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Increasingly, we’re hearing scientists and environmental journalists encouraging us all to join the dots, to urge governments to finally treat the climate and ecological crisis as the emergency that it is. Why is it so important to grasp the bigger picture? In this short article, I’ll offer some suggestions to help you when you’re having these conversations with family, friends and colleagues. And curiously, many of these ideas also centre on words starting with ‘D’!
Earlier this month saw the publication of the much-anticipated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report (AR6) on the physical science of climate change. The Summary for Policy Makers (SPM), often seen as the more accessible section, made for a grim read. The several hundred authors of the report, drawn from countries around the world, summarised the science and were unanimous – there is no doubt that climate breakdown is being driven by human activities, and we are almost out of time. Carbon Brief offers an excellent summary here. As one might expect, the publication of the report made headline news, with many reports sending an ‘it’s now or never’ message, and some even misinterpreting the report as suggesting that it’s already too late to take action (it isn’t). But no sooner had the report been published than the media and newsrooms turned their attention to other events happening around the globe.
This apathy, sometimes even appearing as disdain or disinterest (two more ‘D’ words!), on the part of the media, politicians and corporations undermines the impact of the messages of the scientists, environmentalists, activists and advocates, who are vociferously making the case that the rhetoric must give way to commensurate and urgent action.
It isn’t just disinterest and disdain that we need to watch out for though. Eminent climate scientist, Michael E. Mann, writes with great verve and energy in ‘The New Climate War’ about the decades of scheming on the part of the forces of inaction. Tactics have shifted from outright denial (though curiously, leaked memos from within the fossil fuel companies reveal that their own scientists and execs were certainly not in denial of the long-term consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels) to deflection, delayism and disinformation.
Deflection manifests in myriad ways, and once you know what it is, you can inoculate yourself against further instances. Deflection is a subtle tactic, and it’s one that preys on the genuine concern many of us feel, and our desire to see change. We’ve seen a fair number of instances in the tabloid and right-wing press. For example, some Extinction Rebellion activists currently campaigning hard in London for an immediate (and absolutely vital) cessation of investment in fossil fuels are being called ‘hypocrites’ on the grounds of owning a diesel car, or previously for having flown. On this view, well, we’re all hypocrites and we might as well give up and go home. The hypocrisy charge is of course just a tactic to deflect attention from the real issue – that we absolutely must bend that CO2 emissions curve down and investing in new fossil fuel exploration and production takes us in precisely the wrong direction.
We have all lived with delayism for decades now, and many of us recognise this. We know that numerous Conferences of the Parties (CoP) on climate change have failed in stemming the breakdown, and that CO2 emissions have continued to rise, in spite of fine words and rhetoric of numerous governments and leaders. But delayism – the deliberate failure to actually grapple with the climate and ecological crisis – has morphed into a new and sinister manifestation. Human ingenuity, the ’Techno-fix’ and incremental change are being offered to us to assuage our profound concerns about the likelihood that we are simply not going to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, as enshrined in the Paris agreement. This is all dressed up as ‘net zero’, a curious concept that needs a bit of unpacking to understand why it is problematic. Scientists Professor Sir Robert Watson, Dr James Dyke and Dr Wolfgang Knorr do just this in their viral (downloaded over 1 million times) article for The Conversation, The Concept of Net Zero is a Dangerous Trap. One of the reasons net zero is a dangerous trap is because at present, it conflates two separate targets, targets that many argue must be separated. Net zero emissions will be achieved (by around the middle of the century) when any residual greenhouse gas emissions are balanced by technologies removing them from the atmosphere. Conceptually simple, the current formulation of net zero allows for a horrifying scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to continue to rise (that’s the delayism!), to be somehow addressed at a point in the future by amounts of carbon capture and storage that are not just unprecedented, but many believe impossible to achieve. One eminent scientist, Ketan Joshi, has written an article about the reality of what this seemingly simple scenario entails – it is nothing short of magical, reckless thinking.
If you’re following all this, you’ll be starting to appreciate just how many tools are in that kitbag hauled around by those who are investing enormously in inaction!
