30 August 2010

Where Scepticism Meets Denial

I have recently had two arguments with intelligent colleagues about whether we really need to act on carbon emissions. I think it would be fair to say that both my interlocuters have come to this discussion fairly recently and, interestingly, both consider themselves to be rationalists.

It has been my observation for a long time that people do not make up their minds on the basis of evidence and the climate change debate seems to bear this out. Martin Amis once joked 'I don't know much about science, but I know what I like', and it seems that many people do not like the implications climate change has for their way of life. As an economist I spend a lot of time with people who are part of the self-deluding and irrational paradigm that most threatens the balance of the planet: neoclassical economics. As I have blogged elsewhere, the environmental crisis requires us to reassess how rational we are as a species.

The media is not helping here.* The error in the IPCC report concerning the speed at which Himalayan glaciers were melting and a few indiscreet emails about unprofessional relationships sent by scientists at Britain's leading climate-change research centre have both been presented as major scandals casting doubt on the decision to take climate change seriously as a political issue. In an area where human survival is at stake this is, at best, irresponsible. It would be unsurprising if there were not errors in a report with such a massive number of data, and to imagine that academic scientists are wholly beyond reproach is naive in the extreme.

None the less these tiny grains of resistance to the tide of scientific evidence that climate change is happening, that it is accelerating and that the cause is human burning of fossil fuels are being grasped by those who are terrified of the prospects of being swept away by this tide and losing so much of what presently makes up their reality that their very sanity might be compromised.

I think in this context the use of the word 'denial' to describe such people is appropriate. My personal experience is that understanding this as a psychological response, a concern for psychological survival, and a fear of the sudden change that climate change threatens, helps me to find sympathy rather than respond with anger. It might also influence our ways of sharing the message of climate change: with clarity and certainty, but always also with solutions and a clear message about what we should do in response. This certainty about where we are going can help provide the psychological support that those in denial obviously need.

*Roger Harrabin has a two-part series called Uncertain Climate, taking a wider perspective on how the media deals with climate change. The first part is available for download as a podcast here.

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