Last week, amid the cacophony of reactions to Greta Thunberg’s appearance before the United Nations Climate Action Summit, a group of self-proclaimed “prominent scientists” sent a registered letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The letter, headed “There is no climate emergency”, urged Guterres to follow:
…a climate policy based on sound science, realistic economics and genuine concern for those harmed by costly but unnecessary attempts at mitigation.
The group, supported by 75 Australian business and industry figures, along with others around the world, obviously rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. But this missive displays remarkably different tactics to those previously used to stymie climate action.
The language of climate change denial and inaction has transformed. Outright science denial has been replaced by efforts to reframe climate change as natural, and climate action as unwarranted.
However, this is just another way of rejecting the facts, and their implications for us. Denial can take many forms.
Shades of denial
The twin phenomena of denial and inaction are related to one another, at least in the context of climate change. They are also complex, both in the general sense of “complicated and intricate”, and in the technical psychological sense of “a group of repressed feelings and anxieties which together result in abnormal behaviour”.
In his book States of Denial, the late psychoanalytic sociologist Stanley Cohen described three forms of denial. Although his framework was developed from analysing genocide and other atrocities, it applies just as well to our individual and collective inaction in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence of human-induced climate change.
The first form of denial is literal denial. It is the simple, conscious, outright rejection that something happened or is happening – that is, lying. One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, among others, have at one time or another maintained this position – outright denial that climate change is happening (though Senator Hanson now might accept climate change but denies any human contribution to it).
Interestingly, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday blamed “climate change deniers” in his own government for blocking any attempt to deal with climate change, resulting paradoxically in higher energy prices today.
It is tempting to attribute outright denial to individual malice or stupidity, and that may occasionally be the case. More worrying and more insidious, though, is the social organisation of literal denial of climate change. There is plenty of evidence of clandestine, orchestrated lying by vested interests in industry. If anyone is looking for a conspiracy in climate change, this is it – not a collusion of thousands of scientists and major science organisations.
The third and most insidious form is implicatory denial. The facts of climate change are not denied, nor are they interpreted to be something else. What is denied or minimised are the psychological, political, and moral implications of the facts for us. We fail to accept responsibility for responding; we fail to act when the information says we should.
Of course, some are unable to respond, financially or otherwise, but for many, implicatory denial is a kind of dissociation. Ignoring the moral imperative to act is as damning a form of denial as any other, and arguably is much worse.
The treatment of Thunberg, and the vigour with which people push away reminders of that which they would rather not deal with, illustrate implicatory denial. We are almost all guilty, to some extent, of engaging in implicatory denial. In the case of climate change, implicatory denial allows us to use a reusable coffee cup, recycle our plastic or sometimes catch a bus, and thus to pretend to ourselves that we are doing our bit.
Almost none of us individually, or we as a nation, has acted as we ought on the science of climate change. But that does not mean we can’t change how we act in the future. Indeed, there are some recent indications that, as with literal denial, implicatory denial is becoming an increasingly untenable psychological position.
While it is tempting, and even cathartic, to mock the shrill responses to Thunberg from literal and interpretive deniers, we would do well to ponder our own inherent biases and irrational responses to climate change.
These are just two examples of common strategies we use to deny our own responsibility and culpability. They make us feel better about what little we actually do, or congratulate us for accepting the science. But they are ultimately self-defeating delusions. Instead of congratulating ourselves on agreeing with the basic scientific facts of climate change, we need to push ourselves to action.
While Australia still lacks effective climate change policies, the debate has definitely shifted. It’s particularly noticeable to scientists, like myself, who were very active participants in the Australian climate debate just a few years ago.
The debate has moved away from the basic science, and on to the economic and political ramifications. And if advocates for reducing greenhouse emissions don’t fully recognise this, they risk shooting themselves in the foot.
The old denials
Old-school climate change denial, be it denial that warming is taking place or that humans are responsible for that warming, featured prominently in Australian politics a decade ago. In 2009 Tony Abbott, then a Liberal frontbencher jockeying for the party leadership, told ABC’s 7.30 Report:
I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.
