Why I’m a climate change denier

By The Rational Radical

A long hot summer etches itself deep into our consciousness. After three weeks of cloudless days, it seems it will never end. Swimming in rivers, warm evening sunshine. It’s good for the soul. Writing this in the middle of a dark, windswept and cold December, the summer gone is a warm and pleasant memory.

But this year, amidst the photos of packed beaches, came the dawning realisation that perhaps something out-of-the-ordinary is happening. Even among the leafy gardens of middle England, it was hard not to notice the brown grass and cracked earth. For the UK, summer 2018 matched summer 1976 as the joint-hottest summer on record. There was one key difference: back in 1976 the UK was an unusually warm blob in a cool world; this year the whole map was red.

The 1976 heatwave (left) vs 2018 heatwave (right). In meteorology a temperature “anomaly” is a difference compared to a long-term average. It allows changes in air temperature and sea-surface temperature to be plotted on the same map. Here the baseline of 1951 to 1980 is used as period of relatively stable temperatures close to the longer-term average, but with better data coverage. Images from https://twitter.com/SimonLeeWx/status/1021130752199725059 based on data from Data from NASA GISS https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/
California suffered the largest wildfires in state history
Images from farms hit by sustained drought in Eastern Autralia.

One question often asked is: “is this particular heatwave/rain/wind etc due to climate change?” Scientists often bumble a little here, stating it’s impossible to attribute a single event entirely to climate change, and natural variability plays a part. Which is true, but in that explanation the main message is often lost. The simple answer is yes climate change is contributing, because the climate has changed. The amount of energy in the atmosphere is a fundamental driver of the weather, and all weather now happens in an atmosphere which has warmed dramatically compared to the long-term average.

It’s true that the real extreme weather events — the biggest storm, the record flooding, need a combination of rare things to happen at the same time. But and when all those factors next align, they do so in a world which is warmer than at any point in recent history.

So what the hell do I mean that I’m a climate-change denier? I’m not that kind of denier, I’m not blind. Whether it is land temperature records, sea temperatures, the mass of ice sheets, the extent of glaciers, or global sea level, the evidence of a rapidly warming word is incontrovertible and consistent.

Nor am I one of those who thinks the causes of warming are wobbles in the Earth’s orbit, sunspots, or anything else. The relative strength of all of these factors can be modeled reasonably accurately, and none explain the rate and extent of warming the world is now experiencing.

Debunking of climate change skepticism has been done thoroughly elsewhere. The climate is fascinating and complex and there are many details about climate change which are uncertain. But on the most basic level, the physics of climate change are undeniably simple, greenhouse gases trap outgoing radiation, thereby increasing the temperature of the atmosphere (If only I were American, I could write “period” here without cringing).

What I mean by denial is a different, more subtle, denial: my own brain’s refusal to fully integrate the seriousness of the situation. Somehow, I can’t escape the feeling encapsulated by Harold Pinter that:

Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening

Iain Mcgilchrist describes two ways of knowing, linked to different hemispheres of the brain. An abstract way of knowing, built up from concepts and logic, and a direct experiential way of knowing. You can “know” about climate change by reading papers, understanding the science, and following the projections. But it is only when you see the projections start to come true (in fact are being rapidly surpassed) that you *really* start to believe. Or, as a someone smarter than me once put it:

“The matter with human beans,” the BFG went on, “is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.”

What we are seeing in front of our own schnozzles, unfortunately, is just the very beginning of a process which could easily threaten organised society as we know it. Climate models, although not perfect, are remarkable in their ability to recreate the dynamics of the atmosphere. Take a look at a global weather forecast and keep in mind this is just a simulation. It has the jet stream, depressions, fronts, tropical storms, monsoons, see breezes, coastal fog, thunderstorms, and all kinds of other weird and wonderful weather in there.

There are some uncertainties, but climate models recreate recent warming relatively well. For such a complex system, this level of accuracy is remarkable, and far surpasses the skill of any economic model out there, upon which we base all kinds of policies. Economists eat your heart out (soon, preferably).

