How I came to know that I am a closet climate denier

5 09 2017

File 20170828 17154 1asx2tb
So large are the nation’s daily greenhouse gas emissions that if yours is a typical Australian lifestyle you’re contributing disproportionately to climate change.
Carbon Visuals/flickr, CC BY

Joy Murray, University of Sydney

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.


What we believe and how we act don’t always stack up. Recently, in considering what it means to live in a post-truth world, I had cause to examine my understanding of how the world works and my actions on sustainability.

I realised I was, in effect, almost as much a climate denier as those who profess to be. Here’s how.

1.1 A way of understanding how the world works

I take a cybernetic view of the world. For me this means a holistic systems perspective based on circularity and feedback with a biological/evolutionary slant.

As I understand it, we learn and change as we bump up against the milieu we inhabit, which changes as we bump into it.

Our ontogeny – our life history since conception – determines what we contribute to that milieu, and the life histories of others determine what they take from it.

1.2 Sustainability

Now to the messages that we – the Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA) group at the University of Sydney – strive to communicate to the world.

Using input-output analysis, we put numbers to trends in emissions. We communicate on environmental and social sustainability through books, journals and conferences, showing how complex supply chains snake around the world.

We suggest that once producers, consumers and global corporations know the damage that is being done they will take action to stop it. Meanwhile, we discuss the motivations of climate deniers and wonder what we can do to change things.

1.3 The big collision

This is where I bump into my understanding of the world. What messages do people take from what we contribute to the milieu? Are they changed by the sustainability messages we try to communicate?

Dan Kahan and colleagues from the Yale Law School suggest that perception of risk from climate change depends on our cultural worldview: we dismiss risk if accepting it would mean social upheaval. Survival within the group, they say, trumps lifestyle change.

This fits with my understanding of how our ontogeny determines our survival needs and how our perception of survival within the group influences our actions. It also fits with my view about how people learn – we pick up from the surrounding milieu what fits with our views and ignore the rest.

I nodded along with Kahan, aligning myself with those trying to tell others of the risk. Until I realised there were two problems in such a position.

Problem one

The first problem is that my behaviour is little different from that of Kahan’s subjects. I live in Australia, which has the fifth-highest gross national income per capita. We also have the highest per-capita emissions in the OECD.

While I minimise waste and do my recycling, it would take a lifestyle upheaval to drop my household emissions to the sustainable share suggested by people like Peter Singer. So, I behave as though the call to act on climate change in an equitable way does not apply to me.

I am not alone in understanding the issues, being concerned about the consequences, and yet failing to act. It’s known as the “knowledge, concern, action paradox”.

Julien Vincent, writing about investors who ostensibly support the Paris Agreement yet fail to act, refers to this as a “much subtler, but no less damaging, form of denial”. He cites a case of Santos investors, aware of the consequences, professing concern, yet choosing to vote against a resolution that would have committed the company to conduct a 2°C scenario analysis.

It would seem that knowing the truth and professing concern about climate change are the easy parts. They cost nothing and allow us to claim the kudos that accrues to taking up such a position.

However, knowing the truth and professing concern without taking action is somewhat disingenuous. At worst it is living a lie, akin to being a closet climate denier.

So, even when recognising this truth/action/denial dilemma, why don’t we act? George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It, provides an insight. He discusses our evolutionary origins, our perception of threats, including climate change, and our instincts to protect family and tribe.

This resonates with my take on cybernetics, which suggests I live the way I do because I need to survive in my physical, economic, social and cultural environment; and because in a different era it would have given my offspring the best chance of survival.

It doesn’t let me off the hook – I still need to take action to lower my emissions – but it reminds me I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. I’m as much a part of the system as anyone else.

Meanwhile, my cybernetic take on life says that whatever we put into the milieu matters. So even though very few of us living in high-income countries can reduce our emissions to an equitable share, whatever actions we take to reduce them contribute to the world of tomorrow, next week, next year. They change the milieu, which changes the possibilities for change.

Problem two

Putting myself outside the system leads to the second problem, which is contingent on the first and means that if I can’t change my own actions I can’t expect to change those of others.

For while I shout about climate change, hoping others will hear what I say and act on it, in so many ways I communicate that I’m not acting on it myself.

A recent online survey showed that a researcher’s perceived carbon footprint affected her/his credibility and influenced the participants’ intentions to change their energy consumption.

If I know the figures, accept the science and yet continue to lead my rich nation lifestyle, I’m fair game as an excuse, conscious or not, for the deniers to continue their climate-indifferent lifestyles.

