Understanding the climate change battle of attitudes



Overview of earthWorld Environment Day this year was celebrated in the shadow of policies crossing in the mail. As the United States President took steps to deal with carbon emissions, the Australian Prime Minister walked away from them. Beneath the complex political considerations in these responses to the natural environment stir deep passions. Disputes about the environment and climate change are not simply about facts but touch something deeper, almost religious, in character.

The depth at which attitudes to the environment are rooted is suggested also by the coherence between the attitudes people take to the environment and those they take to government spending on the disadvantaged, to the response to crime and to asylum seekers. These attitudes are also passionately felt and held.

They disclose the stance we take towards the world, how we imagine our own position and that of other human beings in the world and in society.

Many of those who are sceptical about human contribution to climate change and who oppose environmental regulation see human beings primarily as individuals responsible for their own lives and advancement. They see human beings as in control over their world, and entitled to freedom; they are deeply suspicious of restrictions imposed to protect society, the environment or future generations. And they believe that human prosperity and wellbeing will be best advanced by giving full play to individual initiative and action.

From this perspective we human beings are masters of the world, and the natural environment is the theatre of our action. Any damage that our play does to the natural world can be remedied by further planning and remedial activity.

The passion that those who deny global warming express in debate is not inspired simply by the perceived factual wrongness of their opponents, but also by the fatal affront that they cause to the idea of the autonomous and entrepreneurial self. They represent human beings as dependent on their environment, their individual freedom and agency shackled.

Those who accept the claims of climate change generally see human beings as constituted by a complex set of relationships to other peoples and to the natural world. They imagine our individual freedom as directed to the common good and to the flourishing of all these relationships.

It follows that we stand within our social and natural environment and not over it. So our actions will be judged by the effect they have on other relationships, and particularly on the most disadvantaged of people and the most distressed points of our environment. They see the damage done by autonomous and unthinking proprietorial action as serious and not susceptible to technological remedies.

From this perspective individual human beings are bound into a network of relationships. So they are responsible to society and to the environment. The passion that fuels them in debate about the environment comes from what they see as their adversaries' wanton disregard of the relationships on which human wellbeing rests and by their denial of responsibility for the natural environment and for society. They act like people sawing off the branch on which they sit.

The same visceral debate and underlying attitudes have been evident in the response to the Budget. Some argue that it does not go far enough to support individual responsibility by cutting costs spent on those who do not contribute to society. Others argue that it disregards the responsibility of wealthy individuals and companies to support their fellow, less advantaged, human beings, and weakens the relationships that are the measure of a good society.

In this debate the values defended by each side matter greatly. The responsibility of each human being for their life, the place of human initiative, creativity and the capacity to learn from experience, and the duty to develop the world, are real. We are not passive before the world we live in. Nor can we be if we are to address the effects of climate change.

The network of relationships between human beings and to the natural world, which precede the life of individuals and form the boundaries within which they can rightly act, are also real. As are our shared responsibility to the disadvantaged and to the natural environment which follows from our mutual dependence. We are not autonomous in our relationships to other human beings and to our environment.

The critical question is how to hold these values together. In my judgment human flourishing requires that we recognise the interdependence of human beings and our common interdependence with the environment. That recognition marks out the boundaries of the field within which our autonomy and initiative should play.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, environment


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Existing comments

Attitudes are also shaped and nursed. Action against traffic fatalities and smoking was driven by their cost to the health system, but this was not the way it was 'sold'. The attitudes to environmental issues are vastly different in Europe, for instance. There are so many influences on attitudes in Australia: e.g. a need for political success, a move to a purely personal morality, the fragmentation of social identity with increasingly selfish smaller sectors, less rational public debate, less competence generally in science and mathematics, and a growing greed ("I'm spending my children's inheritance"). The fact that dramatic climate change is happening most because of human behaviour can then be spun in any way the safeguards people's 'quality of life' at the expense of others.
Paul Fyfe | 11 June 2014

‘Disputes about the environment and climate change are not simply about facts but touch something deeper, almost religious, in character.’ Agreed Andrew, but then you go on to suggest that the ‘something deeper’ is about independence and interdependence, and that’s where I find your argument less persuasive. Yes, there is the me/we divide, but I think it’s secondary to the rational/ideological divide. I’m told that whereas about one third of all Americans reject the evidence for evolution, the proportion rises to about a half for Republican voters and two-thirds for white evangelical Christians. I suspect that the same pattern occurs for those who reject the evidence for climate change. I’m not suggesting that Republicans or evangelicals are more likely to be climate deniers because they are Republicans or evangelicals, but rather that those who because of either nature or nurture prefer to reach conclusions from beliefs rather than reason are more likely to be Republicans or evangelicals AND to reject the evidence for evolution and climate change.
Ginger Meggs | 11 June 2014