The theory and evidence base for human-induced climate change is vast and growing. In contrast, the counterarguments were so sloppy that there were many targets for scientists to shoot at.
Incorrect predictions of imminent global cooling were made on the basis of rudimentary analyses rather than sophisticated models. Cycles were invoked, in a manner reminiscent of epicycles and stock market “chartism” – but doodling with spreadsheets cannot defeat carbon dioxide.
That was the state of climate “scepticism” a decade ago, and frankly that’s where it remains in 2019. It’s old, tired, and increasingly irrelevant as the impact of climate change becomes clearer.
Given this, it isn’t surprising that relatively few Australians reject the science of climate change. Just 11% of Australians believe recent global warming is natural, and only 4% believe “there’s no such thing as climate change”.
So what has changed in the years since Abbott was able to gain traction, rather than opprobrium, by disdaining climate science? The Australian still runs Ian Plimer and Maurice Newman on its opinion pages, and Sky News “after dark” often features climate cranks. But prominent politicians rarely repeat their nonsense any more. When the government spins Australia’s rising emissions, it does it by claiming that investing in natural gas helps cut emissions elsewhere, rather than by pretending CO₂ is merely “plant food”.
As a scientist, I rarely feel the need to debunk the claims of old-school climate cranks. OK, I did recently discuss the weather predictions of a “corporate astrologer” with Media Watch, but that was just bizarre rather than urgent.
Back in the real world, the debate has shifted to costs and jobs.
Modelling by the economist Brian Fisher, who concluded that climate policies would be very expensive, featured prominently in the election campaign. Federal energy minister Angus Taylor, now also responsible for reducing emissions, used the figures to attack the Labor Party, despite expert warnings that the modelling used “absurd cost assumptions”.
Many people still assume the costs of climate change are in the future, despite us increasingly seeing the impacts now. While scientists work to quantify the environmental damage, arguments about the costs and benefits of climate policy are the domain of economists.
Jobs associated with coal mining were a prominent theme of the election campaign, and may have been decisive in Queensland’s huge anti-Labor swing. It is obvious that burning more coal makes more CO₂, but that fact doesn’t stop people wanting jobs. The new green economy is uncharted territory for many workers with skills and experience in mining.
Debates about climate policy remain heated, despite the scientific basics being widely accepted. Concerns about economic costs and jobs must be addressed, even if those concerns are built on flawed assumptions and promises that may be not kept. We also cannot forget that climate change is already here, impacting agriculture in particular.
Science should inform and underpin arguments, but economics and politics are now the principal battlegrounds in the Australian climate debate.
Climate change is now climate crisis and a climate sceptic now a climate denier, according to the recently updated style guide of The Guardian news organisation.
The extent to which the scientific community acknowledges climate change is very close to the extent to which it also sees it as a crisis. So the move from “change” to “crisis” recognises that both rest on the same scientific footing.
The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, said:
We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue.
But the move from “sceptic” to “denier” is more interesting.
Many people who do not accept the findings of climate science often mark themselves as “sceptics”. It is, in part, an attempt to portray themselves as champions of the Enlightenment: imagining that they refuse to believe something based solely on the word of others, and opt to seek the evidence themselves.
It is true that scepticism is an essential component of science – indeed, one of its most defining characteristics. The motto of the Royal Society, perhaps the world’s oldest scientific institution, is “nullius in verba” or “take nobody’s word for it”.
But scepticism has two imperatives, each buttressing the other. The first is the imperative to doubt, so nicely captured in the above motto. The second is the imperative to follow the evidence, and to give more credibility to claims that are well justified than those which are not.
In other words, it’s fine to ask questions, but you also have to listen to the answers.
Too often, so-called sceptics do not want to have their views challenged (let alone changed) and do not wish to engage with the science. Even worse, they may choose to adopt any number of justifications for rejecting science, not from their own free inquiry but from a ready-made selection provided by commercially or ideologically motivated industries.