This doesn’t mean sharing our research is a waste of time. It provides valuable information about the social, economic and environmental effects of doing business; again, it changes the milieu. But it’s highly unlikely that people will read it and change what they do, which is a far more complex process.

Changing attitudes and action

Much research has been devoted to the question of how, and how not, to influence people’s responses to the threats posed by climate change.

Michael Mann is wary of scare campaigns as a motivating force. Bob Costanza and colleagues suggest that scare campaigns from scientists and activists alike are not the answer to weaning us off our addiction to an unsustainable lifestyle.

There’s research to suggest that enlisting the help of a trusted community member might be an effective alternative. Having an advocate present benefits of a low-carbon lifestyle, framed around community issues like energy security rather than climate change, has had some success.

Such an approach could help provide a way to take action for people who know about the science but whose political affiliations and values position them at the climate denial end of the spectrum, regardless of their knowledge.

However, it may not help those of us whose political affiliations and values are aligned with acting on climate change, yet still find it hard to act.

Probably more pertinent to our case is research showing that our actions on climate change are circumscribed not only by the political and cultural contexts that we inhabit but also by the infrastructure provided by them. That’s because this infrastructure forms the milieu that enfolds our lives.

So, where to from here?

If this is the case, then resolution to my first problem might require a significant change to the web of edifices that support my lifestyle. It would take a climate-friendly government with a narrative that normalises action on climate change to make it easy for me to survive in the group and live a low-carbon lifestyle.

Sweden provides an example of what this could look like. For many countries, though, a shift in the national narrative might seem impossible.

In Sweden, a rare example of a rich nation with low emissions, Hammarby in Stockholm is a model of environmentally friendly city development.
Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

There are examples of dramatic change to a seemingly inviolable narrative, but they come with a “be careful what you wish for” label.

Recently, we’ve seen Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump make spectacular changes to the political landscape. They illustrate the power of engaging at the community level, discussing local issues (albeit sometimes with the help of big data), portraying empathy and swearing commitment to local solutions.

These leaders have changed the discourse. A cybernetic take on the process might say that their acts of communication triggered a lifetime of connotations in their hearers. The hearers interpreted the message through the prism of their ontogeny, feeding back into the mix their personal understandings, amplifying the message and influencing others by their own communications.

This is a process that works for good or ill, depending where you stand. So a world leader with climate credentials and sufficient clout to make the low-carbon lifestyle message sound mainstream could change the world’s trajectory.

However, ranged against the wisdom of waiting for such a one is the ominous presence of big data companies with the capacity to help manipulate individuals as well as whole communities; uber-wealthy individuals and groups with the ability to influence leaders and world politics; and the top 10% of global income earners who are responsible for almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as the rest of us together.

All are acting out of their own survival instincts and are unlikely to succumb to any amount of persuasive argument from a climate-conscious leader.

So how else to change the milieu to support more of us in achieving a more sustainable lifestyle? Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom’s view is that the planet’s salvation lies with communities everywhere bypassing governments and taking action themselves. In 2012 she wrote:

… evolutionary policymaking is already happening organically. In the absence of effective national and international legislation to curb greenhouse gases, a growing number of city leaders are acting to protect their citizens and economies.

Those mayors defying Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement come to mind as examples.

Ostrom suggests that supporting distributed leadership is the answer. And, to bring us back to cybernetics, management cybernetics guru Stafford Beer did exactly that.

Beer took Ashby’s law of requisite variety and revolutionised the way business management operated. Ashby’s law tells us that only variety (or complexity) can control variety. That leaves 90% of the global population to bring together the system variety required to influence – Ashby says “control” – the very wealthy high-emissions minority.

So, I’m backing distributed leadership to overcome my own inability to cut my emissions further. Investing in the work of organisations that can act will be my proxy.

This may look like a slow haul to change the milieu so that action on climate change becomes normal life, but I’m counting on the snowballing power of amplification to make it happen sooner rather than later.

The complexity of the 90% will eventually trump that of the 10%, by which time my second problem should be irrelevant.


You can read other pieces in the post-truth series here.

The ConversationThe Democracy Futures series is a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Joy Murray, Senior Research Fellow in Integrated Sustainability Analysis, School of Physics, Faculty of Science, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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11 responses

5 09 2017
Chris Harries

I was so delighted to see this article, because for so long I’ve been battling the popular meme that climate deniers – those who disbelieve in climate science – are the naughty ones. Truth is, pointing the finger at a few absolute denialists has enabled the majority of citizens to feel positive about their own lifestyle and awareness. The wicked problem that we have to face is knowing that the whole of society is in a state of massive denial. If we want to play the blame game everyone is in the ‘naughty’ category. Only when we get to the point of accepting this hard truth can society move forward positively.