One other element in the debate that infuriates the pro-environment side is the disregard of science. Every major scientific organisation in the world says we need to act urgently to address the man-made contributors to climate change. They are like the umpires in the debate, and totally overlooked by the pro-individual side.
Russell | 11 June 2014

Whatever we, as humans, do, the world will survive with a changed environment. The real question is, of course, is whether humans will survive when the environment changes.
Gwilym | 12 June 2014

I agree with you Andrew, but we need the power. I believe that until there is a viable alternative to coal fired electricity, the best we can do is maximise carbon sequestration. This means encouraging better land management so the pasture and veg is maintained in the best condition to maximise photosynthesis
Nev Hunt | 12 June 2014

Each human body is a 'mirror' of the Great Human Body (the human race).. Each human body is made up of about 50 trillion cells, each of which has its own life. There is not one 'new' function in our bodies that is not already expressed in each single cell. If any individual cell begins to depart from its relationship with the other cells that make up our bodies, and as it were, strikes out on its own, it is called 'cancer'. When they all combine in cooperation, our bodies are in good health and flourish.
Robert Liddy | 12 June 2014

Well said Andrew. This is really about ecology not economics. When starting a lecture on ecology, I gave a quote from Marx, and thereby risked being branded a dangerous lefty: "Why should I care about posterity, what have they done for me?" That was said by Groucho Marx. We must decide how much of our fortunate lives will be given for the sake of future generations, and where this fits in the evolution of society and the biosphere.
Alan Stewart | 12 June 2014

John Paul 2 in his address at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff on his UK visit in early 80s said something that i found dramatically important for my life: " it is impossible to obtain salvation independent of the community in which you live". That was opaquely in response to Mrs Thatcher`s individualism, as in "there is no such thing as society!" The concept of solidarity as the core ingredient of received Catholic social teaching is now rock solid; I would just love to know how right wing "Catholics", heavily represented in the current government, come to terms with this in their faith journey?
Eugene | 12 June 2014

Thanks Andrew. I particulary appreciate your emphasis on interdependence in defining social and environmental relationships and the limits this places on individual autonomy. A framework such as this precludes reductionist thinking which allows society to be described in terms of 'lifters and leaners' and policy in the polarised options of 'clobbering the environment' or 'clobbering the economy'. Surely we are beyond this.
Denis Quinn | 12 June 2014

"It's the economy, stupid" seems to me to be the common belief of the PMs of Canada and Australia. Without being challenged they seem to assert that any punitive means aimed at curtailing carbon emission will be "destructive" of the economy - as if the economy was some sort of benign being that must not be taxed in any way. The economy is concerned with the production, distribution and exchange of goods and services on planet earth. That minority of human beings who have have had the opportunity to corner these elements of the economy are reluctant to share their good fortune with the less fortunate. Not because they despise the less fortunate - some of them are quite philanthropic - but because they consider themselves entitled to decide how the goods of mother earth should be distributed. Certainly philosophers in their Ivory Towers and scientists in their laboratories should not lecture them on a holistic view of the world and (Dare I use the word?) society. The economic determinism of Abbott and Harper is almost Marxist in its narrow-mindedness. Andrew's essay wouldn't penetrate the first level of their realpolitik pachyderm.
Uncle Pat | 12 June 2014

It's time for a community education program which leaves out politics and looks at honest to goodness decency and gratitude and our interdependence on each other. If we foster community, we will all be happier too. Our beautiful planet will benefit from the flow on effect.
Jane | 12 June 2014

Yes, climate change with global warming is happening gradually but is caused primarily by natural factors and CO is a product of it rather than a driver of it. All geologists, who know and understad paleoclimates, say that man's CO2 emissions are only a minor factor. We need to adapt to climate not think that we have the power to change it.
Gerard Tonks | 12 June 2014