Another tool at their disposal is the blunt instrument of disinformation. Outright denial of the science used to be the go-to tactic of those keen to halt action, and while it has largely been replaced by some of those ‘D’s we’ve already covered, it does still manifest. Disinformation is especially cynical, because it preys on those who lack access to credible sources of information and who have to make judgements of the veracity of so-called ‘information’ on the basis of scant knowledge and resources.
Even genuine concern for the environment has been appropriated by some eager to exploit concern and despair and to morph these into ‘doomism’. Doomism is a position that, in its extreme form, advocates that there is simply nothing that can be done. But notice, as Mann points out, the dangers inherent in the position that it’s now all ‘just too late’ – because this position can lead genuinely concerned individuals down that very same path of inaction that those less aware of the climate and ecological crisis are on. The journeys may be different, but the destination is the same – business as usual prevails and we run out of road. This has been put rather more elegantly by another eminent scientist, Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, in his formula for a climate emergency. Essentially, when reaction time is less than intervention time, we lose control of the situation.
I’d like to introduce a last ‘D’ before drawing some of these threads together. As a psychologist, I’ve been trained to understand the human cognitive architecture, and I spent my career examining how people learn, and become skilled. It has intrigued me that the climate and ecological crisis presents itself as a problem again and again and again, and yet we continue to fail. Indeed, Julia Steinberger has written that “Failing to learn from past mistakes is the only truly unforgivable mistake in science.” The full set of reasons is complex, as the article makes clear. One of the best accounts I’ve read of why it is that we have failed to bend that emissions curve is set out in this paper by several authors, representing a range of disciplines. It’s an article that identifies the central role of power, in its many manifestations, as a key problem, along with our adherence to a faulty narrative of ‘progress’, a narrative that somehow fails to apprehend that our notion of progress IS a key part of the problem. So for academia then, doing more of the same is not going to cut it.
This brings me to my final point – to one ‘D’ that we do not always see. It has a name, and that is disavowal. Disavowal is a pernicious phenomenon, and one I had the good fortune to explore in a conversation with psychotherapist Ro Randall. Disavowal is the term used to describe a fascinating state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. It captures that contradiction between, on the one hand, knowing that we are in a climate emergency and that we must take drastic action to avert catastrophe, and on the other hand, booking a series of transatlantic flights and a private island for your partner’s birthday. It’s the state encapsulated well by Boris Johnson, eagerly trying to demonstrate his ambition for the forthcoming CoP in Glasgow and his ‘green credentials’ while simultaneously signing off the Cambo oil field, and flying a ridiculously short distance to Cornwall to attend the G7 summit. Disavowal manifests at the level of the individual, communities, organisations and governments.
The media does an adept job of both exhibiting and normalising disavowal. It does this each time an article on climate change is presented on the same page as an advert luring us to book long haul holiday destinations, or an article on biodiversity is presented with an advert by Shell, promoting the fantasy of driving ‘carbon neutral’. The press shows remarkably little insight into this, even offering us a report on a Dutch watchdog ordering that Shell’s ‘carbon neutral’ claims must be pulled at the same time as running articles offering investment advice.
So where does this leave us? The arsenal of tactics deployed by the inactivists is bewildering. But once we become aware of this, it becomes much easier to spot the tactics. We can help our friends and colleagues by pointing out instances to them and sharing in their incredulity. The reality here is that war is being waged and we’re each of us being harmed. The truth is put well by Greta Thunberg, when she says that “we can safely say there are no countries – at least in the global north – that are even doing close to what would be needed.” Radical change is inevitable, and our lives depend on it. But the good news is that we have agency. Radical change does not mean that our lives will necessarily be worse. We can live well, with less, and almost certainly be happier for it.
See my conversation with James Dyke and Wolfgang Knorr for an explanation of the need for separate targets:
Alison Green and The Team
Dr Alison J K Green is a cognitive psychologist and expert on human learning and thinking. She has held several academic roles in the UK, including Dean of the OU and Pro Vice-Chancellor at Arden University. She is currently Executive Director of the Scientists Warning Foundation. She has authored and co-authored many articles, spoken at numerous events and is a committed activist, educational consultant, speaker and writer.