Climate denialists: a stubborn but dying breed?

by Jonathon Hanks

It’s been an interesting month in the global greenhouse: fire, drought and record-breaking temperatures in Russia; floods in Pakistan; mudslides in China; a 260 km2 ice-sheet breaks off a Greenland glacier; and the Daily Mail (one of the bastions of crack-pot climate denialism) finally concedes that “Yes, global warming is real – and deeply worrying.” It’s been a month that has seen former sceptic, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, doing an abrupt u-turn: “What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now” he says “needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate.”

In his latest, highly regarded quarterly newsletter, the ever-prescient US investor Jeremy Grantham writes that climate change “will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future.”  And the markets seem to be showing this: this has been a month where stock and bond trading has been curbed in Russia by as much as 60% as “bankers flee Moscow” to escape smoke from wildfires east of Moscow; where wheat prices have hit a 22-month high as a result of drought and floods; and where unseasonal wet weather has delayed the offloading of sugar from a record 122 ships at Brazil’s ports, causing one market analyst to suggest that weather-related issues will result in “this year’s worst performing commodity to rise more than gold”.

Then there is the human dimension. In Pakistan, an estimated 1,600 people are dead and more than 14 million affected; in China 700 have died and more than 1,000 are missing; while in Russia, health authorities suggest that Moscow’s death rate has increased to about 700 a day from 360 to 380 in normal conditions. Some have suggested that the devastating Pakistan floods threaten a food crisis.

Of course, we must be very cautious before attributing any of these events to climate change. In a measured article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the UK Met Office, argues, however, that the “evidence, including in India and China, that periods of heavy rain are getting heavier, is entirely consistent with our understanding of the physics of the atmosphere in which warmer air holds more moisture. Our climate change predictions support the emerging trend in observations and show a clear intensification of extreme rainfall events in a warmer world.” He concludes: “the odds of such extreme events are rapidly shortening and could become considered the norm by the middle of this century.”  Interestingly, the current temperature rise is exactly in line with a paper published in Nature in 1999 that shows a graph of a range of predicted outcomes for 2000 to 2040.

In this context one would think that I would have an easy task convincing the leadership team of one of South Africa’s top agricultural companies that climate change issues will have an impact on their business over the next ten years. Hence my surprise at the end of a three-hour strategy session, when several of them concluded that the physical impacts of climate change are “perception”, while only the anticipated (and criticised) policy responses are reality.

Speaking before me, at the invitation of the organisers of this strategy workshop (a well-known “global business and technology think tank”) was local climate denialist Andrew Kenny.  Kenny chose to ignore the terms of reference for our engagement and instead spent 40 minutes sharing his well-worn climate change presentation, plagued with the complete mistruths that are the standard fare of the climate denial industry. Almost everything he said has been refuted by well-reasoned argument – but for those who desperately want to believe that climate change is a hoax, his words are comforting, and do just enough to sow doubt. And that is all he needs to do.

At the end of his presentation I was reminded of what South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys once said of former President Mbeki in the context of Mbeki’s HIV/Aids denialism (a feature that Kenny once shared): “that man is either evil, or stupid.” Uys’ tone, before an audience of several hundred at Cape Town’s Baxter theatre, made it clear which of these epithets he was applying to the then President.

When one appreciates that these are the same tactics (and at times exactly the same “experts”) that were used by the tobacco industry – at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives – and when one considers how much higher the stakes are in the climate debate, then it is very tempting to use such strong words of people such as Andrew Kenny.

But what does this say of the organisers of this strategy workshop? On their website they argue that “’it’s time to go beyond Al Gore and Nicholas Stern in the debate on climate change. It’s time to focus on what we can do about it, rather than debate whether or not there is a crisis.” Why then does this same respected organisation choose to spend three hours with the strategy team doing exactly the opposite: debating the science when we could instead be debating the possible solutions. They’re confused? I’m confused.

The lesson is clear: those of us seeking to inform the sustainability agenda have a great deal to do in being a whole lot smarter in how we communicate our message. For too long, many of us in the sustainability arena have been looking into the abyss, focusing on what we want to avoid rather than on where we want to be (and as a former hang-glider pilot I know that’s bad practice!).

It’s time for us to be far more positive, to follow the example of Martin Luther King and to paint the dream we have on what the future could hold. It’s time to show that addressing the environmental challenge is about being innovative and identifying and realising exciting new opportunities, it’s about finding a better balance in much of what we do, and it’s about engaging in honest and open dialogue aimed at finding practical solutions.

