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Climate Denial And The Roar Of The Universal Ape

December 17, 2009

Even as negotiations in Copenhagen go down to the wire, the thoughts of many people seem to be turning to the psychology of what is sometimes called climate denial. BBC blogger Richard Black notes that virtually all the deniers are male, a pattern that ultimately leaves him stumped. Over at the admirable Skeptic North, John Abrams – a former denier himself – argues that “people do not accept global warming because it would negatively impact their desire to consume” and that many libertarian types are especially resistant because they find economic regulation unpalatable. Faced with arguments that imply the need for bureaucratic impositions like carbon pricing, they glower and insist there’s no problem to solve.

The article that really caught my eye, though, was by the ever-provocative George Monbiot. His analysis perhaps started from a perspective similar to Abrams’, but ended up going much further. As Monbiot sees it, denial is the consequence of primal impulses that are out of place in the modern world:

The meeting at Copenhagen confronts us with our primal tragedy. We are the universal ape, equipped with the ingenuity and aggression to bring down prey much larger than itself, break into new lands, roar its defiance of natural constraints. Now we find ourselves hedged in by the consequences of our nature, living meekly on this crowded planet for fear of provoking or damaging others. We have the hearts of lions and live the lives of clerks.

I suppose there’s something to this. Canada and other nations can no longer spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without even imagining destructive consequences. In that sense, we are indeed hedged in. Canadians perhaps feel this hedging more acutely than most, considering that we are so unhedged in other respects. After all, we have abundant resources and a population density of less than four souls per square kilometre. On the face of things, we should have every opportunity for demographic and economic growth, but it may be difficult or even impossible to realise much of this growth while also cutting back on our greenhouse emissions. I suppose Monbiot would say that voluntarily restraining ourselves from breeding like rabbits and founding great new cities upon the newly unfrozen tundra is a form of living meekly.

However, Monbiot also seems to think that a revolutionary new need for meekness now applies across the board. As he puts it:

The vicious battles we have seen so far between greens and climate change deniers, road safety campaigners and speed freaks, real grassroots groups and corporate-sponsored astroturfers are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands.

What makes Monbiot’s piece especially interesting is that he actually sympathises with the impulse to kick against limits. “I lead a mostly peaceful life,” he says in a wonderful line, “but my dreams are haunted by giant aurochs.” How often do aurochs – huge extinct relatives of domestic cattle that feature in cave paintings, although they survived into the 17th century – make it into the opinion pages?

I would contend that the idea of Copenhagen as a great watershed between an age of heroism and an age of meekness is flawed in two respects. First, our ancestors were hardly as unconstrained as Monbiot seems to imagine. People have always been “hedged in” by ritual taboos, by social and political relationships, and indeed by customs intended to conserve natural resources.

Second, and more importantly, the need to accept some constraints on our greenhouse emissions hardly implies that Canada must enter an Age of Constraint affecting every aspect of society. It’s a bit odd that Monbiot mentions road safety campaigners in the same breath as “greens” trying to get the world to tackle climate change. Health and safety is a logically independent question, as are respect for religion, political correctness, animal welfare, the silly emergent issue of robot welfare, and all of the other standard justifications for setting fresh limits on our behaviour (often, ironically, in the name of some form of “rights”).

Like the aurochs hunters of ancient Europe, 21st century Canadians need to discriminate between genuine dangers and harmless shadows, between storms on the horizon and tempests in teapots. Personally, I’m willing to accept that climate change is a problem that will require us to make some difficult changes, though admittedly I’m less sure about the vast financial transfers being discussed in Copenhagen. In many other areas, however, I think we should not only kick against the limits but kick them aside and live more freely, boldly, and unflinchingly. Let’s not hang up our aurochs spears just yet – the aurochs themselves are extinct, but there are still plenty of sacred cows to kill and butcher.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2009 11:25 pm

    I took my own shot at trying to analyze the phenomenon of climate change denialism over at my other blog, but I don’t think I came up with any useful conclusions. This notion of it being gender-related is interesting, though. Perhaps there is some aspect of human evolution that makes it easier for women than men to accept short-term personal pain for long-term societal gain.

  2. Mara Kardas-Nelson permalink*
    December 18, 2009 9:23 am

    The thing that caught my eye the most about this post is your opening paragraph, in which you note that many denialists happen to be men. This resonates greatly with me. Many of my most intelligent male friends, who are able to look at just about every other topic objectively, weighing evidence on all sides to come up with an unbiased opinion, are ferociously against the idea that climate change is happening, and argue to the death that the whole thing is just a left-wing, radical farce. The East Anglia University e-mail scandal didn’t help, as it allowed many who were looking for so-called evidence that climate change doesn’t exist to point to what they claimed was the smoking gun. Nevermind that there are scourges of other pieces of evidence that do point to the reality of climate change: somehow my stubborn male friends were suddenly “proved” right.

    So I’ve wondered recently: how is it that these friends, so unbiased and measured in nearly every other aspect of their lives, are able to look at this topic only through the lens of climate change denialism?

    The answer still escapes me, but I think it lies somewhere in a jumble of an undying belief in capitalism, industry, and technology, matched with hot-headed egotism fueled by the understanding that humans (and men, specifically) are inherently good and right and strong, and wouldn’t be caught dead making such an egregious mistake. All this is topped off with a love for big cars and planes and stuff, and, as you state, the idea of libertarianism, and freedom from restraint.

    Whatever the reason, I’m sick of it, and think that these male friends of mine need to give their over-inflated egos and hot heads exposure to some cool, polluted air and wake up to the realities of what is happening around them.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      December 19, 2009 5:57 am

      Thanks for those thoughts. I’m usually very skeptical of Mars/Venus-style claims about differences in how men and women think, but in this case there really does seem to be a gender gap that needs explaining – although obviously not an absolute one, since (as Richard Black pointed out in the post I linked to) around a third of people who are “dismissive” of climate change are women. (The statement about virtually all deniers being male applied specifically to ones that are prominent in the media – I guess I should have made that clear.)

      I’m not sure how this might or might not intersect with gender, but it does seem to me that some of the resistance to accepting the idea of climate change comes about because the issue tends to get tangled up with other agendas. Using climate change as a stick to beat capitalism or the supposedly guilty “developed” world, as Naomi Klein for example does on a regular basis, is just going to alienate many people who might otherwise be receptive to at least recognising the problem.

      I’ve found the discussion surrounding the East Anglia e-mails interesting, from my point of view as a professional scientist. I’m surprised at how much impact this has had on at least the debate in the media, although perhaps that just reflects initial naive optimism on my part. I suppose the impact has come partly from shrewd quote-mining by denialists, and partly from the fact that journalists and the public aren’t normally exposed to the frank, free-wheeling, often impassioned and sometimes petty and childish conversations that echo through the corridors of science. Fodder for a future post, maybe.

      It’s also interesting that you see climate denial as partly a product of egotism, whereas I wonder if it sometimes has more to do with a specific type of humility – the idea that nature and the universe are just “there”, and that we feeble little humans couldn’t possibly influence anything as fundamental as the temperature of the entire atmosphere.

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