By Frank Thomas and John Lawrence
Part 1 of a Multi-Part Series
“Will we be the first species we know that precipitated its own extinction as well as the extinction of however much of the biosphere we take with us – and watched it happen before our eyes and continued to do exactly what we know was causing it?” _ Anonymous
A facile denial of reality sits in the DNA of human nature – and climate change is no exception. The inbred fantasy-culture of endless growth, technology, and a throwaway consumeristic lifestyle fueled by exploiting pollutive fossil fuels has reinforced the illusion that we can do so without destroying the environment and even life itself. The threat to human life and the planet seems to need to be truly imminent before we humans can change our course. By then, however, it will be too late … most of us will be dead.
It is a goal specified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to keep average global surface temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. This can only be accomplished if the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stabilizes at 430 to 480 parts per million (ppm).
The problem is that we are already at 400 ppm and greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to increase. The transition to renewable forms of energy creation is just happening much too slowly to keep earth’s temperature increases within the 2°C limit. If temperature increases rise above that point, ecological disaster looms on the horizon.
We will explore in this series of articles the psychological biases that prevent the US and indeed the world from a rapid transition to renewable energy as well as present the latest scientific results regarding climate change. We will explore the reasons why so many experts and other well-informed people are pessimistic about averting a climate disaster.
There is also some reason to be optimistic as the technology to convert to renewables exists today. All that is lacking is the political and collective will to implement it. Doing so would not be propitious for some vested economic interests, and they have done everything in their power to aid and abet climate change deniers. A rapid conversion to renewables would mean that their profits would diminish, and they place profits before the well-being of the planet.
The Psychological Basis for Denying Climate Change
In 2003, Daniel Kahneman won the Noble Prize in economic science for his research on psychological biases that distort rational decision making. His book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is illustrative of his ideas. His research brilliantly illustrates the typical cognitive illusions or thinking biases that people succumb to which undermine critical (i.e., slow) thinking.
A cognitive illusion is a false belief we intuitively accept as true. Intuitive (i.e., fast) thinking is much more vulnerable to illusions. At least two of Kahneman’s cognitive illusions – ‘loss aversion bias’ and ‘assimilation bias’ – infect our thinking leading to outright denial of climate change and related science, passivity or refusal to think about it as other issues loom larger, waiting too long to give priority to climate change mitigation or the acknowledgment of it but avoidance of anything causing disruptive change.
These are just a few of the ‘head in the sand’ attitudes towards the reality of climate change and the fact that it is caused by humans. Human caused climate change is called anthropogenic global warming (AGW). People can easily ignore the fact that C02 atmospheric emission levels are rising at speeds and in a span of time not seen in millions of years because so far climate change has not affected the world’s population on a mass basis.
‘Loss aversion bias’ refers to the tendency of people to avoid making sacrifices now for long-term values and benefits that are unclear. This leads to the cognitive illusion that climate change is a far off problem that requires relinquishments today to avert vague losses in the distant future, something that most humans would prefer not to do.
‘Assimilation bias’ refers to an innate human tendency to come to biased conclusions based on pre-held cultural, social and political prejudices. It explains why right-wing conservatives deny, distort or downplay climate change as false science – a hoax, a conspiracy by climate scientists that destroys jobs and growth – while liberals respect the science of systemic climate change, but take a timid stand.
George Marshall in his thought-provoking book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change quotes Kahneman about the chances that the vast majority of people, businesses and leaders will recognize in a timely manner the catastrophic ecological-human outcomes that their every day behavior is giving rise to and get aggressively behind sustainable A to Z energy lifestyles and policies.
“I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change. … To mobilize people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have immediacy and salience. A distant abstract and disputed threat doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.”
The reality is that ‘disruptive’ technologies, lifestyle changes and stronger regulations, among other things, are critical NOW in order to achieve a “green friendly, tempered capitalism” before Earth’s rising heat content and temperature path become irreversible.
Capitalism and Climate Change
Climate change and capitalism are inextricably interwoven. In 1775 James Watt’s invention of the steam engine ushered in the industrial revolution, an era in which emissions from first coal and later oil and natural gas powered the advancement of industry while at the same time building up carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and ocean. At about the same time (1776) of Watt’s invention, Adam Smith brought forth the seminal work on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations. Not coincidentally, in 1776 the United States declared its independence and devoted itself to the idea of progress based on capitalist economic principles.
What was considered progress for 200 years has now metamorphosed into regress as every last bit of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by coal fired power generating plants, automobile exhaust emissions and other industrial processes hastens the day when the earth will become uninhabitable by humans due to global warming.
In a title not usually expected at a scientific conference, University of California San Diego geophysicist Dr. Brad Werner presented a paper entitled Is the Earth Fucked? at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in December 2012. Dr. Werner explained that the title represented the expression of depression by scientists working in the field of the public’s inability to respond to what scientists are telling them about global warming.
Climatologists and other scientists are now speaking out about climate change becoming a clear and present danger to human civilization. Most of them are more comfortable gathering data and working in their labs than doing political advocacy, but the situation calls for them to risk losing tenure and even arrest in order to tell the rest of us about the situation we are now facing.
