If someone doesn’t want to believe something then what can you do to change their mind? Trust me, it’s more difficult than you think: it isn’t just the simple case of someone not believing something, the key word is “want” – if they don’t want to believe then there is almost nothing you can do about it. Even if all the evidence is against them.
I see this all the time: on the TV news, in the printed media, on blogs and discussion boards, and in the streets; this constant battle between two entrenched positions – be it over religious idealism, abortion, vaccinations or anything else that invokes emotional involvement – is almost unbearable to witness. For the most part, this battle will grind on and on until the various parties give up trying to convince the other side, through lack of energy, lack of time, illness and even death. People have died for their beliefs, in their millions – but there are always others to take their place.
The battle between the two sides over climate change, or anthropogenic global warming (AGW), won’t be ending any time soon; and there will be blood, mark my words. This is more than a battle for intellectual superiority – it is battle over an idealistic principle, and that principle is…actually, let’s come back to that. First of all, given the title of this essay, I think we need to consider the words “denial” and “denier”.
Put simply, denial is an unwillingness to accept a position: I deny that white people are racially superior to black people, which to most of us is a reasonable position to take. The opposing position is less common, but nonetheless can be couched in similar terms; the denial that black people are racially equal to white people. Go back less than 100 years, though, and the second position would stand you in pretty good stead as a European or American citizen wanting to get ahead in the civilized world.
A denier is someone who adopts a denial position. For instance, I deny that economic growth is a necessary characteristic of human society, which places me very much in the minority of people in the civilized world. I’ve discussed the reason for this elsewhere, needless to say the opposing position – that economic growth is a necessity – is far more cultural than based on an absolute body of factual evidence. That is important, because it helps understand why denial positions are so difficult to deal with: if someone is deeply inculcated with a particular belief, such as economic growth being a necessity, then no matter how much contrary physical evidence is presented to them, they are highly unlikely to change their position. If that physical evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to their belief system then we say they are “in denial of the facts”.
That, of course, often only serves to inflame things.
The Danger Of Denial
I make no bones about my belief in anthropogenic global warming, for various reasons, and not just the scientific evidence; so if you are reading this and thinking about clicking somewhere else because you don’t agree with me, then click away – this essay is aimed at those people who more or less have the same mindset as myself, and are in the all-too-common situation of feeling they have to defend that position. To you, dear reader, I offer the following words: you are in danger of losing your sanity.
As we have seen, and probably realised from experience, arguing with a Climate Change Denier is like wrestling in a deep, muddy pit: it can be filthy, exhausting and, worst of all, there seems to be no way out. Personal issues aside, the wider danger is that the other side might get their way – and that person, or group, or business, or government, will then be able to spread their own beliefs in the knowledge that there is no-one willing to take the opposing position. The many people who are wavering, or even understand that AGW is fact, can then be easily tipped into denial. This is what happens in totalitarian states: the ruler’s position becomes the de facto belief.
In ecological terms, this would be disastrous should it happen against AGW, for there would not even be enough dissenters to restart the process of change, let alone carry it through. It’s strange in a way – all the time it has seemed like an endless game of factual table tennis, it has in fact been a battle for the future of humanity, played out in a million places across the globe.
It will come as no surprise that climate science is not completely accurate – it is highly complex, heavily dependent on modelling, and relies on a huge amount of real-time data gathering. If ever a branch of science was a ripe denial opportunity, it is this one. So while the scientists do their job building up the case for action, the deniers continue to hack at the inevitable flaws in the science…two steps forward, one step back, and so on until it is too late to do anything about the environmental changes that the main body of scientists and their proponents had been pretty sure would happen soon. The deniers will have “won” their battle because – and this is where it gets pretty scary – it seems that by the time the changes start to be observed, it is almost impossible to reverse them
On the other hand, the deniers also lose, because we all lose if runaway climate change takes hold.
Now here’s a bit of bad news for an awful lot of people: however complete and convincing the evidence presented, no scientific case will have any effect on a deeply entrenched denier. As I said earlier, the entrenched Climate Change Denier isn’t the slightest bit interested in the main body of evidence. To counter this position, and thus provide the people who are in danger of slipping into the muddy pit with a safety rail, something different is needed: a powerful argument based on a combination of incontrovertible facts, and a heavy dose of good old-fashioned logic or, as Bertrand Russell called it, “the great liberator of the imagination.”
The Logic Bomb
There is an inescapable difference between mathematics and science: in essence, a mathematical proof is an absolute proof, which can never be refuted; a scientific “proof” on the other hand, is transient – it exists until a piece of contrary evidence emerges that is sufficiently powerful to undermine, or at least alter, the “proof”. All science is like this; no matter how credible the evidence, there is always the danger that one day it will be scientifically refuted. This happens quite a lot; not so much in the older branches of science such as classical physics and anatomy, as in far newer areas like quantum physics, microbiology and, as we have seen, climate science.