5 09 2017
David Bidstrup

Just because someone does not “believe” what others believe they are not “deniers”. They might just be people who have finely tuned bullshit filters and can spot propaganda from a mile off. Ordinary people pay the cost for the insane “policies” that are put in place to stop us frying in 2100. Eventually they will realise they have been had and it will all go away. Cannot be soon enough.

6 09 2017
Dennis Mitchell

Not using “scare” tactics I can understand, but the minute you quit telling the truth you commit a car greater sin. From my perspective we need people concentrating not on politics but on survival tactics. Not so much of humans but of the biosphere it’s self. We could be studying catastrophic biology. Training permaculturist how to adapt to rapidly changing climates. Could we move species north to preserve a semblance of an ecosystem? I guess, it might be time we quit arguing about if, when, or how, and actually spent our resources on adapting. Understand this comes from a guy with two trucks, one car, five trailers, and a tractor (in a pear tree…) for just two people sitting in his yard.
I’m guilty. I’m also willing. A few voices got me to change to a plant based diet. I am very interested in selling my trucks and getting an electric cargo bike, switching my electrical to a small scale low volt system, building an underground green house, divorcing myself from an economy that promotes the USA war machine, switching my farm from a cattle outfit to a sustainable food forest (in a desert, none the less). How to do it since I’ve grown old, disabled, and poor. (I don’t own the farm). I’m afraid my condition reflects our whole developed world, old, disabled, and broke. I have two conclusions. First we have a lot of work to do. Two, we can’t do it with our present economy. A rational conclusion would be “we are screwed”. Humans are rarely rational. Let’s go down fighting!

6 09 2017
Chris Harries

Good thoughts, Dennis. Now that there are several million people on Earth who can see that our civilisation faces a certain major disruption then the sensible thing to do is for those people to look and plan for beyond that pivotal point. One of the things that prevent many other millions of people coming to the same realisation is that ‘collapse’ is too often portrayed, or imagined, as something like a diabolical black nightmare after which nothing at all is left in the wake.

It’s best to speak of collapse more like a stock market ‘correction’. Something that just has to happen when the status quo can’t be sustained and which brings back balance. This prospect still challenges our sense of comfort that comes with an easy life, but there will still be a tomorrow.

For the most part the prospect of a collapse is so frightening for most people that they will either 1) disbelieve it outright or 2) develop a myriad of beliefs in every possible hair brained scheme or technology that promises to save our bacon. We are like ants running all over a burning log.

Some of the latter, more elegant, efforts may be useful in a post-collapse society, so some of those endeavours may be of some use but in the main it is prudent to move forward with a new slate, so to speak, rather than try to stave off the inevitable.

6 09 2017
mikestasse

I own three utes (long story…), BUT, I can only drive one at a time. Then, when you sell your truck or whatever, someone else will drive it. I actually think that by me owning three utes, it literally keeps two of them off the road!

6 09 2017
Boil Gardens

Well put, I’m kinda in your camp of thought. Just thought I should let you know you are not alone.

6 09 2017
Glenn

Mike … thats an interesting thing to say. Im a bit sirprised. I suppose we can all think up irrational thoughts to support our irrational wants. Should i then go out and buu to more trucks myslf?

I agree aith one plint made … we ALL have blood on our hands in this industrial road crash waiting to happen.

6 09 2017
Austapteryx

In the end, people tell themselves that any little bit they do themselves is enough and it is the deniers fault and/or the governments fault. So much more comfortable that way as they can continue living as they are and blame someone else if it goes pear shaped. I am just as bad as the rest, but don’t tell myself fairy tales.

Sorry Mike, people will drive utes because they want to transport themselves or items. So if you sold your other two, they would end up as waste/be recycled, collect in someone else’s yard or they would be driven in preference to another used vehicle or a new vehicle. At best you are preventing landfill, at worst you are tying up valuable resources or necessitating expenditure of energy and resources to create new ones. So saying you keep spares in case one breaks down is a rather more honest justification.

6 09 2017
mikestasse

Anyone who buys a new ute, would not be interested in my 20+ years old cars…! And anyone who would be interested, would not be able toafford a new one. I think my argument stands…….. while they are all in good nick, safe and drivable, I have found it handy to have more than one when I bring home a ton of sometning that takes me several days to unload!

13 09 2017
Chris Harries

This film “Tomorrow” points to the immense scale of the challenge in transitioning to a post upheaval society, but it does su using the optimistic take that is deemed to be necessary to turn people on.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/screening-of-french-film-demain-tomorrow-tickets-37561545594

13 09 2017
mikestasse

I’m going, see you there….

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