This move away from “sceptic” might, therefore, be seen as simply an improvement in accuracy. But the move to “denier” might be seen as derogatory, especially as the term is associated with nefarious stances such as holocaust denial.
But is it, at least, accurate?
Three categories of climate science disbelief
Let’s consider three possible categories of people who do not accept the consensus and consilience of human-induced climate change:
those who engage in scholarly disagreement through the literature
those who are not engaged with the debate and have no clear view either way
those who associate climate science with conspiracy, wilful ignorance or incompetence (or even see in it an unpalatable truth).
But contrary positions are not unknown. Some questions regarding the credibility of some aspects of climate models, for example, exist for some working academics.
While these scientists do not necessarily doubt all aspects of climate science, issues of reliability of methodology and validity of conclusions in some areas remain, for them, alive.
Whether they are correct or not (and many have been responded to in the literature), they are at least working within the broad norms of academia. We might call these people “climate sceptics”.
The second category is quite common. Many people are uninterested in science, including climate science, and have no real interest in the debate. This attitude is easy to criticise, but if there are pressing concerns regarding the availability and security of food, health and safety in your life, you may be preoccupied with these things and not marching for action on climate science.
Others may simply not spend much time thinking about it, nor care very much one way or the other — such is the nature of voluntarily participatory democracy. They might not believe in climate science, but that doesn’t mean they have rejected it. We might call these people “climate agnostics”.
The third category is the most problematic and arguably the most high-profile. It could be subdivided into:
people convinced of the incompetence of scientists and having a naïve view of their own analytical powers (or common sense)
folks motivated to reject climate science because of its implications for social or economic change, who consequently see climate science as a conspiracy of social or political engineering
those accepting of climate science but not caring about the consequences and seeking only to maximise their opportunities in any resulting crisis – which may include continuing existing business models based on fossil-fuel technologies (and hence encourage those who reject the science for social reasons).
Let’s call these subdivisions, in order: climate naives, climate conspiracists, and climate opportunists. Certain combinations of the above are also possible and are probably the norm.
The term “contrarian” is also a common one, but since it basically means only to go against public opinion, it seems a bit shallow in this analysis.
What is it to deny?
The definition of denialism is not uniform. In psychology it is to reject a widely accepted claim because the truth of it is psychologically discomforting (to that extent, there are many aspects of reality we all deny, ignore or minimise for the sake of our sanity).
In popular culture, including discussions of history and climate science, it is an active act of rebellion against the consensus and consilience of experts, often motivated by ideological factors. These are quite distinct and it may not pay any persuasive dividend to blur them together.
The latter definition does not seem appropriate for climate sceptics or for climate agnostics. But for the rest of the disbelievers, it does seem to resonate. So let’s try it here for a moment.
This taxonomy of disbelief is not built on any psychological model, but is simply descriptive.
In summary, three categories of climate science disbelief are: sceptic, agnostic and denier. Three subdivisions of deniers are: naive, conspiracists and opportunists.
Is The Guardian right to use the blanket term “deniers” instead of any of the above? Arguably, they have a technical case in some instances, but I would say not in others.
What’s wrong with calling someone a climate agnostic instead of a climate denier, if that is a better description of their state of belief?
But for those who are deniers – and let’s be clear, the evidence is bearing down on all humans like a freight train – then a failure to act is more than negligence, it is a failure of moral courage. I would not want to be remembered as someone who denied that.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week drew renewed attention to himself with a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate sceptic group, in which he voiced a range of doubts about climate science and policy, and claimed that climate change is “probably doing good”.
The comments might come as no surprise to those familiar with his views. But what’s arguably more surprising is the prevalence of similar opinions among some Australian business leaders.
It reveals that Abbott’s doubts about the veracity of climate science and its forecast impacts, and his scathing dismissal of those concerned about climate change, have a long history of support among the Hunter Valley’s business leaders.
Carried out in the lead-up to the implementation of the Gillard Labor government’s price on carbon in 2011, my research sought to understand business leaders’ attitudes to government policies and to climate change more broadly.
