Civility and the Climate Impacts of Denialism

Yesterday, I read an article in the Scientific American discussing a key dilemma that stymies climate action. No standards exist that could provide firm measures of how much carbon emissions reduction is necessary by what date to avoid the worst climate chaos. The article asked the difficult question of how much CO2 we must remove from the atmosphere to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The tendency of political elites to dodge such specific targets results from their avoidance of any basis for judging political policies for having failed.

The article also raised the issue of whether science could develop new techniques of carbon sequestration – “negative emissions” technologies – soon enough to use them to avoid catastrophic climate change. It also questioned whether deployment of such technologies might detract from direct mitigation efforts. Those are interesting and difficult questions.

I have to disagree with the continuing search for new technologies as the answer to the climate crisis. We must cut carbon emissions by reducing the energy we use and waste. Trying to capture the emissions from excessive use and waste cannot solve the underlying problem. However, I appreciated the thoughtful analysis and difficulty in finding and optimizing strategies for slowing, stopping, and reversing global warming before we reach a tipping point beyond which collapse of climate and ecosystems forces societal collapse.

Climate Discussion, or Not

I read that article right after participating in some “discussions” on a Facebook group called, Climate Change Discussion. Discussions of Climate change are not often actual discussions. On this Facebook group, responses to posts frequently devolve into rather juvenile name-calling and nasty shouting matches. On the one hand, some occasionally interesting and informative posts appear there. Too often, however, so-called skeptics attack the person offering such information or opinion as “alarmists,” and use far more hostile epithets. Well, that may be tolerable as far as it goes, but the “alarmists” become targets for a wide range of abusive accusations. Both terms, “alarmists” and “denialists,” are more accusatory than descriptive, with one exception. “Alarmist” implies unjustified panic, while “denialist” implies resistance to facts. The difference is not trivial.

It strikes me as peculiar that those who claim to have “sound reservations” about climate models become so angry with those who present facts that contradict their “skepticism.” Facts, of course, are denied or ignored. The so-called skeptics have no problem denigrating large numbers of scientists who have no other ax to grind other than seeking accurate measures of reality and projecting trends within reasonable parameters. Yet “skeptics” take extreme offense at the idea that insisting on being blind to obvious and demonstrated facts contributes to the delay of any action that might mitigate the devastation that Bangladeshis and others already feel, and some call criminal because the delays cause great suffering and death.

Rising Tides in Ghana

Rising Tides in Ghana

Climate scientists base their findings and projections on vast amounts of time-series data gathered by many field researchers and recording stations around the world. The duplicitous sanctimonious denial of fact and science are puzzling on the surface. Such behavior is at least callus and indifferent to the plight of others who suffer from what we participants in the carbon economy do that causes such suffering. It is understandable that some call it criminal for contributing to a political climate of do-nothing-ism that causes many more deaths than if people just faced reality and our own complicity in its path — and did something about it.

Refined Climate Models and Worsening Crisis

New data have repeatedly confirmed the predictions of climate science models as correct, except that they have repeatedly UNDER-estimated the effects of global warming because various amplifying feedback processes were not at first incorporated into their complex models. Arctic water exposed due to melting sea-ice absorbs more heat than the ice that melted due to atmospheric warming. Melting tundra releases methane, which is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than the CO2 we release directly, which caused the tundra to melt in the first place, etc., etc.

What that all means is that climate science is far beyond the initial hypothesis testing stage; it is at the stage of refining models that have already effectively described the trends in the data and do so more accurately as more data on feedback variables are added to the predictive models. The sad truth is that the improved models consistently forecast a very dire immediate future and are entirely consistent with current climate disruptions. That is why the situation is much worse than initially thought by climate scientists and why denialist politics is so ABSURD.

When a prediction underestimates an outcome that it predicts, that does not mean the ‘theory’ is wrong; it means the theory is incomplete. It might seem unfortunate that climate models did not over-predict the effects, in which case, we would have a little breathing room. As it stands, we do not. On the other hand, over-prediction would have generated far more skepticism and denial than we must overcome now.

The intersection of denialism and science has its roots in complex relations between mainstream (corporate) economics, political corruption, and social-psychological processes within particular groups. But that discussion awaits another post.

Politics of Denial, Technology and Reality

I keep running across obsessively denialist arguments in Face Book groups such as “Climate Change Discussion,” that make claims like, “Green Energy Is Expensive & It Won’t Save The Environment.” They brazenly tout false information, distortions of out-of-date facts, and assumptions that have no factual basis. They seem to reflect no critical thinking ability. Otherwise, we would have to classify them as outright propaganda.

coal-plant_Ghana.Youth.Environmental.Movement

Carbon Emissions are Real. Photo:  Ghana Coal Plant.

