Guest Post by Barry Woods
I was invited several months ago, to contribute to a collection of essays and narratives about what sort of story is climate change. The book – Culture and Climate Change: Narratives – edited by Joe Smith, Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler, it was launched on the 24th June 2014. I originally submitted a rather long essay, and with some careful editing reduced it to the ~ 800 word limit (a big thank you to Hannah/Casper for their patience and help) .
Please take a look at all the contributions, some here might consider mine a rather lone voice, but I am glad to be included, and it is probably all the better for being tightly edited. Looking back now, I may have been experiencing mild ‘Climate Burnout’ when I wrote it. An extended revised version of my original submission is below, I called it:
The Science Was Settled Enough
I arrived very late to the man-made Global Warming debate; I was for want of a better phrase, totally ‘climate oblivious’ for years. If I had been surveyed say 5 years ago I would probably be considered as concerned about climate change and thought something should be done. That said I was largely oblivious to the issues of the debate, the ‘science’, the ‘policies’, The Inconvenient Truth, the Big Ask campaign, the UK Climate Change Act 2008, the IPCC, Rio, Kyoto had meant absolutely nothing to me. I was graduating, post graduate, then too busy with a career, getting married, day to day life and then three children. Which does seem to me to demonstrate the pointlessness of those surveys, presumably conjured up to persuade politicians that the weakly green public, largely totally oblivious to the issues of the debate, want politicians to take radical ‘action’.
I only became interested in climate change a few weeks before the Copenhagen conference following a blog post on a News and Politics forum I’d been a member of for a decade. The forum discussion it went on for tens and tens of pages and I finally took a look at the blog it referred to – WattsUpWithThat – (I’d never heard of it before) and I downloaded the climategate leaked material for myself. What struck me was FOI requests for data, that should have been freely given, apparent utter incompetence in the handling of data, and most striking to me (and for me the major ‘truth’ of the emails) was the apparent subtle pressure on scientists to provide a ‘nice tidy story’ for the politicians. Something I have since seen for myself in the twittersphere / blogs /media with warnings from climate concerned activists (and some scientists) to other scientists when they were trying to be accurate about the science, that ‘they are giving ammunition to sceptics. An awful situation for Science, if trying to scientifically accurate is to be thought of as spreading doubt?
Then came the Copenhagen conference, the media/political hype of ‘Saving the Planet’, the COP15 opening conference video being the worst offender, a child running from the rising ocean, leaping into a tree screaming for her life, which gave my daughter nightmares for months after, metres of sea level rise, cracked earth, tipping points, climate doom and catastrophes and climate denier rhetoric in the media. I asked an old friend of mine (a UK climate scientist) for the official sea level projections, and I was told the actual and most current IPCC figures(AR4) and that the high end figures were thought very unlikely and I thought why is this video being shown without any criticism or analysis from the media. Around the same time, one day my 5 year old daughter came home from infants school and started turning off all the lights in the house (great-it saves electricity and we are always telling our children to do this), but then she cried when we asked why she was, because all the polar bears are dying because of humans.
So I started getting involved, reading and commenting on newspaper articles, on blogs, discovering the below the line comments in the mainstream media were utterly fruitless and a time suck (despite many climate concerned people thinking they were plagued by astro-turfing climate denial paid trolls), and submitted a guest post or two at ‘sceptical’ websites and was quickly labelled as a ‘sceptic’ or even a ‘climate denier’ and pushed to one side (or out of) of a very polarised debate. I was motivated (in part) by ‘The Science’ being misused to push policy, the rhetoric used, with policy being thought of as science, and to ask questions was to reject or be anti-science.
There are people (some activists, politicians and scientists – a few) convinced that a climate catastrophe is coming, tipping points, a future climate disaster en par with multiple holocausts, and the public (and even climate science) is in denial of this. With this worldview, all to easy to rationalise anybody that questions policies to be dismissed as deniers, cranks, flat-earther (and that was just my Prime Minister’s words at Copenhagen) with motivations questioned and people as bad, mad, sad, or conspiracy theorists, or in the pay of an organised fossil fuel denial industry. It was also disconcerting to find many people I have met, correspond with, or read, to be named and shamed in Deniers – Halls of Shame – Denier Disinformation databases, tagged and labelled disinformers, deniers, denial machine.
Why could these people not all merely be just said to be wrong?
But which ‘public’ is in denial or in ‘climate silence’? The very small subset that are actively aware of the debate, or the billions just getting on with their day to day lives (like myself previously), where climate change issues, and media reporting of, is just so much background noise or not even noticed at all. If the disinterested Western public (and what of Africa, China, India, and billions more) have not taken to the streets and lobbied for action by now (after decades) despite hearing that the ‘science is settled’, ‘97% of scientists say’ or ‘300,000 people are dying every year of climate change’ (Global Humanitarian Forum -2009). Science sounding soundbites used as an authority, moral pressure on the public and politician’s to conform to this consensus, no more questions, Act!
The ‘300,000 people dying’ given media headlines, Guardian, 10:10, quoted at UN conferences and on the lips of journalist and politician, motivating Greenpeace activists into shutting down power stations, clambering on the roofs of the Houses of Commons, and a soundbite to assert moral authority for action to shutdown any questions in a debate.
All feeding into an environmental vision (utopian?) of changing society away from industrial, capitalistic and economic growth. Limiting any possibilities of a technological climate change solution, embracing nuclear technology, a ‘Manhattan Style’ quest for fusion, of exploring conventional and new energy technologies, including shale gas.
