For April, 2015

Addressing Climate Change Denial

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Denial of Climate Change and its Effects images-1

Sometimes we humans look as though we are running over a cliff to our downfall by denying or ignoring the destruction we inflict on our habitat, the biosphere and its ecosystems: causing climate change by greenhouse gas emissions, exhausting natural resources, converting almost all wild habitats for our use and polluting air, water and soil through waste and chemicals.

There is now seen to be a risk that the average global temperature will rise by 4 0 C   during this century. Any average global temperature increase above 4 0 C is hard to adapt to. For example it would make life difficult if not impossible in much of the tropics, and eventually lead to the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and the rising of seal levels by many metres. To find anything comparable we have to go back to the Pliocene – last epoch of the Tertiary period, 3m years ago. There were no continental glaciers in the northern hemisphere (trees grew in the Arctic), and sea levels were 25 metres higher than today’s. In this kind of heat, the death of the Amazon is as inevitable as the melting of Greenland.

We are already beginning to experience extreme weather more often, resulting in drought or floods, loss of  crops and human life, and destruction of the living environment.   We do not know how much it will accelerate as one effect of it leads to another (such as ocean acidification meaning less CO2 absorbed by the ocean).

A three-degree increase in global temperature – possible as early as 2050 – would throw the carbon cycle into reverse. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, vegetation and soils start to release it. So much carbon pours into the atmosphere that it would pump up atmospheric concentrations by 250 parts per million by 2100, boosting global warming by another 1.5C.   There could be runaway change (See David Wasdell’s video interviews on this site  and his own papers). The chances of avoiding four degrees of global warming are poor if the rise reaches three degrees and triggers a runaway thaw of permafrost. The chances of avoiding five degrees of global warming are negligible if a rise of four degrees releases trapped methane from the sea bed.

We could then repeat some of the crises in the past that took 1m years to recover from, but this time with it man-made. When temperatures were between 4 and 5 degrees higher 55m years ago, following a very sudden burst of global warming in the early Eocene, alligators and other subtropical species were living high in the Arctic.  With 5 degree increase it can mean large-scale extinction of plant and animal species and the loss of millions of human lives, like 65m years ago with the extinction of the dinosaurs. It could then rise higher as at the end of the Permian, 251m years ago, when global temperatures rose by six degrees, and 95% of species were wiped out. For the effects of temperature increases by degree see an overview online.

This can all be avoided if we act now both to reduce carbon emissions and take carbon out of the air (which we can now) and store it safely, geologically or biologically, copying natural processes, or by drilling deep underground (See for example artificial trees and also in the journal Scientific American)  More research funding is needed for this. Clean BioChar or biological charcoal that does not reduce the oxygen in the air and does not put the carbon back over time could be part of the solution but research is essential to ensure safety with this and other solutions. See the Permaculture network’s warning on BioChar.

Part of the failure to take these risks on board and address them fully is denial, and defence against feelings of anxiety or despair and powerlessness.

Part of it is due to the limitations of our unchecked cognition as it has evolved so far.

Mixed together this is a powerful cocktail.

For an overview see the New Scientist 18 August 2014 article by George Marshall “Hear no climate evil”.

George Marshall is the author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, which was published by Bloomsbury between August and October 2014 in 3 countries. He is the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network in Oxford, UK

Defence against anxiety and powerlessness

The overwhelming and seemingly hopeless struggle portrayed by the media and many campaigners provokes feelings of anxiety and powerlessness.

Our response to climate change is uncannily similar to an even more universal disavowal: unwillingness to face our own mortality, says neuroscientist Janis Dickinson of Cornell University. She argues that aggressive assertion of group identities, political polarisation, and angry denial found around climate change is consistent with “Terror Management Theory” (TMT) which is used to explain behaviour in the face of reminders of mortality. See J. L. Dickinson (2009) The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change in Ecology and Society, Vol 14 (1). Online

And more recently her paper on How Framing Climate Change Influences Citizen Scientists’ Intentions to Do Something About It published online by Taylor and Francis

This shows how mentioning dangers for humans did not increase participants’ interest in taking personal action on climate change, but mentioning dangers for birds was highly effective! Others, such as psychoanalytic psychotherapist, Rosemary Randall on the Question Time on Climate Change event organised by the RSA in London describe typical defences too. See the video of this discussion

Limitations through Unchecked Cognition and Cultural Biases

The Noble prize winner in (behavioural) economics, the psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, has studied human cognition and behavior in the market place. Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics for his research on the psychological biases that distort decision-making, in the market place and elsewhere. One of these is “loss aversion”, which means that people are far more sensitive to losses than gains. One form of this is ignoring the compound interest on debt and credit card loans the increase of which was part of the recent debt crisis. This is hard enough to do mathematically. Take J. Zinman’s powerful analogy for compound interest using a chessboard of a $1 of interest per square that doubles until the 64th. Try estimating it. It is by then $9000 quadrillion.

