turned out to be incorrect. There is no arguing with climate denialists. The evidence mounts almost daily that climate change not merely exists but is occurring at a significantly faster rate than previous worst-case scenarios predicted, and yet denialists continue to claim it’s a hoax, or a giant conspiracy. Much denialism is driven by ideology. That’s why the ranks of denialists are rich with right-wingers, who hate the idea that someone, somewhere on the Left might have ever been right about anything, and who can only see climate change as a left-wing argument which must be refuted no matter how sound it might be. But, scarily, perhaps Monbiot is correct, and the real driver of denialism is an emotional inability to accept that we’re in serious trouble. In that context, Albrechsten may well be right, in a way -- the worse climate change seems, the more people will reflexively react against it, even as we experience the effects of climate change, costing lives and jobs. Still, denial is only one stage. At a certain point people make the mental adjustment and stop denying the obvious. Those who want action on climate change have to push through this barrier.

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5 thoughts on “In climate denial: this is not scepticism

  1. Robert Barwick

    Consider for a moment, Bernard, your characterisation of the distinction between sceptics and deniers, in regards to your own position, which is of exactly the same quality as your definition of deniers. With no basis, you “reflexively” dismiss the natural climate change position.

  2. Nadia David

    Nice article, Bernard. I had never given much thought about the use of the word ‘sceptic’ in climate change arena and have to agree with you. Climate change deniers are really the same people who believe Obama was born in Kenya, are members of the church of Scientology, and think the Government blew up the World Trade Centre. To deny the existence of climate change is to take one hell of a leap of faith in the face of overwhelming evidence, and to simply stay down that hole refusing to come out. That isn’t scepticism, that’s just denial. *Waves to Robert down the hole*

  3. Kim Serca

    By an incredible coincidence BK I spoke to Monbiot and he said he’d always considered you a burnt-out MOR PS type with a series of cliches about left and right macro-ed on your keyboard, and pop culture refs which stopped at 1985….

  4. baal

    The way people bang on about climate change does have a deadening effect on all but the dedicated Gores, Monbiots and Radio National talkback callers – who display such a sense of such paranoid smugness it’s not surprising they attract kneejerk antagonism.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    Excellent Bernard but you must be sick of hearing it. But, in a way I wish I was a denialist just so I could have changed my vote the minute old Caught On Fire-Danny Nalliah jumped on the wagon.

    The conservatives have this awesome desire to trash any opinion that they didn’t think of. Lets face it, they don’t very often have an idea of their own.

    Of the ones who get orgasmic about denial I sometimes wonder if they are too scared to accept it, on the grounds they would have to accept the other side of the equation. Namely that the acceptance that the world will only survive if the human race agrees to limit the amount of children we have.

    The urge to reproduce is the thing which is killing us. Perhaps the world’s scientists will come up with a pill to fix that desire.

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