In 2014, we find the psychological and social sciences seeking to find out why the general public and climate change sceptics are sceptical, is it motivated reasoning, ideology, worldview, their cultural values, or are they just mad, bad, cranks and conspiracy theorists, and just in the pay of somebody (much of this frequently stated in academic papers without much questioning or thought).
But all those soundbites, surveys and psychological research are just seemingly produced to be used to persuade a weakly green but disinterested public to allow politicians to take action, yet survey after survey shows the public put climate change repeatedly at the bottom of lists of issues that concern them. Are they just ‘climate oblivious’ like I used to be, not in denial of anything or has ‘climate fatigue’ set in and it becomes just background noise, much like the latest repeated medicine ‘science says’ scares in the media.
The science was settled enough for some policy action and has been for decades.
A range of temperature projections and possible consequence was, decades ago and still is sufficient to take some policy action. But politicians could not encompass radical demands of total decarbonisation and an added factor was, emissions were a consequence of industrialism and economic growth and horror of horrors, capitalism. A compromise had to be sort between the demands for rapid decarbonisation, and the growth of the developing countries who would not contend emission reductions, thinking the West historically caused the problem. So a compromise was set, the richest nations would seek to reduce emissions whilst the developing world would have no such constraints, thus the seed for the failure of the Copenhagen conference was set decades ago, years prior to the Kyoto agreement.
So what should happen in the future?
I think that the future narrative of the 21st century will be, that the developing world brought its citizens out of poverty, and if this is also allows these citizens to grow resilience from potential risks of man-made climate change (let alone from the ‘normal’ ravages of nature) escape from disease, so much the better. If, as I think there is no chance politically (East, West, developing, developed) of ever being any meaningful global agreement in the reduction in world emissions, then we should build resilience and adapt to the possible peril of dangerous climate change or very unlikely risk of catastrophic climate change. Then even IF this does not occur, we will have saved millions of people’s lives every year into the future. By allowing their economies and wealth to grow and by wealth I mean, clean water, access to regular electricity supply, refrigeration, cheap energy, infrastructure. Everything we in the developed world forget is a ‘luxury’ to many millions of people that simply aspire to what we have and take for granted.
I am not sceptical of climate science as a field, more the futile symbolic gesture climate policies and politics which the authority of ‘The Science’ is used to push for. So perhaps if all the people that have been labelled ‘climate sceptics’ took a long holiday and stayed ‘climate silent’, would the climate campaigners be forced to deal with the pragmatic hard realities that policymakers face, energy policies, jobs, economic growth, technological realties, the publics aspirations for their families in the developed world and more importantly the public in the developing world.
“….A second obstacle to action is the pathological obsession of many environmental campaigners with the climate sceptics. By concluding that the sceptics are the main obstacle to action, campaigners are not only demonstrating a spectacularly circular logic, but they are also devoting their energies to a fruitless fight. Make no mistake, fighting sceptics has its benefits – it reinforces a simplistic good versus evil view of the world, it gives a sense of doing something, and privileges scientific expertise in policy debates. However, one thing that it does not do is contribute towards effective action on climate change.
The battle over public opinion on climate change has long been won, and not by the sceptics. But simply by virtue of their continued existence, the climate sceptics may have the last laugh, because many climate campaigners seem to be able to see nothing else in the debate. Climate sceptics are not all powerful and may not even be very relevant to efforts to decarbonise the global economy. They have, however, cast a spell upon their opponents…..” – Dr Roger Pielke Jnr – Guardian
I think however, that the spell is of the campaigners own making, creating by their rhetoric, sceptics at every turn and then the campaigners needing, some group, some focus, some reason, to blame for all the political failure, even though the reasons for the failure of COP15 (and subsequent meetings) are very clear. If there were no sceptics to blame for political failure, would then the calls for, Radical Plans, for degrowth, or almost total decarbonisation in a short term, be looked at critically, determined as unworkable and the policymakers could move on and actually achieve something merely good.
If there were no sceptics (all finally convinced now by ‘97% of scientist say’) would the climate change campaigners then realise that the failures of policymakers were because of the hard realities of developing world’s fossil fuel economies which will bring many millions more of the world’s poorest out of poverty, and even if the World’s leaders agreed about climate change, compromises, health, wealth creation and economic development would remain the primary goal of the now mostly highly emitting developing world. (China now having caught up with the EU average per capita emissions, in less than a decade and growing still)
What has motivated me? Well principle of science being accurately presented in the media, that we should focus on the poor NOW, not the future poor, which is a total poverty of the imagination; by 2050 ‘we’ should be ashamed if there are any future ‘poor’. Over 6 million children die of disease, malnutrition, lack of sanitation and many other factors all related to poverty every single year,(an annual catastrophe) all causes all but eliminated in the relatively wealthy developed world. But perhaps at a very personal level, motivated by a future where even my 5 year old daughter was not (very) concerned enough to ask her father (she was), ‘please don’t tell anybody, what you think about polar bears’.
I hope the political rhetoric and intolerance of sceptical voices soon burns out and politicians can constructively deal with hard policy choices and achieve something, the science is settled enough to be pragmatic (especially no regrets policies, achieving a merely good outcome is always better at failing to achieve perfect), yet I heard whilst writing this:
I think I will be increasingly ‘Climate Indifferent’ the only label I really want to be associated with or will accept in the future is, Member of the Public.
The complete book is available as a free PDF here,