Having finally had the opportunity to see Kenny’s disingenuous propaganda at work, let me say to him thank you; it’s been a lesson on the scale of the challenge that we face.

But on whether I would engage in another discussion with Kenny, I think I’ll choose to adopt the following suggested ground-rules of engaging denialists:

“We don’t argue with cranks. Part of understanding denialism is knowing that it’s futile to argue with them, and giving them yet another forum is unnecessary. They also have the advantage of just being able to make things up and it takes forever to knock down each argument as they’re only limited by their imagination while we’re limited by things like logic and data. Recognizing denialism also means recognizing that you don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t argue with it. Denialists are not honest brokers in the debate. They aren’t interested in truth, data, or informative discussion; they’re interested in their world view being the only one, and they’ll say anything to try to bring this about…. That’s not to say we won’t discuss science with people who want to honestly be informed, we just don’t want to argue with cranks. We have work to do.”

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4 Responses to Climate denialists: a stubborn but dying breed?

  1. Paul Hohnen says:

    Fully agree with this analysis. Arguing with ‘Flat Earthers’ is a waste of everybody’s time and energy. There is an increasing number of people who know there’s a problem and want to be part of the solution. These folk are incredibly motivated and – unlike ‘Flat Earthers’ – positive and creative. Witness all the new technologies and approaches being developed worldwide. Play with the “players” and not the “naysayers” is my rule of thumb.

  2. Simon Steward says:

    I totally agree with the comments you have made. I don’t consider that I am crankish about “climate change” issues , having been 20 years in a leading US bank well as Anglo American. But I do see that there are risks involved in doing nothing-quite apart from my firm view that what we are experiencing is abnormal. Forget about the cranks such as Kenny and let’s concentrate on the real world and rather on what we can do now to minimise the threat.
    Anyone who might suggest science knows all the answers is plain stupid or has another agenda.

  3. Jonathon Hanks says:

    Paul and Simon: Thanks for these comments.
    The excellent Climate Progress blog site has some interesting observations and further discussion on the recent weather events – have a look at http://climateprogress.org/2010/08/14/climate-experts-agree-global-warming-caused-russian-heat-wave/

  4. Richard Worthington says:

    I would agree with the ground rules in most contexts, particularly in the case of the dangerously arrogant and irresponsible Kenny. When radio stations uncritically provide a platform for denialists, I believe it is worth calling in to denounce attempts to resurrect issues that have been thoroughly adressed by the IPCC. However, we need to move on to addressing the renewable energy (RE) denialists: those who maintain that “renewable energy cannot provide base load electricity supply”, or variations such as: “we have to have coal or nuclear power to meet base load demand”.
    While these are often the same as climate change denialists (the free market foundation types paradoxiclly defending indirect subsidisation of fossil and nuclear fuels) they are a lot more numerous and influential. This is not to be blind to challenges involved in managing an electricity supply system with a high proportion of renewable resource input, but such challenges are a lot more tractable than those associated with nuclear power. There will be significant costs in moving away from highy concentrated energy sources to more dispersed and dilute renewble sources, but they are a small fraction the costs of failure to do so as a matter of urgency.
    Energy-intensive industry is understandably reluctant to move away from generation technologies that allow for at least half of the true costs of supply to be externalised, from the commercial supply system to society as a whole. Similarly, some of the people previously disadvantaged and excluded from the vast wealth accumulated by traditional extractive industries over the last few centuries would like to have a turn to profit from the depletion of mineral resources. People whose self-esteem is tied to operating large internal combustion engines mounted in vehicles of ridiculous weight and ostentation are also reluctant to contemplate modal shifts to break our fossil addiction.
    As we consider a 20-year plan for electricity supply, through the provisional IRP2010 process (see http://www.doe-irp.co.za to make input), it is necessary to tackle the Base Load Fallacy (as some Australians have called it) hed on. Misrepresentations of the options for electricity supply, such as “we need a base load plant”, when meeting base load demand is actually a function of over-all system management, could result in very expensive mistakes in infrastructure development, leaving SA either with stranded assets, or facing various forms of sanction as one of the most carbon-intensive economies world-wide.
    Given tht the IRP2010 is due to be published for comment on 1 September, to provide a mandate for investment decisions, there is an ugent need to out RE denialists and build the cse, already explored in a range of research, for very close to 100% RE electricity by 2050. For this to be affordable for SA requires a mandate for 50% RE electricity by2030 (as explained in our new publication that will be on http://www.wwf.org.za from 17 August).

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