Swimming against the tide: why we’re losing the emissions battle

Address by Peter Boyer to the Teacher Professional Development meeting of the Primary Industry Centre for Science Education, Hobart, 6 December 2010

A 19959 “Mercury” article by Hobart science teacher Murray Yaxley (“Rhombus”)

A 1959 “Mercury” article by Hobart science teacher Murray Yaxley (“Rhombus”)

[The presentation began with a viewing of an excerpt from a 1958 US television production and a Hobart newspaper article from 1959 (see right)]

The first item we just saw came from an educational documentary series called Unchained Goddess, produced in 1958 by Frank Capra for The Bell Telephone Hour. For many years the series was used widely in American schools as a teaching aid. The second item is an article for our very own Mercury newspaper in 1959, written for young readers by a Hobart science teacher, Murray Yaxley.

Two thoughts some to mind. First, human-induced, or anthropogenic, greenhouse warming was reasonably widely known half a century ago, in the late 1950s. Second, the public record about the dangers of us changing the climate counts for little against the apparently unthinkable prospect of us changing the way we do things.

Science and scientists may now be more prominent in the public arena than at any time in history. This isn’t just a consequence of greenhouse warming. The intellectual revolution that began with Copernicus grew steadily over the centuries, given a fillip in the 1800s by Darwinian evolution and the rise of the inventor. At the end of World War II, the top scientists in fields such as medicine and atomic physics took on a god-like status.

Having super-human powers ascribed to you is a heady experience. Scientists are only human, after all. In the post-war economic boom, business interests were quick to see the potential commercial benefit of having a few scientists endorsing their particular products. They offered handsome rewards to scientists prepared to use their professional authority to tweak the truth, just a little bit.

Merchants of Doubt is the title of a meticulously researched study of the links between science and American big business in the latter half of the 20th century. Its authors, two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, have lifted the lid on the involvement of prominent scientists, mainly former physicists, who worked together in a series of campaigns against scientific positions that posed a threat to business interests. Using doubt as their weapon, these scientists sought to undermine the science linking smoking with lung cancer, sulphate emissions with acid rain, and chlorofluorocarbons with ozone depletion.

Another link was emerging into prominence in the 1980s, a link that was especially troubling to corporations engaged in the mining of fossil fuels and the use of these fuels in mining and manufacturing. In the 1950s not too many people had taken notice of the science that caught the attention of Frank Capra and Murray Yaxley, but by the 1980s things had changed. After thirty years going nowhere, the global mean temperature rose steadily through the 1980s, and failing to find any evidence of a natural cause the world scientific community was beginning to accept human-induced greenhouse warming as the likeliest explanation.

It didn’t take Einstein to realise that if this science caused enough public concern to force politicians into decisive action, then some big business would go to the wall. These corporations buttressed their position by waging war on greenhouse science, aiming to isolate the scientists espousing the theory of anthropogenic greenhouse warming, and to feed public fear in the economic consequences of rapid response.

The war remains unresolved, because the corporations waging it are still very much alive and kicking while the evidence for anthropogenic greenhouse warming continues to mount and the science becomes ever-stronger. It’s a life-and-death struggle between two irreconcilable positions.

In simpler times it was thought that the loftiest ideals would naturally rise to the top and guide our collective future. Under this sort of scenario, in the event of such a clash of interests as we’re now witnessing, the benefit of reducing and eventually eliminating our use of fossil fuels would be obvious to all. Everyone would reduce their demand for precious, finite energy, and commercial interests would switch to renewables. Given that the warnings about carbon emissions have been coming from science at a rising volume since the 1950s (the first warnings can actually be traced back to the 1930s), by now we should be well on the way to fixing the problem.

Yet we’re not. Our carbon emissions are not only higher than they’ve ever been, but they’re rising at a faster rate than they’ve ever risen. The latest estimates from the Global Carbon Project show that while emissions were reduced in 2009, the cause was simply the economic downturn. Next year the global emissions trajectory will be heading upward again.

The message from science clearly isn’t getting through. The “merchants of doubt” are winning, and they’re winning because they have everything on their side. It’s not the right science that will win this battle, but the right psychology. Their message, like that of advertisers of fast cars and comfort food, is palatable, soothing, reassuring and non-threatening. Advertisers aren’t stupid; they know how to engage our attention. The fact that they haven’t worked out how to “sell” the threat from global warming isn’t because they’re incompetent but because the problem is inherently very difficult to sell to humans biologically conditioned to shield themselves from vague negative signals.

One of the most acute observers of the role of psychology in our perceptions of climate change is the English environmental thinker George Marshall. In a recent lecture (you can find it on YouTube, in three parts 1, 2, 3), Marshall talked about our failure to take in what climate science is telling us. This, he says, is a failure of our “risk thermostat”. We readily respond to threat when it’s visible and immediate, has happened before, has an obvious cause, is coming from outside our group, and will directly affect us. Climate change is none of these: it’s invisible, unprecedented, drawn out, its causes are complex, it stems from within our group (that is, we are the cause), and it has indirect impacts. So the risk thermostat doesn’t readily kick in.