I approached 50 chief executives of organisations operating in the Hunter Region, of whom 31 agreed to participate (or had a senior staff member take up the opportunity).
They were asked questions about their views on climate change, how and whether their organisation was responding to the issue, and what they thought about the various political parties’ policies in response to it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, participants’ overwhelming concern was that the economy might decline as a result of climate policies such as pricing carbon.
While some were concerned about climate change, there was almost unanimous opposition to carbon pricing. Given the politics of the time, this too is unremarkable, particularly in light of the success Abbott enjoyed at the 2013 election after pledging to scrap the policy.
What was surprising, however, was the pervasive scepticism among participants about the science of climate change. This is especially the case given that many people now view the debate over whether climate change is happening – and whether it is caused by human activity – as being over.
Moreover, many participants believed that climate scientists were motivated by financial rewards in arguing that climate change is a serious concern.
These beliefs were voiced not only by those in industries like coal, aluminium, and shipping – but echoed by participants from other industries, revealing a deep scepticism of both the discipline and the science of climate change itself.
It is noteworthy that the research was focused on the Hunter Valley and Newcastle, home to the world’s biggest coal port.
Participants also held intensely antagonistic views in relation to the environment movement and the Australian Greens, believing their views were quasi-religious and that they too were self-interested and unrealistic in wanting to tackle climate change.
A small minority of participants did support some type of mechanism to limit greenhouse emissions, and were concerned about the environment.
But more broadly, my research showed that the Hunter Region’s business leaders – whether or not they were directly involved in coal – had taken on board many of the arguments promulgated by the industry in its ultimately successful campaign against carbon pricing in Australia.
These dynamics may have changed a little in recent times, with companies such as AGL and BHP shifting away from coal.
The overall dynamics of the climate politics, however – as revealed in the current stalemate over responding to the Finkel Review – remains out of step with what the climate science is telling us. As, of course, do Abbott’s comments.
Abbott’s London speech was interpreted as incendiary, and earned him a sharp rebuke from government colleagues. But when we look at the places where his message might be received more favourably, it becomes apparent there are still pockets of the country where he might expect to find a plentiful and powerful audience.
This article is part of an ongoing series from the Post-Truth Initiative, a Strategic Research Excellence Initiative at the University of Sydney. The series examines today’s post-truth problem in public discourse: the thriving economy of lies, bullshit and propaganda that threatens rational discourse and policy.
The project brings together scholars of media and communications, government and international relations, physics, philosophy, linguistics, and medicine, and is affiliated with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.
Michael Mann is well known for his classic “hockey stick” work on global warming, for the attacks he has long endured from climate denialists, and for the good fight of communicating the environmental and political realities of climate change.
Mann’s work, including his recent book The Madhouse Effect, has helped me, as a dual US-Australian citizen, think about the similarities and differences between the US and Australia as we respond to what has been called the climate change denial machine.
In both countries, the denialists and distortionists have undermined public knowledge, public policy, new economic development opportunities, and the very value of the environment. Climate policy is being built upon alternative facts, fake news, outright lies, PR spin and industry-written talking points.
How we can expose and counter this denialist machine? To partly lay out the task, I will discuss three points of contrast between the US and Australia.
There is a key difference between the two countries’ political cultures. As much as the denialists have determined Australian energy and climate policy, they have not been as successful, yet, at undermining deep-seeded respect in Australian culture for the common good, for science, for expertise and knowledge.
I left the US at the start of 2011. Living in Arizona, I had experienced the full weight of the racism, the white nationalism, the anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-fact atmosphere that has since spread all the way to the White House.
I used to tell people I left because Arizona had simply become anti-enlightenment. Folks really didn’t get it, until now, when it is the attitude that rules the country.
Shortly after I arrived in Australia, the then-prime minister, Tony Abbott, led an attack on the work of economist Ross Garnaut. Abbott slammed Garnaut’s 2011 report as anti-democratic. The report had simply pointed out the cost of climate inaction and the viability of putting a price on carbon.