By far the largest “uncertainty” in where we are heading is our own future emissions. If emissions continue to increase as they are doing, then global average temperatures will increase by between 3–5 degrees by 2100, and much more than that in the Arctic.

Four degrees of warming might not sound so bad when the mental model we use to evaluate it is a single day in a single place. Four degrees seems quite nice in fact — we could take a layer off. Our brains fail to grasp the two important terms global and average.

To put it in perspective, we can compare that warming to the best estimate of global temperatures over the last 20 000 years. For most of the green line, Northern Europe was almost entirely covered in ice. That’s the scale of warming we’re facing: as big as the difference between the middle and the end of an ice age.

The end of the Holocene

The impacts of that warming will be commensurate with the geological scale. Complete loss of coral reefs, complete disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice, accelerated and possibly catastrophic sea level rise. Under the current trajectory, the tropics and the middle east will become uninhabitable by the end of the century. Warming of 4°C introduces risks of “substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity”.

And that’s making the big assumption that warming would stop there. A recent, credible, scientific paper looked at

the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene.

Their conclusion was that even warming of 2 degrees might be enough to enter this trajectory. If that happens, there seems very little chance that society could survive. Even national treasure David Attenborough has recently stated that civilisation could not withstand the changes that are coming.

It’s worth pausing for a second to reflect on our own psychological response to this emotionally distressing fact. Do we accept it, or engage in some kind of denial mechanism to limit the distress?

Denial (Wikipedia tells me) takes many forms:

* simple denial: deny the reality of the unpleasant fact altogether

* minimisation: admit the fact but deny its seriousness (a combination of denial and rationalization)

* projection: admit both the fact and seriousness but deny responsibility by blaming somebody or something else

Personally, I’ve engaged in the second two of these mechanisms many times. I would add a fourth: admit the fact and the seriousness on one level, but fail to act like it’s true. We accept it is happening only in an abstract, conceptual way.

Three to five degrees of warming is not yet inevitable. In another blog post I will look into this in more detail. But, we have to accept that based on available evidence, if we carry on as normal it is almost certain.

Previously scientists have shied away from giving messages which seemed too negative, as this was thought not to inspire action. But presenting future scenarios, including a one which describes a relatively rosy future, gives people another handy denial mechanism. Psychologists know that people “seek to achieve greater cognitive simplicity by treating probability and desirability as a single dimension”, through wishful thinking and unrealistic optimism. Presented with a range of future scenarios we simply select best one as being simultaneously the most desirable and the one most likely to happen, then carry on as normal.

That’s not to say we should abandon hope, or submit to climate fatalism. Human behavior and politics can change, and scientists should be wary about predicting this, but I think it’s reasonable to put a conditional probability on future emission pathways along these lines: unless something radical changes limiting warming below 1.5 degrees is highly unlikely.

Something radical may be changing. Even since starting this article, the dialogue around climate change has shifted dramatically, and people are waking up to the fact that this is an emergency which threatens our existence. Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old school striker has spoken with a sincerity and clarity which shames most political leaders, and is inspiring thousands of others. Extinction Rebellion has spread rapidly, and a series of cities have declared a climate emergency. Taking collective action to attempt to safeguard our future can itself bring hope and meaning to our lives above simply carrying on consuming.

The necessary first step is to avoid denial. In 1945, George Orwell observed:

So far as I can see, all political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. For example, right up to May of this year the more disaffected English intellectuals refused to believe that a Second Front would be opened. They went on refusing while, bang in front of their faces, the endless convoys of guns and landing-craft rumbled through London on their way to the coast… One could point to countless other instances of people hugging quite manifest delusions because the truth would be wounding to their pride…
The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions

The purpose of writing this is not to elicit individual guilt, which I don’t think is a very useful emotion since it often leads, counter productively, to more denial. The purpose is to highlight (a) the seriousness of the situation, and (b) the more subtle denial mechanisms we engage in to avoid really accepting the situation. In the same letter, George Orwell continues:

I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.”

We each have a duty to make the moral effort not to be climate deniers in our own way. That alone won’t solve the crisis, but it is the first essential step towards radical change.