Some social psychologists have gone into great detail explaining the complex sources of climate denialism in terms of compliance with social norms, avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and other factors that make it hard for people to believe that such a catastrophic global trend could be happening, even in the face of clear evidence. “Confirmation bias” is a concept that captures much of the psychological basis of the distortions of reality that would seem impossible if one simply looks objectively at the facts. But there is more at play here.

 

Social Psychology of Ideology

After all, who is purely objective? Most people (including scientists) routinely exclude evidence that conflicts with their existing beliefs until the evidence is too strong to resist. People find ways to “interpret” evidence to make it appear to confirm their biases; if that doesn’t work some folks simply deny the validity of the evidence, no matter how strong it is by scientific standards. Only when others in their social group recognize the facts do they come around to the conclusions the facts imply.

There is, of course, the general human resistance to change. In the case of climate disruption, the human changes actually needed to adequately deal with the problem are extreme. People subconsciously know that an adequate response would completely transform the way they live. That is a huge and threatening unknown, very hard to process.

As a social psychologist myself, I certainly understand these processes and the difficulties people face in recognizing a new and threatening reality. That is especially true when a new reality:

  • has seemed until now a speculation about the future,
  • is so massive in scale that it is hard to conceptualize,
  • is thought to be something that happens far away in little known places,
  • seems to not directly affect my life today, and
  • appears to be beyond my own influence anyway.

Ideology and Technology

Some denialists focus more on technology than on climate itself. They pitch for the conventional high-energy technologies of the industrial economy that caused the problem in the first place. Among these folks, the ideology of endless progress through new technology and new materials reigns supreme. That is why the ‘nuclear option’ is so appealing to them.

Bill.Gates_Photo by Platon_Pinterest

Techno-Billionaire Bill. Photo: Pinterest

Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies would have governments pour billions into new nuclear power plant designs and let existing viable technologies languish. As one scientist put it, “nuclear power is an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive way to boil water.” Thermal solar collectors are far more efficient and cost-effective at producing steam. However, existing technologies have no profit potential for new capital investment – no new patents there, only benefit to people and planet. I see no reason to accept techno-billionaires as directors of global energy policy.

 

I have had to conclude that NO single technology, or even a combination of several, can do enough on its own to reach the NEGATIVE carbon emissions now necessary to reign in the trajectory of planetary heating already “in the pipeline,” without major reductions in energy use and waste by humans. That is the only hope to stabilize global climate.

Even producing and deploying existing low-carbon technologies requires the use of carbon-emitting processes. We must industrially manufacture even the “greenest” technologies in order to deploy them on a significant scale. All that involves carbon emissions from the processes of material extraction, industrial manufacture, distribution, and installation. In that context, nuclear power, being the most capital-intensive of all technologies is most carbon consuming and expensive to build and activate. Never mind its reliance on outdated vulnerable grid configurations that we must decentralize along with power production. On top of that, we simply do not have enough time to deploy significant numbers of nuclear power plants to replace coal and gas-powered electricity generation before the climate collapses beyond hope, even if we ignore the extreme dangers and costs.

Climate Realism

“The solution” must combine near-zero emissions technologies with major constraints on ALL but the most necessary energy consumption, mostly by the current highest energy consumption nations. That is where most of the excessive consumption and waste is. That is the uncomfortable and very difficult fact, which is why confirmation bias is so rampant and clear thinking on the matter is so rare.

Solar.Wind_Shutterstock

Solar and Wind Power offer Cost-effective Energy Production with the Lowest Carbon Emissions to Install and operate. Photo: Shutterstock.

At the same time, the most vocal public denialists studiously tout false logic as utility corporations do their cost-benefit analysis and increasingly find wind and solar a better economic deal than coal or now even fracked gas. So they add more wind and solar to their mix. Obsessive technophilia keeps touting nuclear power as “green” despite uneconomic and carbon-intensive construction and maintenance and perpetually failed efforts to find a way to store nuclear waste safely.

 

The climate crisis is now. If we were to wait for nuclear power plants to come on line to replace coal and gas, ignoring their inherent dangers, we would have passed the point of no return on climate chaos. Equating wasteful fossil-fuel energy consumption or a new nuclear power program with “civilization” is to degrade the concept by replacing human values with obsession with overly complex technology — which is exactly what we need to get over. We must optimize deployment of existing solar and wind power, and electric-powered transportation, while constraining our over-use of fossil-fueled electric power in our daily lives and rapidly restoring ecosystems, in order to achieve the negative carbon emissions necessary to curtail climate collapse.