Facing the bad but preventing the worst

Originally posted May 2010. (Since then, the climate denialists have been ever more active in their death threats and what George Monbiot calls ‘Astroturfing’ and lobbying, and Obama has just approved the building of a pipeline to transport oil from the Tar Sands to Texas.)

I went to a talk this week at the RSA called ‘Facing climate change’ by Clive Hamilton who has written an essential book called Requiem for a Species. I’m not writing in this post about the cultural and heritage sectors, except to say that his position is vital for us to consider, and so I’m just summarising his speech. The book addresses cultural shifts, the need to reimagine all our political and lifestyle decisions. It’s not yet another essay to prove anthropogenic climate change but is about why we can’t move forward, why the responses to science are either hostile or inadequate.
He described the vicious cyberbullying of climate scientists, how death threats, break-ins and hackings of senior scientists have escalated. Science (which has also been championed as a tool of progress) has now been characterised as left wing ideology and climate denialism has been funded by right wing thinktanks. Now that the BNP has adopted climate denialism it’s now inextricably linked with right wing ideology (though he also notes that the left wing has also been dismissive of environmentalism.)

He described how the 4th IPCC report (2007) seriously underestimated climate change impacts and now how the evidence of increasingly rapid warming has been buried in avalanche of reports around Climategate. (One statistic out of many he showed: Warming of 3 to 4 C is now associated with 360 to 420 ppmv of CO2 rather than 500 to 600, as previously thought, Schneider and Schneider, Nature Geoscience, Dec 2009). The sustained and media driven assault on science led to public surveys of more disbelief in climate change than before Copenhagen.

He tells us that it is virtually impossible to avoid dramatic change to the climate this century. It is already happening. (We knew this before but it hurts to hear it again and so convincingly.) He talks about some of the research that explains the modelling. For example, the Tyndall Centre has explored a range of two figs defining the curve upon which our future depends, of when emissions peak and how quickly they decline. How likely are we to peak at 2020 and decline by 6 to 7 % every year afterwards? The Stern review looked at some historical precedents to work out the answer. When and where gas and nuclear were introduced you would expect a big rate of emissions decline but it was minimal. The best incidence was when the Soviet Union’s  economy collapsed.

So, the likely scenario is 4C by 2070, which is hotter than the planet has been for 15 million years. To avoid this level we must have reductions of 9% annually. But this has been seen as impossible because it’s equivalent to global war mobilisation on the scale we saw in the 2nd world war. I feel incredulous that this is seen to be impossible: we did it before to resist a dictator, we can’t consider it now to resist the loss of a planet most species can live in? The reason why we don’t mobilise is that the majority response is denial, including casual denial and disengagement. Others might attempt to ‘do something’ but with maladaptive strategies, for example with minor diversions, greenwashing, blame shifting, reducing the problem in scale or distance, or by creating benign fictions. Adaptive strategies are the only helpful approach (and even so, without global radical political action they won’t avert some catastrophe) as the only healthy way we can deal with the situation is to express and manage our emotions, to solve problems and to readjust our values. He cited something called post-traumatic growth theory: if you see your mortality you’re more likely to seek material comfort but if you’ve had major trauma you’re more likely to be more empathetic, less greedy. So, we need to experience despair in order to develop generosity. You must ‘move forward in the dark’ with small steps even if you can’t see your victories.

Someone asked him: Should we be allowing people to despair? His belief is that if you don’t despair you’re not listening to the scientists. Being optimistic might have been a defensible position a decade ago.  He said: ‘I’m optimistic that it’s going to be bad, but also that we can do lots of things to mean it’s not as bad as it can be.’ USA is especially allured by optimism but this isn’t so far leading to radical breakthroughs in reducing emissions.

Another question: What would you do if you were a politician? He said that we have to completely reimagine how we deal with it. He noted that climate was not mentioned in our election because 3 parties don’t differ in their policies very much. Many scientists thought that the IPCC and Stern reports would blow away the denialists but climate science is too much of a fundamental challenge to the enlightenment conceit.

Another question: There’s all this emphasis on climate change but why not tackle biodiversity decline, as it’s a far more serious issue. Hamilton’s response suggested that biodiversity is entirely wrapped up with it, it’s not a separate issue. Ecocide in the oceans and forests is causing climate change and in turn climate change destroys biodiversity.

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