The psychology of climate change denial


The psychology of climate change denialIn his Easter message, Cardinal George Pell said that Jesus did not preach about global warming. This is true. However, it is also true to say that he had said nothing of nuclear war, contraception or papal infallibility. The cardinal is not alone, of course, in calling the phenomenon of global warming into question. John Howard is a very recent convert to the reality of climate change, and he still has sceptics in his cabinet. Another doubter is Michael Duffy, who writes a Saturday column in the Sydney Morning Herald and graces the Radio National airwaves each week.

Some of the global warming sceptics, among them a few scientists, are just contrary types—people who love to upset the accepted orthodoxy—while some genuinely question the phenomenon of global warming. I’m not a global warming sceptic. I accept that the evidence is overwhelming and that we need to take drastic action to avert a catastrophe that will impact on the next couple of generations. We have a profound moral obligation to them to act to lessen the effects of our prodigious use of fossil fuels.

I don’t believe that it can be business as usual, that with a few adjustments we will be able to make it. The neo-rationalist economic model that we use is not sustainable into the future. It is this model that is responsible for the widespread destruction of the natural world, so to me it is inconceivable that we can somehow turn ourselves around while still operating out of the model which caused the destruction in the first place. We need a totally new approach.

However, we also need to be careful about rushing in and making predictions about what will happen in specific situations and places. If this was what the global warming sceptics were talking about we would take them more seriously. For instance, many people have predicted that the frequency and intensity of bushfires in south-eastern and south-western Australia will be exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Council of Australian Government's bushfire inquiry and the CSIRO’s Climate Impact Group have accepted this scenario.

There is a widespread popular perception, re-enforced by the media as it tries to reduce complex scientific information to understandable language, that global warming inevitably means that everything will be drier, that there will be less rain, and with the vegetation drying out there will be more bushfires.

But this is not necessarily true. It ignores the fact that global warming is a complex process. We used to call it ‘the greenhouse effect’ and in a greenhouse things are certainly warm, but they are also steamy and wet. So warming doesn’t necessarily imply less rain; in fact there will probably be marginally more rain at a worldwide level, and north-western Australia has been getting somewhat wetter since the 1970s. This will probably continue, and the tropics will move further south.

The psychology of climate change denialWeather is a contrary beast and while it is true that the south-east and south-west will probably get drier, it is impossible to predict precisely what will happen weather-wise at a local level. We also need to remember that predictions are based on climate models and these differ. As a result the conclusions also vary.

Global dimming is another uncertainty in this mix. This is the pollution from burning fossil fuels that gathers as a kind of ugly cloud that reflects the sun’s rays and prevents some sunlight and warmth getting through to the earth’s surface. While some think this masks the true impact of global warming, most scientists are more cautious.

So the problem we face is scientifically complex, the economic tools we are using are inappropriate, and the long-term consequences for local areas in terms of weather and events likes bushfires, largely unknown. Global warming sceptics would be more helpful if these were the issues they emphasized rather than just retreating into a psychology of denial, or a contrariness that is no longer funny.

Religious leaders also face a challenge here. These issues are not just scientific, but social and ultimately moral. The Catholic church has a sophisticated moral tradition and it is precisely this that we need to apply to the global warming complexities with which we are dealing.



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Existing comments

A thoughtful analysis that is much appreciated. I would wish that Michael Duffy, and the sceptics whom he interviews, could visit any of the atolls of Tuvalu where the fresh water table has risen 20 to 30 cm in the past 50 years, approaching the point where it is impossible to grow fresh fruit and vegetables. The rise means that there are 20 to 30 cm less depth of the coralline sand in which to grow plants as the water level sets the "base" of the soil profile, and also that the fresh water (which is replenished by rain from above but literally "floats" on seawater below) is becoming more saline and therefore less supportive of plants such as pawpaw, banana, swamp taro and some green leaf veges. Global warming is forcing atoll-dwellers increasingly to work offshore (many as mariners on foreign ships) and remit funds so that their families can buy imported food. Another 30 cm rise would render the atolls uninhabitable.

Mike Foale | 17 April 2007

In his Easter message, Archbishop Pell writes that he is "deeply skeptical about man-made catastrophic global warming, but still open to further evidence". I'm relieved that he is open to further evidence; he could read a textbook on Physical Chemistry.
Until he does that, he would be best served by saying nothing lest he sound a lot more like the Rapturists of the Southern Baptist Church.
Cardinal Pell's Easter message is in my opinion wholly the wrong sort of ecumenism.
David Arthur | 24 April 2007


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