Werner explained that civil resistance and disobedience are the best hopes for changing attitudes about climate change because all other variables are “too embedded in the dominant economic system.” Increasing economic activity, raising GDP is the sine qua non for western style capitalistic systems exemplified by the US.
No politician is going to campaign on lowering GDP. Yet that is precisely what we need to do in order to emit fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere at least until such time as renewables can take over from fossil fuels. This means leaving the coal, oil and gas in the ground and not developing those natural resources. Of course the most powerful corporations on the planet are pledged to do just the opposite.
Many scientists simply see economic progress as incompatible with keeping the planet’s rise in temperature below 2°C, a commitment made by most UN member states. Werner says that, if we continue with business as usual, the resultant “progress” as measured by GDP growth will simply chew up the planet resulting in catastrophic environmental damage.
Resistance, Werner argues, especially by activist/scientists behaving in an unexpected way might be able to force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. He says that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”
Jason Box is a prime example of a scientist risking his career to inform us about global warming. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
“Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I’ve done,” he said, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. “I’ve taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, ‘You’re wasting your time, you’re risking your career,’ ” he said.
Even though such actions might threaten a successful and prestigious career, he considers the risk to his personal reputation worth it because he has a 14 month old daughter who will have to live in the climate warmed world we bequeath her.
As mentioned in a previous article, the Rosebud Sioux have said that approval of the Keystone pipeline, which would traverse their tribal lands, would be considered an act of war, and they would fight it tooth and nail. President Cyril Scott of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said, “Did I declare war on the Keystone XL pipeline? Hell yeah, I did. I pledge my life to stop these people from harming our children and grandchildren and way of life. They will not cross our treaty lands. We have so much to lose here.”
Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, sees that capitalism in and of itself is the chief contributor to global warming. “Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.”
Naomi Klein has placed her hope for fighting climate change in efforts like those of the Rosebud Sioux, which are happening around the world, which she calls “Blockadia.” In her book she states:
Blockadia also stretches into multiple hot spots in Canada … For instance, in 2013 … a remarkable standoff was playing out in the province of New Brunswick, on land claimed by the Elsipogtog First Nation, a Mi’kmaq commuinity whose roots in what is now eastern Canada go back some ten thousand years. The people of Elsipogtog were leading a blockade against SWN Resources, the Canadian subsidiary of a Texas-based company, as it tried to conduct seismic testing ahead of a possible fracking operation. The land in question has not been handed over by war or treaty and Canada’s highest court has upheld the Mi’kmaq’s right to continue to access the natural resources of those lands and waters – rights the protesters say would be rendered meaningless if the territory becomes poisoned by fracking toxins.
Celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo are also becoming part of Blockadia as fracking impacts on their beautiful estates. In a recent email, Ruffalo stated:
A ban on fracking in Maryland would set a strong example for elected officials around the country, one that promotes informed choices based on sound, independent science and places constituent safety and well-being first. What happens in Maryland impacts all of us.
The time to ban fracking is now.
Some scientists believe that what happened on Easter Island will happen to life on earth as a whole. Eminent Australian scientist Professor Frank Fenner, who helped to wipe out smallpox, predicts humans will probably be extinct within 100 years, because of overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change. Fenner said that climate change is likely to be the cause of our extinction. “We’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island,” he said. More people means fewer resources, and Fenner predicts “there will be a lot more wars over food.”
Polynesian people settled on pristine Easter Island around the middle of the first millennium AD. The population grew slowly at first and then exploded. As the population grew the forests were wiped out and all the tree animals became extinct with devastating consequences. Around 1600 the civilization began to collapse, and had virtually disappeared by the mid-19th century.
Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond said the parallels between what happened on Easter Island and what is occurring today on the planet as a whole are “chillingly obvious.”
Where We’re Going With This
We will address the positive and negative forces at work and the wide range of solutions needed to come to grips with the fact that life on earth as we know it is in danger. This is complicated by the fact that, despite all the communication about AGW, a vast number of people still don’t really comprehend – or don’t want to comprehend – how exponentially FAST the whole climate change process is taking place relative to geological time. This fortifies the belief in a surprising number of people that nothing dangerous is really happening … and if so, there’s lots of time to solve the problem. Or possibly they are convinced that the worst effects of climate change will not happen until after they’re dead in which case they don’t care.
The reality is that ‘disruptive’ technologies, lifestyle changes and stronger regulations among other things are critical NOW in order to achieve a ‘green friendly, tempered capitalism’ before Earth’s rising heat content and temperature path become irreversible.
With no pretentions of having final answers to the developing environmental peril facing earth-species, we will highlight:
- Ongoing rise in global CO2 emissions and planet-warming
- Far too slow transition to renewables as main energy source
- Real progress by Germany and Scandinavia which contrasts with only a small amount of progress by China, India and the U.S. toward at least 70% renewable energy sources and hydropower by 2050
Big problems require big solutions! Will our human cognitive biases nurtured by personal prejudices, politics, money interests, helplessness and hopelessness prevent us from taking the necessary rational steps towards planetary ecological balance and sustainable living … in time?
The odds aren’t looking good!
Next time: The Scientific Basis of Climate Change