The many faces of climate change denial

There is much debate in Australia, particularly in the political sphere, about who is a climate change denier. To answer that question, we first have to clarify what we mean by climate change denial. The book Climate Change Denial by Haydn Washington and John Cook helpfully distinguishes between several different stages of denial: literal, interpretative, and implicatory.

Literal denial

The most obvious form of denial is literal denial of climate change science. Science denial itself comes in multiple types: trend denial, attribution denial, and impacts denial (though the vagueness of human psychology mean the lines between these categories are blurred).

Trend deniers deny that the Earth has been warming (a fact supported by many, many independent lines of observation). Trend deniers do still exist and all their old arguments still circulate online, though in recent years they have been mostly superseded by denial that the warming trend is continuing (in reality, the Earth continues to accumulate heat despite short-term fluctuations).

Attribution deniers acknowledge the climate is changing, but deny humans are causing it (in reality, there is overwhelming evidence that the main cause is CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, enough to convince 97% of climate experts). Although some environmentalists make much of the fact that the majority of Australians tell surveys they agree climate change is happening, those same surveys reveal merely 43% of Australians accept humans are causing global warming. This fact is worth repeating: Most Australians are attribution deniers. This is intolerable because it is the attribution, not the trend, which is the vital piece of information. Denying human responsibility leads to the wrong conclusion that humans cannot do anything to limit global warming.

Impact deniers deny that global warming will have catastrophic effects. In reality, global warming is expected to have enormous negative consequences, and rapid global emissions cuts are urgently needed to avoid tipping points for dangerous climate change. When asked to choose between three statements on the seriousness of global warming, only 36% of Australians chose the strongest: “Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.” The proportion who fully comprehend the gravity and urgency of the climate crisis must be even smaller, perhaps as few as the ~10% who vote for the Greens.

It is tempting for us few who do appreciate the reality of anthropogenic global warming to claim majority support by glossing over the widespread denial of attribution and impacts. We are certainly advocating the interests of the majority against the minority that currently controls climate policy, the fossil fuel industry. But to effectively counter the power of the industry, we need true majority support. We need to recognize the reality that most Australians are misinformed on the basic facts of climate change, and we need to change those people’s minds.

Interpretative denial

Australian politicians might superficially appear to be ahead of the public: few are literal deniers; almost all profess acceptance of climate change science. However, this is necessary but not sufficient, as there are more subtle forms of denial that do not explicitly reject scientific facts.

Interpretive denial consists of the sort of weasel words which conservative politicians like to use. For example, Liberal leader Tony Abbott says (with my emphasis): “climate change is real, humanity does make a contribution to it and we’ve got to take effective action against it”. In reality, human influences on climate now far outstrip natural ones. Or consider Abbott’s less streamlined and more revealing remarks on ABC TV’s Q&A in 2010:

This idea that the science was settled was not something that I wholly accepted. [Human activity] has a role. It plays a part. There’s no doubt about that, Tony. How big a part, well, let the scientists argue about that. In the end I’m not going to, I guess, try to challenge their scientific expertise. […] The scientist may well be right. Carbon dioxide may well be the principle villain in harmful climate change and what we should do, therefore, is take prudent and affordable precautions.

And then there’s this comment Abbott made this January:

Isn’t it bizarre that this government thinks that somehow raising the price of electricity is going to clean up our environment, stop bushfires, stop floods, stop droughts? Just think of how much hotter it might have been the other day but for the carbon tax!

I hope I don’t have to explain why that argument is so ridiculous: CO2 emissions accumulate in the atmosphere over time.

It is hard not to conclude Abbott’s real position is what he reportedly said in 2009: the science of climate change is “complete crap” but “the politics of this are tough for us”.

When this sort of spin is stripped away, according to one blogger’s classification, at least 22 of 59 Liberal MPs, at least 8 of 12 Nationals MPs, and Bob Katter do not accept the science of anthropogenic global warming. The same goes for at least 16 of 28 Liberal Senators, all 5 Nationals Senators, the only Country Liberal Party Senator, and the only Democratic Labor Party Senator. No Labor or Greens politicians were placed in the denier category. For some politicians there was insufficient data, most notably Labor Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson.

One form of interpretative denial that particularly irks me (and is apparently not counted in the numbers cited above) is to acknowledge denialist points of view but appeal to everyone to support climate action as risk management. Abbott alludes to it above, but a better example is his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull’s failed pitch to the party to support his leadership:

Now I know there are many people, including many people who are supporters of my own party, who have doubts about the science and grave reservations about it. I understand that and I respect it. But as Margaret Thatcher said, right back nearly 20 years ago in 1990, this is about risk management. Or as Rupert Murdoch said, we have to give the planet the benefit of the doubt.

