What type of denier are you?

Hans Hoegh-Guldberg is a prominent specialist on the economic impacts of climate change on natural ecosystems and dependent industries.  He recently posted the following discussion on the list server, coral-list.  I believe he makes some important points regarding types of climate change denial out there today and the way forward given their existence and persistence.

By Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, Economic Strategies, NSW, Australia

The Pew survey showing that public belief in climate change and its reasons has waned should be no surprise to anyone who has been observing the scene over the past couple of years. Neither should there be much surprise that attitudes to climate change tend to follow party lines. The same thing happens in my adopted country, Australia, according to a recent University of Queensland survey.

Structural change is always resisted by mainstream corporations with huge investments in present plant, but while it can be delayed it will happen. Joseph Schumpeter as early as 1914 identified “creative destruction” as a hallmark of capitalism. It is true today as much as 100 years ago, with climate change the current elephant in the room. Scientists, and economists taking a hard look at the long-term implications of their own discipline, agree that the crucial issue is whether the structural change that is needed will be in time to avoid a worst-case scenario.

There are two kinds of climate change deniers. Vested interests are the most influential because of their power to operate through lobby groups and other channels, and doing their best to discredit the scientific evidence and generally try and delay when they themselves have to adapt. But by far the biggest group is made up of those who are influenced. The lobbyists have an easier task because the short term is instinctively the most important, and climate change is not generally seen as a critical issue in that context. So we can have the Australian opposition leader being a cat’s whisker from winning the August 2010 election by warning the electorate against a proposed carbon tax as “a great big tax on everybody”.

The financial crisis naturally brings the short term into greater focus, causing climate change to recede.

Some scientists try to perfect the art of strategic conversation (to use Kees van der Heijden’s description of scenario planning) with the general public and popular press. They realize that their case is not so convincing that they can just rely on lecturing others about the righteousness of the case.

On July 14, “adaptation mavens” Lara Hansen and Jennifer Hoffman referred to the classical Cartesian insurance argument that if God doesn’t exist, and you express faith, you are no worse off, but if you don’t express that faith, and there is a God, you may rot in hell. The parallel in the CAKE version is that if climate change doesn’t exist it doesn’t matter whether or not you adapt, but if it does exist and we don’t cut our greenhouse gas emissions it could cost humankind dearly. The insurance policy is that we all pay a relatively small cost now to mitigate against a big future risk before the adaptation task becomes too huge(http://www.cakex.org/community/advice/we-adapt-therefore-we-are).

Here is a list of some possible ways forward:

  • Support and elaborate on the insurance argument promoted by the mavens and others.
  • Identify more “canaries in the mine” to add to the most famous original one – coral reefs.
  • Island nations have been trying to attract attention for a long time – still for deaf ears?
  • Sea-level rise has added urgency to the original global warming dimension. Florida and other threatened areas would provide a special voice to support and promote.
  • The impact of ocean acidification (“the evil twin of global warming”) not just on coral reefs but on all oceanic calcareous organisms is not well-known and understood by the voting public.
  • Promote the virtues of technological change and its commercial benefits, and other positive  aspects, rather than continuing with in-your-face climate change doom-saying with negative or at least mixed results. People are very good at switching off against persistent arguments.
  • Advocate the development of a better Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as an alternative to or at least development of GDP (which still takes little or no notice of environmental and social costs). The GPI went a long way but was last published in 1995 and when or if reconstituted is likely to underestimate the impact of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • Build on the fact that President Sarkozy of France lost patience with economic statistics last year and commissioned Nobel Prize-winning economists Joe Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to investigate how these statistics might be developed to incorporate the social and environmental costs into a proper economic measure, not just catering for the GDP growth fetish (http://www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/documents/rapport_anglais.pdf.
  • Demonstrate that significant technology change is already happening and gathering pace, nationally and internationally, in renewables, energy efficiency, developing green and blue carbon sinks, and spreading to a widening circle of countries, including the least developed ones. In Schumpeterian terms, this may be seen as part of the creative destruction that will eventually prevail – one can only hope in time.
  • Advocate web links that can be even better publicized, e.g. John Cook’s Skeptical Science – “getting skeptical about global warming skepticism” (see especially the arguments page (http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php)).

Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, Economic Strategies, NSW, Australia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *