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Six Degrees of Apocalypse

Recent Books about Climate Change

Cover: October 2008
October 2008Medium length read

In the early 1950s a woman in Minneapolis began to receive communications from an extraterrestrial being named Sananda. Marian Keech, as she was pseudonymously known, heard that a great flood would cleanse the world of earthlings at midnight on 21 December 1954. Only those who believed in Sananda would be saved; they would be taken to another planet in a spaceship that would arrive just before the flood.

A cult formed around Ms Keech. Apart from a single press release, it shunned publicity. Members quit their jobs, sold their houses and left their families. On the day of judgement they gathered in Keech's house to await the arrival of the spaceship. The media gathered on the front lawn. The clock ticked down to midnight, but neither the spaceship nor the flood arrived. Inside the house, some cult members wept; others stared at the ceiling.

The cult had been infiltrated by a young psychologist, Leon Festinger, who was intrigued by how the members would accommodate the prophecy's failure. As it dawned on them that the world would not be ending that night, how would they react? The rational response would be to face up to the truth that they had been duped, and sink into deep despondency because they had made enormous sacrifices for nothing.

In fact, the opposite occurred. The cult members became excited, throwing open the curtains and inviting the television cameras in. They were told that Marian Keech had just received an urgent message from a high-density being, telling her that the world had been spared the flood because the group "had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction". Over the next days Keech and other cult members told as many media outlets as they could that their devotion was not in vain, for through it they had saved the world.

These counter-intuitive events stimulated Festinger to develop the theory of cognitive dissonance, which describes the uncomfortable feeling we have when we begin to understand that something we believe to be true is contradicted by evidence. Festinger hypothesised that those whose firmly held views are repudiated by the emergence of facts often begin to proselytise even more fervently after the facts become incontrovertible. He wrote that we spend our lives paying attention to information that is consonant with our beliefs and avoiding that which is not. We surround ourselves with people who think as we do and avoid those who make us feel uncomfortable.

Festinger's analysis helps us understand the phenomenon of climate-change denialism. If humans are rational creatures, we would expect that as the scientific evidence confirming human-induced global warming has become overwhelming, the deniers would adjust their beliefs to accommodate the facts. Yet the deniers have become more vehement in their attacks on climate scientists, environmentalists and anyone who accepts the evidence for global warming. They have ways of explaining away the facts: scientists have distorted their results to obtain more research funding; other scientists in possession of the truth have been silenced; governments have caved in to pressure from environmentalists.

Wherever there is uncertainty in the body of scientific evidence, the deniers insert a crowbar into the chink and try to open up a crack that will bring the edifice down. They proselytise about the disastrous consequences if the world fails to listen to them, with predictions of economic collapse if governments are foolish enough to try to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. As evidence of global warming accumulates, the deniers cling ever more firmly to their contrarian views. They bombard newspapers with angry letters and work themselves into frenzies of outrage in blogs and online forums, where they vilify those who do not share their beliefs. They meet together at the Lavoisier Group, where they engage in mutual reinforcement, convinced that they possess a special knowledge that the rest of the world needs urgently to hear. The truth has been revealed to them because they are more rational than others and are therefore able to resist the lies of the climate scientists.

Yet the facts can be resisted for only so long. Marian Keech's cult faded away. Wherever its members went, they faced ridicule. And eventually, the climate deniers too will fade away; the only question is how much damage they will do in the meantime.

In their excellent book Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Scribe, 320pp; $27.95), David Spratt and Philip Sutton provide a concise and compelling assessment of how the science of climate change is being radically revised to account for the possibility, now approaching a likelihood, of a number of threshold events, any one of which would be catastrophic. The prime contenders are the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet; the melting of the Greenland ice sheet (whose collapse some scientists believe is almost unavoidable); and the thawing of peat bogs in western Siberia, which would result in massive releases of methane and CO2. Either of the first two would result in sea-level rise of several metres, the consequences of which hardly need spelling out.

A theme common to the books under review is that the official science presented in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is cautious to the point of irresponsibility. Robert Kunzig and Wallace S Broecker's Fixing Climate: The Story of Climate Science - And How to Stop Global Warming (Profile Books, 256pp; $29.95), the mistitled account of the life and work of Broecker, a distinguished geoscientist, conveys the view of some leading climate scientists that "the IPCC is a deeply conservative body." Last year James Hansen, perhaps the world's most eminent climate scientist, wrote that his colleagues are naturally reticent and fearful of criticism, loss of funding and rejection by journals if they are seen to overstate their conclusions. Scientists would sooner be accused of fiddling while Rome burns than of crying wolf.

Climate scientists and environmentalists are innocent of exaggerating the dangers of global warming; in truth, they are guilty of understating them. All of the books discussed here, except Alan Weisman's The World without Us, blow the whistle on scientific reticence and the conservatism of mainstream environmental organisations, and in doing so they signal a profound shift in the debate, one in which the looming threat is presented as so dire and so imminent that caution must be abandoned.

Are our political institutions capable of responding to the crisis with the urgency that the science demands? If we are to have a good chance of heading off the worst effects of global warming, emissions must be cut by at least 60% by 2030 globally, which means cuts of 90% in rich countries. To achieve cuts approaching these levels within two decades, all major democratic nations would need to elect governments wholly resolved to undertake structural change and override the most strenuous objections from the most powerful interests. Similar commitments by governments in major nations with authoritarian systems are also essential. All rich countries would have to agree to build no more coal-fired power plants (carbon capture and storage simply will not be ready in time), and the same commitment would need to be made within a few years by China, India, Brazil and other big developing countries. All this would need to be done within a legally binding framework that obliges all nations to cut emissions, and it would have to be agreed at the international climate-change conference in Copenhagen next year and implemented immediately.

The probability of all of these events converging in the next few years, resulting in a peak and then rapid decline in emissions, is close to zero. Breaching one or more tipping points in the next decade or two, precipitating uncontrollable climate change, is no longer a matter of speculation but a likely event. In Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (HarperPerennial, 288pp; $25), Mark Lynas draws on the latest science to describe the world under warming scenarios ranging from 1° (bad) to 6°C (unimaginably bad). He sums up the task with brutal candour: "we have only seven years left to peak global emissions before facing escalating dangers of runaway global warming. I am the first to admit that this task looks hopelessly unattainable."

Rich countries are responsible for getting us to this point, but a handful of large developing countries have become indispensable to solving the problem. Everyone knows that the Earth cannot accommodate the populations of China and India living at Western consumption levels, yet Westerners are instantly silenced when someone from the Third World says that we have no right to lecture the poor about causing environmental damage when we have grown rich by burning fossil fuels. It is a powerful moral argument, but it is trumped by a greater imperative. China and India can achieve Western consumption levels only by joining with the West in destroying the environmental conditions that have allowed prosperity for a third of the world's population. It is a historical irony that the most powerful legacy of colonialism, the fetishisation of economic growth, may end up destroying us all. Yet the psychological wounds of imperialism seemingly prevent the leaders of developing countries from seeing the future with the clarity demanded by science.

Like most of these authors, I don't doubt our technical capacity to cut emissions within two decades sharply enough to avoid the worst effects. Spratt and Sutton, Lynas and Tim Flannery (in his Quarterly Essay) seem to believe that it is politically possible too, although between the lines you get the sense that they have to work hard to remain convinced. Increasingly we hear talk of the need for the kind of industrial retooling that transformed whole economies at the start of World War II. But we are not facing an imminent invasion. The enemies are within: powerful interests who prefer greenwash to legislation, and people who want to believe we can save the planet by changing our light bulbs, as if we could put out a bushfire by spitting on it.

Forced optimism is a forgivable human response, more so than defeatism supposedly based on hard-headed political judgement. The latter stance was taken by Ross Garnaut in his September report to the federal government. Garnaut's own analysis shows that the effect on economic growth of stabilising greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million - itself a very risky target - would be vanishingly small, yet his judgement was that such a target is politically infeasible. So Garnaut capitulated, arguing that a 550ppm target is the best we can hope for. A glance at the books by Lynas, Gwynne Dyer, or Spratt and Sutton is enough to see the sort of nightmare a 550ppm world promises. Garnaut is aware of this, but he provided a pusillanimous government with the excuse it needed.

Sceptics' repudiation of climate science is not the only form of denial that has prevented a response proportionate to the problem, nor the most dangerous. While the sceptics engage in active forms of denial, the public routinely engages in passive forms. In his 2001 book, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen distinguishes between three types of denial. By insisting that the claims of climate scientists are simply untrue, the sceptics are guilty of "literal denial". Like Mrs Keech's cultists, they manufacture "evidence" to sustain their belief. "Interpretive denial" reframes the facts so that they mean something different and less threatening. We think to ourselves: environmentalists always exaggerate; Australia has always had droughts; humans have solved these sorts of problems in the past. Even if we accept the facts and their true meaning, we may still engage in "implicatory denial", Cohen's third type, whereby we disavow the moral and political implications, a tactic used by the previous government: Australia's emissions are very small; we'd do too much damage to the economy; China is to blame. Individuals also do this, telling themselves: I'm doing my bit; it's a long way off; I should be all right.

To these forms of blame-shifting we might add the deployment of selective rationality, best illustrated by people supporting a tax on fossil fuels while at the same time demanding measures to cut petrol prices. This exasperating contradiction has been pointed out repeatedly; there is no answer to it, so it is simply ignored in the public debate, where compartmentalisation allows for resolution of the cognitive dissonance it creates.

These types of denial have been systematically promoted by sceptics and the fossil-fuel lobby, but the public collaborates with them because they are psychologically comforting. We can turn our attention to less troubling aspects of life. This phenomenon - climate numbing - is understandable, because opening oneself to the science set out in these books demands a distressing transformation of our unspoken assumptions about the future, which have been conditioned by two centuries of technological advance and higher living standards. It is too difficult to contemplate the end of progress. Gwynne Dyer's brilliant analysis, in Climate Wars (Scribe, 272pp; $32.95), of the geopolitical conflicts that may unfold over the next few decades - even if we do get serious about global warming - is almost too fearsome to absorb. When I talk to the scientists themselves, there is a palpable sense of panic, something confirmed by Dyer in his interviews conducted around the world.

Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished between three influences on decisions: known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The various forms of denial allow us to complete the square by defining unknown knowns, the facts we know but push from our consciousness.

How can we respond, practically and emotionally, to the science set out in these books? Ignoring it is enticing, although it proves impossible to shake off a dull sense of dread. A retreat into self-protection is also seductive; there are signs that some individuals are beginning to act this way. Anger drives the small number of climate activists who understand that it may be possible to prevent the global disaster of a 3° increase turning into a 6° apocalypse, a hot version of Cormac McCarthy's world in The Road.

Another response is to accept the possibility that civilisation and perhaps the human species will be wiped out. At times in Quarterly Essay 31, ‘Now or Never: A Sustainable Future for Australia?' (Black Inc., 108pp; $15.95), Tim Flannery seems to take a position like this, one borrowed from James Lovelock's revenge-of-Gaia thesis. If we succeed in containing climate change, we do so as Gaia's self-regulating consciousness; if we fail, it is because we are alienated from Gaia. Flannery's essay reflects the kind of forced optimism also present in Climate Code Red and Six Degrees, but which is countered by the heart-stopping honesty of Climate Wars.

In what might be the start of a literary trend, Alan Weisman's The World without Us (Virgin, 324pp; $27.95) imagines the Earth suddenly stripped of its humans, depopulated not by climate change but by, say, a virus. The incredible abundance of the biosphere soon asserts itself, burying our grand cities like so many jungle-swallowed Peruvian ruins. By celebrating nature's power and majesty, Weisman invites us to take an unsentimental view of human extinction. As a cerebral exercise it provides relief, yet when we return to the world of real humans we realise that the end of the species means that billions must suffer drawn-out and painful deaths. We are all bravado when we contemplate our own deaths, until we remember the agony we may have to endure to get to the other side.

Gwynne Dyer's deeply disturbing book foresees a world around the middle of this century in which vast migrations trigger fortress defences, wars break out over dwindling water resources and populations collapse following crop failures. This is not the scariest scenario; it could well be much worse. The defence forces of the major powers have already begun to frame the response to global warming in military terms: famine, disease, violence. In its 2007 assessment of the security implications of climate change for Australia, the Lowy Institute urged policymakers to "think the unthinkable" - but, because of their reluctance to face up to what the scientists are telling them, the greater challenge is to persuade our political leaders to think the thinkable.

Although no other issue is so pressing or calamitous in its implications, I have at times shunned working on climate change because it is too unsettling to envision the sort of world in which my children and grandchildren are likely to live. For years I persuaded myself there was a good chance that the world would find an adequate response to prevent disastrous warming, despite my pessimism about the prospects for political change. I secretly hoped that the scientists were exaggerating. These excuses became untenable around two years ago, when scientists began to tell us that the worst projections of the IPCC - ridiculed by the sceptics as scaremongering - should be regarded as the most likely outcomes, and that tipping points which would cause sea-level rise of several metres, rather than the IPCC's centimetres, are no longer statistical outliers but likely events.

I look out the window to a cool Canberra winter's day and think that the scientists must be wrong. Then I remember the terrifying firestorm that roared out of nowhere on 18 January 2003, devastating the western-most suburbs of the city. One suburb back from the inferno, I sat on the roof of my house with a garden hose, pathetic against the scorching winds and smoke-darkened sun. It felt like the end of the world, but it was just a portent of the future.

About the author Clive Hamilton