Later, Abbott doubled down and dismissed the quality of Australian economists as a whole. Other denialists went further – Garnaut was called a fascist and was subject to the kind of attacks Mann is well familiar with.
Surprisingly to me, a good part of the public seemed appalled by Abbott’s trashing of an academic. This was seen an attack not just on a carbon price, or a policy recommendation, but on science and knowledge as a whole.
And there was the chief scientist on TV, defending the academy – and that’s when I learned Australia actually had a chief scientist, to whom the media paid attention. This is not something we had in Arizona.
Abbott wound up backing down from the worst of the criticism. The whole series of events illustrated to me, a new Australian, that there is a strong cultural norm here that supports science, that respects expertise and that understands that real knowledge should be used to inform good policy in the public interest.
It wasn’t a one-time event. Last year, when the government fired climate scientists at CSIRO, there was another huge public backlash. The government had to step back a bit, both on the actual science to be done and the radical agenda change away from science for the public good.
And again, when the government wanted to support the dubious work of Bjorn Lomborg, that caused an outcry from both the university sector and the public. Even though the government wound up paying more than A$600,000 on what The Australian called his “vanity book project”, they couldn’t import him and plant him at any Australian university.
As Mann says, the main issue in implementing good, sound climate policy is no longer simply the science. The main issue is the cultural understanding of, and respect for the role of science in informing political decisions.
My second point of comparison is not quite as positive.
The problem in Australia is less a culture turning against the Enlightenment, and more the direct political power and influence of the carbon industry. This is most evident not just in our poor emissions and climate policies, but also in the fact the Australian government is hell-bent on sabotaging an entire industrial sector.
I honestly do not understand how the sabotage of the renewables industry in Australia – an all-out attack on a clearly promising and innovative sector – is not treated as a form of industrial treason.
We have had a set of politicians, under the influence of a dying industry, undermining one of the most promising areas of our own economy. They do so for the sole benefit of carbon diggers, at the expense of the rest of Australia, of the next generation and of the planet.
And the justification for this is all based on falsehoods and lies, straight from the PR team of the carbon industry. We hear arguments for energy security, energy poverty and clean coal; we hear that renewables undermine the reliability of the grid. It’s all absolute bullshit.
But, again, even here I think there is some hope. We have seen, over the last few years, an incredible coalition grow – one focused on the end of carbon mining, on protecting communities, on creating real jobs, and on supporting renewables.
Once-unthinkable coalitions of farmers and Aboriginal communities are fighting new mines, new attacks on sacred and fertile land and water.
We have intensive household investment in rooftop solar – and as the feed-in tariffs are undermined, those folks will increasingly invest in battery storage. And we’re finally seeing states move in this direction, with increasing development of utility-scale renewable and storage projects. As hard as the federal government and its allies resist, renewables are growing and the public supports this – even conservative voters.
This industry will be the innovator, the job creator, the future of this country’s energy system. That is a movement – a transformation – that now seems inevitable even in the face of the carbon industry, its political allies and their outright attacks on innovation.
There is one other important point to make in comparing the US and Australia – and maybe it is the most dire.
All of this talk, about the science, about the power of the denialist machine, about post-truth and the sabotage of renewables, is all about one side of the climate issue: emissions.
The other side, which is crucial to us here in Australia, is how we adapt to the climate change the denialist machine has baked into our future. This nice stable period of the last 10,000 years, the Holocene, in which humanity has evolved, built our cities, our infrastructure, our supply chains, the expectations of our everyday lives – is over.
Climate change means change, and Australia is already facing it in more severe ways than the US.
So adaptation is the next battle, and it must be just. We know who benefits from denialism and the sabotage of renewables. And it is pretty straightforward who will be harmed most if we don’t plan for coming change. We know who dies in heatwaves, for example – the poor, the elderly, those who live alone, those without resources.
This is happening right here. The Rockefeller-funded Resilient Sydney project found that the number one chronic stress is increasing health services demand, which is crucial to resilience in Western Sydney during heatwaves. If we don’t attend to that, vulnerable people will continue to die every time it heats up.