It is unclear to what extent such arguments are intended as greenwash and to what extent they are (similarly to glossing over attribution denial) a well-meaning attempt to build broad political support for action without doing the hard and necessary work of changing people’s minds. (It has not escaped my attention that Turnbull also said, with my emphasis: “We cannot be seen as a party of climate sceptics.”) Whatever the intentions behind it, a “risk management” frame, though reasonable given the level of scientific understanding in 1990, is completely unjustifiable in 2013. Scientists have argued for decades about human influence on climate change and long since reached a conclusion based on overwhelming evidence. Today such a frame only gives credence to popular delusions (promoted by Murdoch’s newspapers) which fly in the face of scientific evidence, understates by far the degree of risk posed by global warming, and therefore cannot convince voters to support the scale of action required.

Those of us who are trying to educate the public about climate change must take care not to contribute to these sorts of perceptions. For that reason I am uneasy about a communication approach advocated by some, presenting the facts in a way that avoid conflicting with people’s worldviews. Any time we gloss over a key element of the reality of climate change, any time we fail to spell out implications, any time we neglect to challenge misguided assumptions, we are implicitly endorsing interpretative denial.

Implicatory denial

The above analysis superficially makes the Labor Party look good, but is not the end of the story, because there is one last type of denial which is arguably worst of all. Implicatory deniers fully accept the science of climate change, and even make grand statements about the need for action. Former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave great speeches on climate change. Here’s a sample from a landmark 2009 speech to the Lowy Institute rightly castigating denialism in most of its guises:

Climate change deniers are small in number, but they are too dangerous to be ignored. They are well resourced and well represented by political conservatives in many, many countries.

And the danger they pose is this – by collapsing political momentum towards national and global action on climate change, they collapse global political will to act at all. They are the stick that gets stuck in the wheel, that despite its size may yet bring the train to a complete stop.

And that is what they want, because they are driven by a narrowly defined self interest of the present and are utterly contemptuous towards our children’s interest in the future.

This brigade of do-nothing climate change skeptics are dangerous because if they succeed, then it is all of us who will suffer.

Our children.

And our grandchildren.

If we fail, then it will be a failure that will echo through future generations.

Unlike the interpretative denial quotes, the above quote is one I completely agree with. Rudd sounded every bit like a genuine climate activist. It’s no wonder most climate scientists and environmentalists got behind him (I would have too if I’d been political then). But our trust was misplaced because, as Greens staffer Tim Hollo warned at the time, Rudd turned out to belong to “the most dangerous category of sceptic: those who profess to take the science seriously, seek to hold the moral and scientific high ground, and then utterly fail to take the kind of action the science requires”. Implicatory deniers are in essence greenwashers.

Hollo continued:

A child swimming at a surf beach starts waving frantically from out in the waves. […] Kevin says “this is a crisis on a grand scale. Look at all these people milling around on the beach and cravenly refusing to do anything. We have a moral obligation to act.” He starts wading in. Everyone else breathes a sigh of relief because they think Kevin’s got it under control. But Kevin never gets anywhere near the child, as he only wades in 5% of the way. The child drowns.

The Greens toned down their criticism of Labor after the 2010 election, and Rudd’s successor Julia Gillard has toned down Labor’s green rhetoric, yet Hollo’s message remains as relevant as it was in 2009.

A politician should not be hailed as a climate hero if the height of their ambition is an emissions trading scheme with a 5% target and unlimited international offsets. Gillard remains stuck in the same implicatory denial as Rudd, officially accepting the science but denying the implication that it is necessary to phase out fossil fuels or even make rapid emissions cuts generally. Both are allowing Australia to continue digging up and burning coal indefinitely, not to mention exporting it to the world. They even gave the energy department to Ferguson, a man with no clear position on climate change, who once reportedly told the launch of a denialist publication that Labor would “wait for clean coal technology to come along before doing anything to the coal industry”.

To my knowledge, there is not a single non-Greens politician in Australia who openly opposes the country’s biggest contribution to climate change, its coal exports. All deny important implications of anthropogenic global warming if not also the interpretation of the facts or the facts themselves.

In recent posts I have described the threat posed by a Liberal victory at the September election: they intend to dismantle practically every climate policy that has been achieved. But at least in doing so they are likely to create their own enemies. Labor’s greener image arguably poses an even greater danger to Australian climate politics. Turnbull may be more dangerous than Abbott for the same reason (although I mentioned Turnbull in the interpretative denial category, he probably fits better here).

It could be argued we all engage in implicatory denial to some degree, but it is particularly damaging when exhibited by those in positions of power. I should add that includes corporate “leaders” as much if not more so than political ones.

The recent book Greenwash by Guy Pearse documents how most large companies are, like governments, only pretending to act on climate change. Meanwhile, business lobby groups proclaim their support for climate action while demanding governments weaken their climate policies, the most recent example being the Australian Industry Group’s emissions trading proposal last week. Their implicatory denial is more insidious and therefore more dangerous than campaigns by right-wing groups to outright abolish climate policies.

We who want real action on climate change must make it clear we will not be placated by greenwash. We must never again be sucked in by another Kevin Rudd.

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