Q and A with Dr Haydn Washington, co-author of Climate Change Denial

Climate Change Denial by Haydn Washington and John CookOur publisher Earthscan recently published a Q & A with my co-author Haydn Washington about our book Climate Change Denial which I've reproduced in full below:

1)      Why did you think this book was needed?

Well I have been an environmental scientist for more than three decades, and I became fascinated with the fact the science around climate change was becoming more and more certain, yet the number of people believing in it was decreasing. As journalist George Monbiot has noted ‘we are losing’ in terms of climate change action. What was going on? I couldn’t find a book that showed this. There were books about the denial industry funded by the fossil fuel lobby, but not a book that covered denial in all its forms, including within government and within ‘we the people’. Climate change denial is holding back effective action to solve the world’s most serious environmental problem. A book dealing with denial in detail was definitely needed.

2)      How do you distinguish between skepticism and denial?

They are actually opposites. Skepticism is about looking for the truth, denial is about hiding from it. All scientists should be skeptics, but when you get an overwhelming ‘preponderance of evidence’ from many different types of research, a true scientist will accept it – a denier won’t. Many climate change deniers call themselves ‘skeptics’ and say the word ‘denier’ is an insult, as if they are ‘holocaust deniers’. However, people can deny anything, but when people deny the fact that every Academy of Science and 97% of practicing climate scientists say human-caused climate change is happening and very serious – it is important to call these people by their true name. They are deniers.

 3)      You discuss probability and uncertainty. Isn't the climate science settled?

Yes - but with a qualifier! This is where deniers love to confuse the issue. In science nothing is 100% settled. Science doesn’t ‘prove’ anything, it provides the most probable explanation for observations. However, when something is more than 95% likely it is generally accepted as true. There is always something scientists don’t understand completely in any field of science. However, a consensus does build up and becomes the mainstream view. This has happened with climate science over the last few decades. Each year brings more evidence to confirm this consensus. It is important to understand that the 10% of a field we don’t fully understand does not refute the 90% of the field that we do. That is the case with climate science. We know we are warming the Earth and this will have huge impacts. We know enough to act, yet denial is holding us back from doing this.

 4)      You mentioned the science has become more certain, yet the percentage of people believing in human-caused climate change has gone down. What is going on?

Yes, this is counter intuitive. The problem is people are not 100% rational, and in a battle between science and beliefs, ideologies, self-image and fear – science will often lose out. Denial is a delusion and as far as we know humans are the only species that denies reality. People used to think it was because people ‘didn’t have enough information’. However, a fascinating study in Norway showed people did accept climate change, but did not turn it into action. It is useful to divide psychological denial into three areas – literal (such as the denial industry), interpretive (such as government spin) and implicatory (denial in ‘we the people’). It is this last type we focus on, as this explains why belief in climate change has declined.

 5)      So why do you think people deny environmental problems such as climate change?

We discuss many causes. They include fear of change, failure in values, fixation on economics, ignorance of ecology, gambling on the future, the media, and despair and apathy. We also discuss the denial within our governments, which pretend to take action, but in reality little happens. The problem with climate change action has always been lack of political will. Collectively, we can change that if we roll back denial.

A large percentage of us have the capacity to believe what we want to believe, to delude ourselves. I describe it as a sort of ‘self-interested sloth’. Some of us want to amble along in the same old way and ignore reality. Fear of change is a major part of this, yet climate change is happening so to deny it has major consequences. If people are afraid, if they think they may be ‘bad’ people, if something conflicts with their self image, then they have the capacity to go into denial. The media is another problem, as it loves controversy but demonstrates ‘balance as bias’. It is not balance to put all of climate science on one side and have a denier from a conservative think tank on the other. In fact often it is even worse as some media will only feature deniers.

 6)    How did you break down the different forms of climate change denial arguments?

We list several ways people have categorised denial arguments. One of the most useful is to list them under ‘conspiracy theories’, ‘fake experts’, ‘impossible expectations’, ‘misrepresentations/logical fallacies’ and ‘cherry picking’. ‘Climategate’ was the hacking of emails from the Uni of East Anglia, where it was claimed there was a conspiracy to ‘hide the decline’ of global temperatures. In fact the email was about the decline of tree ring growth correlating with temperature, and 8 seperate inquiries have cleared these scientists. There are many fake experts who claim there is no consensus, yet surveys show 97% of practicing climate scientists agree we cause current warming. That is as good as you get in science. There are logical fallacies, such as ‘global warming happened in the past’. Yes it did, but this time we are the cause, forcing climate faster than in the past. After all, bushfires happened in the past, yet we know arson is not a good idea! Cherry picking is a common denial argument, such as ‘global warming stopped in 1998’, which picked one particular data set. Comprehensive data shows warming hasn’t stopped, and that most of the warming is going into the oceans. The full list of denial arguments is shown on my co-author’s website www.skepticalscience.com.

7)      Are there any solutions, can we roll back denial?

Yes there are, which is the frustrating part. Denial is a delusion that has become a pathology that will cause huge impacts on ecosystems and the societies that rely on them. Yet we can break free of denial and accept reality - and we have to. We can roll back denial by examining our worldview and ethics, our ideologies, by accepting related problems such as population, by moving to a steady state economy, by focusing on ecological sustainability, by getting the message across better, and by using multiple strategies that work. The technological solutions exist, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, and we discuss these. We also discuss ‘false’ solutions such as nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, which involve their own denial of problems.

8)   Do you think it is it too late to solve climate change?

No, it’s never too late. Any action is better than none. These problems can be solved, and not just climate change, but all the other environmental problems the world faces. Humanity is inventive and creative and when we accept reality, we can do amazing things. It is time for us to accept that we have problems that we must solve. To do that we must abandon denial.

Posted by John Cook on Saturday, 7 May, 2011

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