Andrew Hamilton seems to be politely suggesting that those who reject climate change theories are motivated by self-interest, disguised as individualism. But perhaps they simply don’t think that the pro-climate change lobby has yet proven its case, that the science on this issue is fully “in”., despite the seeming scientific consensus that it is. While I accept the reality of climate change – however fitfully it seems to be occurring at times - I’m somewhat agnostic about the degree to which it's anthropogenic. There are so many dissident opinions by scientists who are NOT allied with the corporate world and too many anomalies and inconsistencies in the evidence - but alas no space to elaborate on them here. The whole climate change debate is distorted by two powerful sets of vested interests. On one side is the industrial/mining sector denying all climate change arguments, so it can continue its polluting activities. On the other is the climate change industry/lobby which insists that it is, that human activity is causing it and we’re doomed if we don’t act quickly. Groupthink is strong in the scientific community. It can be a career-killer for scientists who won’t subscribe to the prevailing orthodoxies on climate change.
dennis | 13 June 2014

No, Dennis, you are wrong to say that there is "a seeming scientific consensus" - it isn't 'seeming', it is every major scientific organisation. When policy makers look for advice they should look to the experts in the major, mainstream, relevant organisations. Plus they have to consider the risks of ignoring that advice - if the risks are small it doesn't matter so much, but when the risks involve catastrophic harm, you don't ignore the mainstream expert advice. Have you heard the phrase "follow the money" because you should remember it when you hear the 'industrial/mining sector' talk about anything. The experts in research organisations, the academics, the Nobel Prize winners aren't in their line of work for the money.
Russell | 13 June 2014

The recent collective articles from Eureka Street are very helpful in highlighting (as your articles state, we have a Commonwealth Budget from our senior politicians that clearly endorses a state of financial inequality for the Australian battlers.
Francis Hornby | 13 June 2014

Thankyou for putting it all so well!
Nicole | 13 June 2014

Even if there was no "seeming scientific consensus", wouldn't it be wise to err on the side of caution? What's the worst that could happen from taking measures to reduce carbon emissions? - We would end up with clean air - all for nothing! And we would have more natural forests and clean waterways - all for nothing! And we might even stop some animals from becoming extinct - all for nothing! And the world still goes on - ah, what a waste of effort and sacrifice.
AURELIUS | 14 June 2014

In the words of Sir Francis Bacon: "God forbid that we should give out a dream of our imagination for a pattern of the world". The nub of denial is a misunderstanding of the nature of scientific evidence. The truths of Nature are invariably filtered out through reasoning and debate. There can neverbe, and will never be, a dogmatic certitude here. Only deep ignorance demands that doctrinaire fantasy should outweigh sound, empirically based conclusions (as conditional as these may be).
Frederick Green | 16 June 2014

Russell: the seeming consensus on climate change is not as solid as the climate-change lobby suggests if the American Meteorological Association survey of 1800 of its members last November is any indication. The survey showed that only 52% believed that humans were the primary cause of global warming. The remaining 48% questioned whether climate change was happening or whether human activity was its main cause. And yes Russell one should always “follow the money” in these debates – and both ways – not merely for the industry/mining sector. Consider the multi-billion carbon-trading industry which has mushroomed because of global warming fears, not to mention the fact that scientists need jobs and university departments, think-tanks and assorted climate change bodies require money to fund their research into climate and environmental matters. Any scientists who questioned the climate change consensus would quickly discover that he was ostrasized by colleagues and find it hard to get employment, let alone funding for his projects. Most scientists understand that endorsing the “consensus” is necessary for career survival and success. As I said, the CC debate is constantly distorted by two sets of powerful vested interests and the truth often gets traduced by them.
dennis | 17 June 2014

Is there a peer reviewed study showing objectively that most “deniers” don’t care about the environment? Even if there were, that still doesn’t prove that to be opposed to the DAGW thesis is ipso facto to be disrespectful of the environment. There are many opponents of the DAGW thesis (eg, me) who think it is not only erroneous, but harmful to the environment, shunting attention from much more important environmental concerns. Conversely there is the curious fact that so-­called environmentalists are almost totally mum on the consequences of implementing certain DAGW­inspired policies, such as the devastation to bird life caused by wind towers. However, I think Fr H is basically right to say that deniers’ passion in debate is not simply aroused by the perceived factual errors of their opponents. The way I would put it is this: DAGW is a theoretical possibility. What worries me as a recently arrived “denier” is not whether or not I’m wrong on the science, which is always possible. It's that most of the crusading believers in DAGW seem to automatically assume that the only satisfactory solution to it (if it exists) is via a big and coercive state. Like the one that inflicted on us pink batts, the education revolution, the NBN, and indeed far worse things in bigger state regimes.
HH | 17 June 2014