A Norwegian study cited by Marshall found that denial of global warming was socially organized. To quote the report, denial “took place in response to social circumstances and was carried out through a process of social interaction.” In other words, people tacitly agreed to exclude climate change from their unwritten list of acceptable conversation topics. If certain annoying people are foolish enough at a dinner-party to raise the topic of, say, the effect of air travel on the carbon budget, the reaction is invariably silence followed by a change of topic. So knowing or not knowing emerged as “a political act” in which people used a series of interpretive narratives to deflect disturbing information and normalise a particular version of reality. We enter into social compacts, unwritten agreements about what we can publicly acknowledge and talk about.

Our beliefs aren’t founded on rational thought. Instead, they’re socially constructed from components which aren’t necessarily rational. A Swiss study found nine different strategies used to deny climate change: strategies of displaced commitment (“I protect the environment in other ways”), of condemning the accuser (“You have no right to challenge me”), denying responsibility (“I’m not the main cause of this problem”), rejecting blame (“I have done nothing wrong”), ignorance (“I didn’t know”), powerlessness (“I can’t make any difference”), fabricated constraints (“There are too many impediments”), cynicism (“society is corrupt”) and comfort (“It’s too difficult to change my behaviour”). These story-lines are repeated by others to become consolidated in social norms. Much stronger than rationality in shaping these norms is what our peers believe, so the big climate challenges must deal not with the content of messages but the shaping of peer beliefs.

We choose to distance ourselves from the issue of climate change. Because it’s so commonly couched as a global problem, we’re able to exclude it from issues close to us, such as our rates, or the neighbour’s dog, or the state of the roads. Because it’s perceived as a slowly-developing problem, we choose to put it out of our minds because it’s not going to affect us; only our children or grandchildren. Because it’s seen as a discrete public issue, we choose to compartmentalise it, so that while passionately advocating action on emissions, we take regular flying holidays. Encouraged by government and business to take small personal actions, we succumb to token offsetting behaviour (“I have a strict switching-off regime at home so therefore I can take that overseas holiday with a clear conscience”).

Or we can succumb to cynicism: “The world is going to end; we must enjoy it while we can”. This latter trend is emerging quite strongly among young affluent consumers who, while understanding the veracity of the science, enjoy their lifestyle too much to want it to be compromised in any way. Such cynicism can give rise to all sorts of seriously problematic behaviour posing a still-small but growing threat to our social fabric.

Now, in the wake of national election campaigns in Australia and elsewhere which failed to address climate policy, advocates for action observe with little enthusiasm yet another attempt at an international solution, in the UNFCC meeting in Cancun, Mexico. It shouldn’t surprise us that our political leaders continue to fail us. Leadership demands vision and courage, and these are rare attributes among politicians as they are among everyone else.

Yet we all have it in us to be leaders. It is incumbent on all those of us able to see the problem to get together, to marshal our personal and collective resources, keep up our efforts to persuade our fellow-citizens, as gently as we can, that they need to come on board, and together help our elected and appointed leaders to see the course they must now take. Not easy, far from straightforward, but necessary.

The obstacle in stirring people and governments into action isn’t the scientific message or the way it’s being presented, but the psychological blockages that make misinformation such a pushover. Our journey to a safe climate has not yet begun, and we won’t get any traction until we work out how to render these psychological obstacles ineffective. That will need some special skills in government, bureaucracy and media that have so far been little in evidence.

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1 Response to Swimming against the tide: why we’re losing the emissions battle

  1. John says:

    I applaud your synopsis of the reason more people don’t seem to be engaging with the overpowering scientific arguement for action against Climate Change.
    Just recently, I embarked upon a journey by bike around Australia to try to engage communities in ways they could address their energy use, using the carrot of reducing their energy bills. Overwhelmingly, the participants in these fora were people like me in their later years – it would seem that anything that has the ability to make younger folk stop and take stock of their profligate use of energy does not gain traction with them. Almost as if, by ignoring the problem, it might go away.
    My own talks centred on asking people to make a commitment to 3 things they could do now to reduce their use of energy and an understanding that by engaging with 3 others as well, they could multiply the benefits to the community at large.
    It is yet to be seen whether my efforts bear useful fruit but it was something I needed to do anyway, for to do nothing was not an option for me. In the New Year I will be headed down to Tasmania, to take my talks to that beautiful part of the world in the hope that I can make a difference with what I am doing.
    I agree, we are ALL leaders (or have that capability) and it is incumbent upon us all to do whatever it takes to turn this juggernaut around. After all, even if it were all a hoax, then the worst we would do is create a better world!

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