Kahnemann regards climate change as a perfect example as it seems like a distant problem that requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future. So some argue that we have to experience, see and feel the effects in the present to act, have an emotional shock and feel the hurt, if you like – but that might be too late and result in panic.

Many of us have no spare time, energy, money or attention to address it with others either – immediate survival or earning enough to support our families occupy us.

Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, describes it as the “perfect market failure”. As Marshall points out, discussions about economics invariably turn into self defeating cost-benefit analyses:

Stern offers a choice between spending 1 per cent of annual income now, or risking losing 20 per cent of it in 50 years’ time. This language is almost identical to that Kahneman used two decades earlier in his experiments on loss aversion. Is it surprising that when a choice is framed like this, policy-makers are intuitively drawn towards postponing action and taking a gamble on the future?

Another of Kahneman’s biases is an “assimilation bias” that bends information to fit people’s existing values and prejudices. If cost/loss and uncertainty around climate change really are universal psychological barriers, it is hard to explain why 15 per cent of people fully accept the threat and are willing to make personal sacrifices to avert it. Most of the people in this group are left wing or environmentalists and have managed to turn climate change into a narrative that fits with their existing criticisms of industry and growth.

Uncertainty and ambiguity leave room for people to choose to believe what they want. Scientists reinforce distance with computer predictions set two generations in the future and endless talk of uncertainty. One of the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses the word “uncertain” more than once per page. The “uncertainty principle” in the original global climate change conference statements for assessing and guarding against risk  does not counteract this. Climate change is complex, there is a lot of difference in the effects in different countries or locations, and the models currently cannot predict accurately all the time, leaving room for the doubters to point out where there are contradictions. Scientists need to have amongst them specialists in communication who can provide the information on what is known and agreed on, and what the effects and risks are, while being clear on what is uncertain, especially in the details; constructive scepticism and disagreement is necessary for good science but it does not have to lead to inaction.

The media in the UK like to promote debate – but this can be without regard to how much the key participants on each side have valid knowledge and information. This makes it all the more uncertain. Up till recently such debates have not been between climate scientists with a similar knowledge base – though now 97% of them agree on the serious fast increase in greenhouse gases and the human contribution.

Conservatives may justify climate inaction on the grounds of cost and uncertainty but they, too, are able to accept both as long as they speak to their core values. As former US vice-president and climate sceptic Dick Cheney said: “If there is only a 1 per cent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.”

Strongly held values can explain the convictions of those at the ends of the political spectrum, but they do not adequately explain the apparent indifference of the large majority in between. If asked, most agree that climate change is a serious threat, but without prompting they do not volunteer it. This indifference is another form of denial, with which we started.

The law of unintended consequences and Lock-in

This is another example of the limits of unchecked cognition. Robert Merton, the creator of many key concepts in sociology in the last century, first named this and identified five factors involved: ignorance (including info not available), error, immediate interest or gain overriding any long term damage, basic values and self-defeating prophecy.

Merton, Robert K. (Dec 1936). “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”. American Sociological Review 1 (6): 894–904. See online

What is called “lock-in” – habits, routines, social norms and cultural values, unquestioned assumptions, and of course locked-in longer term investments (as in energy infrastructure or the extraction of coal, oil or natural gas) – are all part of this. This can put the response time globally into 3 or 4 decades, even if we act as fast as we can now.

Ways Forward

The problem itself is far from being what Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington in Seattle calls a “perfect moral storm” or market failure, and the situation is not hopeless; but dealing with it will require a more sophisticated analysis of human cognition and the role of socially shared values in building conviction, and a mutually reinforcing multi-pathway approach going in the same direction to make the necessary transition.

Take the presentation of information to raise awareness. Facts can be produced on waste and pollution such as the production of each laptop generating waste that is 4000 times its weight, see Hawken, R. and others Natural Capitalism (1999). But this may not have an emotional impact or leave a lasting memory.