In mathematics this can never happen if the proof is logically sound.
Now, I’m not saying that it is possible to create a perfect analogue of mathematical proof within a scientific context; but it is possible to use a logical argument to create something that is very, very difficult to deny; largely because it doesn’t depend on predictive science, but on things we already know have happened, and are still happening. I want to make this clear, there is no argument, whether scientific, logical or even physical, that will change the mind of a deeply entrenched Climate Change Denier. On the other hand, a logical argument is far more likely to silence them* and, more importantly, help prevent an impartial or mildly sceptical person from slipping into full-blown denial.
For that reason, I will no longer engage myself in a scientific argument with an ingrained CCD — there really is no point — instead, I will use this: the logical argument against Climate Change Denial.
The history of Climate Change Denial (CCD) is essentially a history of corporate lobbying since the early 1980s. It was the oil companies, the coal mining companies, the car manufacturers, the road constructors, the loggers and all the other corporations who would obviously not be able to carry on business as usual if they were found to be changing the climate, that did it first, and did it big time. The history of AGW denial is deep, dark and sophisticated and it involved some of the finest creative and persuasive minds that have ever graced the corporate and political stages. Corporations were responsible for and funded some of the most successful denial lobbies: think of the Global Climate Coalition, The Heritage Foundation, The Oregon Institute and The Cato Institute for starters. This is taken from an excellent primer about their work, in relation to the activities of ExxonMobil:
Some of those on the list have names that make them look like grassroots citizens’ organisations or academic bodies: the Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, for example. One or two of them, such as the Congress of Racial Equality, are citizens’ organisations or academic bodies, but the line they take on climate change is very much like that of the other sponsored groups. While all these groups are based in America, their publications are read and cited, and their staff are interviewed and quoted, all over the world.
By funding a large number of organisations, Exxon helps to create the impression that doubt about climate change is widespread. For those who do not understand that scientific findings cannot be trusted if they have not appeared in peer-reviewed journals, the names of these institutes help to suggest that serious researchers are challenging the consensus.
Corporations were, and still are responsible for some of the most successful advertising and PR campaigns ever created, trying to convince the public that everything is fine and they should carry on doing what they do. A classic example is the “…we call it life” campaign created by the corporate-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute…
But there are many other, far more subtle examples which – and this is the idealistic principle I alluded to earlier – attempt to convince people that the infinite growth model of Industrial Civilization are fundamentally a “good thing”, and that AGW is just a distraction. You don’t have to explicitly deny something to be a Denier, you can simply sweep it under the carpet; or, as is becoming more common, bury it or pump it into the ground.
If the denier doesn’t agree with you about the history of corporate denial, then they are clearly deluded, and you are within your rights to say so – again and again and again. The historical facts bear this out and no Climate Change Denier can disagree with this part without making themselves look foolish.
As the science has become more certain in favour of AGW, it has become ever more difficult for deniers (by this I mean both individual and collective) to use the scientific argument in their favour. It is, as we have seen, still possible to argue over the fallibility of scientific “proof” and just how large the body of evidence actually is; but with a bit of intelligence, deniers can use a far more subtle tool. This, unfortunately for them, is a big mistake.
As documented in a Newsweek article by Sharon Begley, the style of political lobbying moved, especially in the USA, from blatant stonewalling in the 1980s and 1990s, to an “uncertainty” agenda at the beginning of the 21st century:
If they presented the science honestly, it would have brought public pressure for action,” says Rick Piltz, who joined the federal Climate Science Program in 1995. By appointing former coal and oil lobbyists to key jobs overseeing climate policy, he found, the administration made sure that didn’t happen. Following the playbook laid out at the 1998 meeting at the American Petroleum Institute, officials made sure that every report and speech cast climate science as dodgy, uncertain, controversial—and therefore no basis for making policy. Ex-oil lobbyist Philip Cooney, working for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, edited a 2002 report on climate science by sprinkling it with phrases such as “lack of understanding” and “considerable uncertainty.” A short section on climate in another report was cut entirely. The White House “directed us to remove all mentions of it,” says Piltz, who resigned in protest. An oil lobbyist faxed Cooney, “You are doing a great job.”
Given the huge success corporations have had in dictating the political agenda through lobbying, funding, advising and – particularly in the Bush era – staffing the corridors of power, it’s not surprising such a tactic remains extremely effective. But corporations, and politicians, know that what really drives the economy is public opinion: if people do not have confidence in something then they will not adhere to it, which is why Consumer Confidence is such a crucial economic measure. The moment the buying public loses confidence, then they stop being a buying public, and instead turn into a saving, or even reacting public – which is bad news for everyone in a position of power.