Australia needs to face up to adaptation planning on a large scale – rather than cut funds to the good work already being done. We need to focus on giving those most vulnerable to climate change a fair go by looking after their needs first.
One promising step is that the Sydney Environment Institute, with colleagues in Planetary Health and Public Health at the University of Sydney, are establishing a new research hub for NSW OEH on the Health and Social Impacts of Climate Change.
We have also partnered with Resilient Sydney to examine the actual experience of communities in shock events – the impacts on people and how policy responses can be improved. This work is all about adapting to the complex impacts of climate change in fair and just ways.
Overall, then, yes, Australia has industry-led denialists creating a madhouse effect, just as Mann writes about in the US.
But my hope is that we can use our broad political culture of respect for science and for the fair go to resist denialism and the coal profiteers, to implement a post-carbon energy transformation, and adapt fairly and justly to the inevitable changes the denial industry has locked in here.
Those at the top of Australian politics are no longer debating the existence of climate change and its causes. Instead, four years after the Coalition was first elected, the big political issues are rising power prices and the electricity market. What’s happening?
Australia has had fires and floods since the beginning of time. We’ve had much bigger floods and fires than the ones we’ve recently experienced. You can hardly say they were the result of anthropic [sic] global warming.
Abbott’s statement dodges a key issue. While fires and floods have always occurred, climate change can still alter their frequency and severity. In 2013, government politicians and advisers, such as Dennis Jensen and Maurice Newman, weren’t shy about rejecting climate science either.
The atmosphere is different in 2017, and I’m not just talking about CO₂ levels. Tony Abbott is no longer prime minister, Dennis Jensen lost preselection and his seat, and Maurice Newman is no longer the prime minister’s business advisor.
Which Australian politician most vocally rejects climate science now? It isn’t the prime minister or members of the Coalition, but One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts. In Australia, open rejection of human-induced climate change has moved to the political fringe.
So where is the Australian political mainstream? It’s not denying recent climate change and its causes, but instead is now debating the policy responses. This is exemplified by political arguments about the electricity market, power prices, and the Finkel Review.
Have those who rejected global warming and its causes changed their tune? In general, no. They still imagine that scientists are up to no good. The Australian’s latest attacks on the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) illustrate this, especially as they are markedly similar to accusations made in the same newspaper three years ago.
This week, the newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd wrote that the BoM was “caught tampering” with temperature logs, on the basis of measurements of cold temperatures on two July nights at Goulburn and Thredbo. For these nights, discrepant temperatures were in public BoM databases due to automated weather stations that stopped reporting data. The data points were flagged for BoM staff to verify, but in the meantime an amateur meteorologist contacted Lloyd and the Institute of Public Affairs’ Jennifer Marohasy.
In 2014, Lloyd cast doubt on the BoM’s climate record by attacking the process of “homogenisation,” with a particular emphasis on data from weather stations in Rutherglen, Amberley and Bourke. Homogenisation is used to produce a continuous temperature record from measurements that may suffer from artificial discontinuities, such as in the case of weather stations that have been upgraded or moved from, say, a post office to an airport.
Lloyd’s articles from this week and 2014 are beat-ups, for similar reasons. The BoM’s ACORN-SAT long-term temperature record is compiled using daily measurements from 112 weather stations. Even Lloyd acknowledges that those 112 stations don’t include Goulburn and Thredbo. While Rutherglen, Amberley and Bourke do contribute to ACORN-SAT, homogenisation of their data (and that of other weather stations) does little to change the warming trend measured across Australia. Australia has warmed over the past century, and The Australian’s campaigns won’t change that.
In 2014, the government responded to The Australian’s campaign by commissioning the Technical Advisory Forum, which has since reviewed ACORN-SAT and found it to be a “well-maintained dataset”. Prime Minister Abbott also considered a taskforce to investigate BoM, but was dissuaded by the then environment minister Greg Hunt.
How will Malcolm Turnbull’s government respond to The Australian’s retread of basically the same campaign? Perhaps that will be the acid test for whether the climate debate really has changed.