Sometimes visual presentations have more impact. A video was produced to show the accumulated impact of used car waste. Carbon Visuals: Animating the world’s cars

This has to be done alongside practical examples of how people are tackling the problem.

To see how the sun-earth system together with the biosphere determine our climate is very complex, possibly beyond our modelling capacities. This requires scientists working together. Historical studies going back millions of years need to be combined with mathematical modelling based on more recent data (see again David Wasdell). But as James Lovelock said recently we cannot afford to spend too much time on the details of climate modelling. He points out that “all the modelling we do shows that the climate is poised on the jump up to a new hot state. It is accelerating so fast you could say we are already in it.” He says we need to focus on learning more about climate change so to be able to adapt to it better. We cannot afford to “fiddle while Rome is burning” as he put it. He points out that global warming has hardly been mentioned in the UK election campaign in April 2015.

There is a growing awareness that we need to focus equally on reducing carbon emissions and on taking carbon out of the air by mimicking nature, geo-engineering that is very low risk, as mentioned above (6th paragraph). This is beginning to be addressed in the recent reports from the IPCC.

Again as with leaders in other systems, people’s assumptions, agendas, reputations, research grants and the years they have invested in research or models can be at stake. Trust, and real collaboration in the service of something bigger than any individual, alongside the commitment to the principles of good scientific method and truth, is needed for this to happen.

One way of counteracting the inability to see or comprehend and feel the accumulated impact of a number of small actions at a collective level is shown by the work of Peter Senge and colleagues. They point out the need for – and give examples of – systems leaders who bring people together who represent different parts of a system within society. They then use tools and skills to help them break down the barriers to trust, real dialogue and reflection between them so that they can see and make sense of the system and its interacting parts together. They can then work together on generating a future vision, creating solutions, trying them out in practice and learning by doing. Others can then follow. For methods and examples see their paper. They give examples of projects in cities bringing together the public and private sectors with community-based organisations, and multinational companies designing more sustainable products, production processes and product life cycles involving their supply chains throughout the world.

We need a critical mass of leaders who have the capacities for this. Senge and others identify some of these capacities, such as to:

(1) See and map the larger system with others sharing the same question, with the humility, based on an awareness of their own limitations, to go beyond their own vantage point or areas of knowledge or interest.

(2) Foster reflection and more generative conversation to:

Open minds to surface assumptions and see that the problems may be in and between each of us in the system, as well as “out there”,

Open hearts to listen,

Open the will to let go of pre-set goals and agendas,

and so build relationships in the process.

(3) Shift the conversation from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future by sharing aspirations and building a common vision, then trying things out and learning in a safe way, building confidence by joint accomplishments and working through tensions and frustrations on the way.

This can lead to a mature understanding of the situation and of the conditions for positive social change and innovation

At the same time “massive small change” at the local, national and international level is a key driver of change as ideas can be tested and examples and role models created for others to follow, while empowering groups and networks. At the international level this can be a small enterprise of young engineers creating affordable and easy to use technical solutions to problems in the less developed economies where there is lack of access to electricity, poor irrigation or drought, crops failing, etc. (The massive small change and engineers without borders network organises occasional conferences that support this). Or local community groups and enterprises around the world, in rich and poor economies, creating more sustainable ways of living that are  attractive and at the same time fit the needs and realities of the 21st century (The Transition Towns Network and the older Natural Step Movement are examples of these). Local businesses wanting to explore a more environmentally aware approach to prosperity and growth, within ecologically safe limits can form socio-economic networks for sustainability in the full sense in their local communities, supported by their local universities and by national or international knowledge and learning networks and alliances. Local community networks are often involved with scientists too in regenerating local ecosystems or in protecting animal and plant species from the effects of rising global temperatures or the destruction of  natural habitats. This means looking for the type of ecosystem best adapted to this century and not trying to conserve the type of wild area we are used to. For UK and Ireland Rewilding and for a Wildlife Trust’s comments on it go to.

System leaders, groups and networks like these can transform anxiety, doom and denial into a sense of urgency with a realistic confidence and hope as more and more practical, cost-effective and attractive solutions are found and demonstrated. People can feel empowered, able to do things together with others. Innovators like these in businesses and local communities, within networks, can be a key force for change that national governments and international forums or agencies can encourage, support and be informed by.

This can counteract the defences and the limits of unchecked cognition that lead to a breakdown of co-operation and our fears becoming a reality, an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy (to use another of Merton’s concepts) at work.


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