To counter this, the corporate world has had to cultivate an air of concern, whilst ensuring this does not impact on their bottom line. The key word here is Greenwash. When you see a claim that a vehicle is “cleaner” or that deforestation is “sustainable” or that you can “offset” a polluting activity or that emissions can be buried, what you are seeing is the business world allaying the concerns of a public increasingly aware that climate change may be a “bad thing”. If we can be made to believe that our concerns are being accounted for, then we are far less likely to stop spending money, and most unlikely to ever rebel against the status quo.
To reach a conclusion about denial, therefore, what we have to focus on here is the net effect of any of these things: a “cleaner” vehicle is still producing carbon dioxide gas; deforestation, however many trees are replanted, still has a negative effect on the overall forest ecosystem; flying or using electricity still emits greenhouse gases, which cannot be offset like-for-like in any meaningful way; capturing carbon and pumping it underground will never account for a majority of coal-fired electricity generation.
The denial here is, as I said, subtle; but it is most definitely present. We are being manipulated by a collective body with a vested interest in not letting us know how bad AGW will become. If the reality wasn’t so bad, and the deniers didn’t believe in this reality, then they wouldn’t be working so hard to prevent us from knowing the truth.
Now, here’s the final part of your argument; one that is becoming increasingly important to have in your armoury: Who has the most to gain from a popular belief in anthropogenic global warming?
A lot of denial – now that even the most corporate-minded politicians and dirtiest companies at least say humans are causing the climate to change – is now related to the amount of financial benefit it is claimed politicians, scientists, “green” companies and (get this) those campaigning simply to protect nature, will gain from a populace that believes humans are causing the climate to change. I make no bones about my condemnation of the huge amount of money that is being made off the back of people’s concerns to protect the planet; from the small company selling low(er) energy gadgets, to the professional consultancy advising businesses how to be more environmental friendly (or at least appear to be), right up to the aforementioned corporations that need us to keep spending as usual to keep the economy growing. In fact, I write about this all the time on another web site, such is my anger. However, we need to address the increasingly popular accusation that AGW is an invention solely to make money, or hand power to a believing few.
It is worth pointing out the inescapable irony of such an accusation; given the incontrovertible history of lobbying and subsequent financial and power gain that the CCDs have been a party to. I admit that turning such an accusation on its head may seem to be playing into the hands of the deniers, but the accusation itself seems to assume that it is possible to play the same trick on both sides of the fence. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To show this, let’s look at some of the main players, and see what would really happen were AGW to be accepted in all of its scientific legitimacy – how would each player gain, or lose:
Politically, there aren’t any real winners: civilized humanity has screwed up the planet and politicians deservedly look terrible across the board because they have helped bring this upon us. In addition, no politician wishing to profit from greenwashing will be able to pull the wool over the electorate’s eyes for long. Admitting AGW is real and potentially catastrophic makes most of them look stupid and, in the eyes of a free-minded electorate, unelectable.
Corporations don’t win at all, unless they are able to greenwash sufficiently to make us buy more stuff, or do more polluting; but in the end, even the most effective greenwashers will have to admit that if we truly want to prevent climate change, their businesses are screwed. Admitting AGW is real and dangerous makes corporations scared.
The Global Elites are comprised of corporate heads and leading politicians: all but the most paranoid conspiracy theorist has to admit that there is no secret cabal formed of all-powerful elites that will benefit from a belief in AGW; we know who the elites are, and as I have already shown you, AGW is bad news for them.
Scientists are a mixed bag, but if you separate those who may be influenced by corporate and political funding – based on what I have said above – and those who are decoupled from any such funding (and there plenty of scientists who are) it is clear where the division lies, and why some scientists are more radical in their views than others. A fully decoupled scientist has no more or less to gain from AGW than any other member of humanity.
Humanity in general has everything to lose from a rapidly changing climate. However, if we truly believe that humans are causing the climate to change, and that we have to fundamentally change our behaviour, without the meddling of corporations and politicians, and if we do manage to avert catastrophic climate change then, yes, humanity as a whole will benefit, as will virtually every ecosystem on Earth. It’s just that this benefit is not financial – it is far more important than money.
It follows that Climate Change Denial, not acceptance, is the result of a desire to ensure the existing powers that be maintain dominion over ordinary human beings. The denial position is the position of the elite minority that run Industrial Civilization, and that of anyone who knowingly accepts this as a good thing. The terminally flawed principle of economic growth being a necessary part of human society is holding the entire CCD industry together.
Reject this principle, and the entire monolithic Culture of Maximum Harm, along with the denial that humans are on the path towards irreversibly changing the entire global ecosystem, falls apart. Reject this principle and we stand a far better chance of surviving the future.
*Since publishing this article, both here and at The Sietch Blog, I have received a large number of responses from Deniers, both as comments and personal messages. None of these comments address the logical argument presented, merely wishing to reopen the scientific “debate” (a.k.a. sophism). I think this is very telling.
Originally published at http://earth-blog.bravejournal.com/entry/34507