Climate Change Denial is Not Grief

It’s winter in the south east Victoria. The year is 1986. The rolling green fields beneath a dark grey sky; the giant skeletons that hold the power cables, seemingly in frozen march across the landscape; the lonely tree near a few grazing cattle; all of this cold, undulated rural land seems a world away to the children rugged up on the back seat of a white Ford Cortina. The windows up, the radio and heater on; the boy is more interested in his transformer. No doubt when they reach their destination, their cousins will smell the cigarette smoke on their clothes, but they can’t. They’re used to their home and the family car smelling of smoke.

Twenty years on it’s appalling to witness someone smoking in the vehicle – even with the windows down – especially with children on board. Twenty years even the guilty mother above regrets ever smoking in the vehicle (now 15 years free from that addiction).

Reflecting on this situation and how the views of my mother changed over the years (from carefree smoker through pregnancy – the doctor said that it would only lead to slightly smaller offspring – to anti-smoker), I’m somewhat sceptical of argument put forward that Anthropogenic Climate Change [ACC] denial shows the hallmarks of the stages of grief. It just doesn’t seem to fit to me.

Grief that a previous paradigm just doesn’t work and is leading us to increasing hardship unless addressed? Please, the industrial revolution has taught us that we’re not powerless.

Ignoring climate change for a moment, another related issue is even more disturbing – grief over peaking oil supply? Sure, I’d agree that many people would deny that oil is peaking  (but that is more the result of misinformation), however few would deny that oil prices have been on the rise over the past decade.

It’s easy to say that many are only too eager to bury their heads in the sand to avoid discussing a changing world, but it’s only easy to say as much because it is wrong.

Long before the end of my mother’s addiction to nicotine, she was well aware of the health threats to herself and those around her – but it was so damn hard to stop. The science behind cigarette related illness was strong and the campaign to inform the public had done it’s job for her. However, how to change her habits? How to overcome the desire to light up again? Eventually, with the help of science and a bit of will power, she met change.

The problem with ACC and peak oil is that the relating science is being attacked. There is no real need for grief of what would be lost (except if you’re one who makes profits from business as usual), because there is ample evidence that new paradigms can lead to greater general standards of living across the globe, instead of the great inequality between the successful and forgotten people of the industrial revolution. It’s not even a case that the information has failed to be provided – I remember the early to mid years of this last decade; look at ICLEI for instance. There are ample case studies of companies, governments and individuals who have been years in front of the pack to achieving low carbon practices.

However, all this enthusiasm changed in the last few years.

Sure, the think tank behind ACC denial has been hard at work for many years – but something change more recently. Had western prosperity created the enthusiasm and the GFC brought concern back to ones personal situation over long-term and environmental concerns? Did the emergence of  global terror slowly retreat the average view to a more conservative outlook? I’m not sure.

I am sure, however, that part of the success relates to a more deeply held suspicion. Something that is occasionally stirred to entice outrage and unjustified scepticism. This is of course the idea that there is something wrong, evil or corrupt with science.

That Climategate and minor errors of the 4th IPCC report probably got more coverage than the actual message of the 4th report is an example of this.

That the deniers jumped with joy at snow storms in the northern hemisphere winter of 09-10, screamed in outrage when the Russian fires and Asian floods of 2010 were suggested to be related to ACC and that in fact, the sudden frequency of freak events in general is probably the most telling sign, which is largely ignored in the press is yet another example.

That the advice of unrelated scientists are taken more seriously, in some groups, than relevant working experts is yet another example. If I wouldn’t trust a geologist to diagnose my illness, why should I trust them to understand all the processes behind climate science over more relevant experts?

Environmental sciences have always faced some unfair radical-left criticism*. Nowadays it’s not uncommon for any field related to climate science to be labelled neo-fascistic, eco-communistic etc, equally common is the plea that such scientists are out to send the masses to poverty. In years when living expenses are becoming too much for many families and terrorism seems on the doorstep, it seems easier than ever to utilise some think tank to paint reason in the same light as the “enemy”. The breathless alarm of Christopher Monckton’s tone when he finally reaches this “hidden plot” in his presentation clearly demonstrates this tactic – even if you know enough to know what you’re hearing is utter nonsense, you cannot help the sinking feeling in this “sudden realisation”. Much like hell and the devil that the church used to push to maintain a following and sell rubbish like Indulgences, the old fear propaganda technique finds itself just as useful in our time of uncertainty.

People are not denying ACC because it threatens how they saw the world. If anything, it’s empowering. Look at the wonders of the modern world. Look at what we know about the environment and climate – we are a force of nature! We have as much ability to change our activities and stop degradation as to maintain business as usual and continue depleting resources and changing the climate. We have a custodial obligation to choose the former and grief is not enough to account for this paralysis.

Maybe my mother wouldn’t have given up smoking if my father was one of those bozo’s who denied the scientific basis behind cigarette related illness and wouldn’t shut up with harping in her ear about it. Worse – what if he convinced her that the tobacco industry was the only thing holding back communism and poverty? It would be surprising if she didn’t start smoking more! But why would he do that, other than if it was somehow beneficial to him? Of course, my Dad’s a champ and did all he could to help my Mum through quitting.

No, denial of ACC is not one of the stages of grief. Denial of this nature comes from employing fear propaganda. Many of the individuals who deny the science do exactly that – they deny the validity of the evidence regardless what is said about it. The reason for this denial is because they are scared of the future, but not the end of business as usual, rather a hidden and unrealistic enemy. Evidence won’t help them. Reason will not sway them. Even debunking their heroes of denial is merely seen as oppressive.

I guess we really need to focus on answering the question, “What’s in it for the people that propagate fear nonsense?”

Maybe then, showing their true colours, we can simulate planning that will benefit progress of all societies and ecosystems and not simply line the pockets of a few trumpets for business as usual.

*As a side note, it’s perhaps surprising that an industry traditionally opposed to many fields of environmental science, agriculture, has actually begun to make a radical shift; exploiting ecological functions and increased biodiversity to improve their plot, yield, running costs and long-term sustainability.


3 thoughts on “Climate Change Denial is Not Grief

  1. Some very interesting thoughts Moth.

    I’ve come to view “denial” as reflective of an individual values, rather than an emotional state they pass through. It is a culture war issue, in the same way abortion, stem cells, Sharia law and creationism have become litmus tests for conservative Christians, Muslims etc.

    For a certain groups, climate change scepticism is a “positive”.

    How can a negative be a “positive”?

    Creationist reject evolution because it contradicts their literal reading of the bible. Ergo, thus *must* reject the science in order to affirm their tribalism and confirm their membership to the creationist “tribe”. It’s about outward signs of orthodoxy and inwardly managing ones identity.

    Free market libertarians, culture warriors and ultra-conservatives see climate change mitigation as deeply threatening to their “choices” within the market and individual “liberty”.

    If your committed to small government and limited intervention in the market, then things such as a carbon tax, ETS or regulation are anathema. After all, the “market” will fix this.

    Hence why the debate is bogged down and mostly along partisan lines – especially in the US and Australia

    Curiously this is not the case in the UK, where the Conservatives hope to be the “greenest” government ever. However I suspect this may have more to do with older traditions of conservatism (ala Edmund Burke) than it’s radical neo-con offshoots in other Anglo-sphere countries.

    I’d also suggest you look into some of the work on “Terror Management Theory” which addresses peoples fears of the future.

    The denial machine has been very good at ***fusing peoples values with climate scepticism***, making it a litmus test of ones world view and political outlook.

    If you attack their scepticism, you also attack their values – in other words, you attack them.

    I also view the debate as a prolonged election campaign between competing views of the future. This campaign has been waged since the 1990’s and its prize is public opinion.

    Like all election campaigns it is about building your credibility and tearing down your opponents.

    In this debate the “conservative” side argues for no (or less) action, while the “progressive” side argues for action. Yes, this is a gross oversimplification, but scepticism and acceptance of climate science falls along political lines.

    This is not a new debate: it has been waged since the beginning of the enlightenment.

    Kant challenged us to “Dare to know!” – he argued that knowledge of the universe could be liberating, and yet often conflicted with the orthodoxies of the power elites.

    The deniers want us to remain complacent.


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