December 2013 - January 2014

The Nation Reviewed

We don’t want to believe in climate change

By Robert Kenny
We don’t want to believe in climate change

Tony Abbott: Fire is not a function of climate change, it’s a function of life in Australia. © Craig Greenhill / Newspix

Fire, climate and denial

We don’t cause climate change. Other people do. Many of us, perhaps most who believe in anthropogenic climate change, hold this sentiment to be true. Someone with a “Think Globally, Act Locally” sticker on her gas-guzzling wreck once explained to me that it didn’t matter what she drove since it was possible to create clean fuel from water but oil companies were suppressing the technology. They were to blame. This is an extreme case of what many of us do: our diligent recycling or bicycle-riding lets us absolve ourselves of blame even though we consume far more than we need, live in oversized houses and do not believe population growth in Australia contributes to global population growth, or indeed that population growth is in any way related to climate change or species extinction. Similarly, some of us believe Australia’s emissions are so inconsequential compared to those of great polluters like China and the United States that it would be ill-advised to endanger the Australian economy, and jobs, with environmental taxes.

But how many of us really believe in climate change, anyway? That is, catastrophic climate change, the sort that will devastate life on Earth as we know it? We no more believe in it than most practising Christians now believe in hell. Our recycling, our energy-saving light bulbs, the gesture of Earth Hour – it’s penance we play at, not just to be absolved but to avert Judgement Day itself. We still bank on a prosperous, benign future. We have children and we plan our retirements, even as we baulk at any challenges to climate change science.

Mid spring saw massive fires in New South Wales. For years now, the summer fire seasons have been starting earlier and ending later, and the daily fire danger index, as computed from weather conditions, is trending upwards. The changing climate will likely see fires become both more frequent and more intense. Yet when the head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said the October fires could be linked to the warming climate, the prime minister, Tony Abbott, told Fairfax Radio’s Neil Mitchell she was “talking through her hat”; these fires, he said, were “certainly not a function of climate change – they’re just a function of life in Australia”. Abbott also told Mitchell climate change was real and that Australia should take “strong” action. But it is hard to believe it is an urgent matter for him. Climate change is of the future, gradual and controllable. It is too confronting to accept that the Blue Mountains’ fires manifest climate change: suddenly, inexorably, the catastrophic future is here.

The Greens leader, Christine Milne, tweeted in response to Abbott that the prime minister had “no regard for evidence-based science and prefers ideology. What is [the] future for science in Australia?” Abbott is a conservative Catholic. If you believe in a creator god, you don’t necessarily dismiss science, but you see it as limited in what it can tell you. It can’t tell you first causes. Where does an anthropogenic climate catastrophe fit in this? It would mean this god had forsaken us. To ridicule Abbott for adhering to such beliefs is to ridicule most people living in the world today.

And the Greens are hardly free of ideology. Since science began replacing scripture as the teller of the world story in the mid 19th century, much of its authority has come from a growing wonder for its object of enquiry, nature – an elevation that conflates romanticism and evolutionary theory. (The first article the science journal Nature published, in 1869, was a paean to Goethe by Thomas Huxley.) Nature was conceived of as a perfectly balanced system, and thus the source of moral and spiritual value – such thinking remains central to much environmentalism today. For the likes of Milne, this view of nature places science at its service, there to prove its worth, rather than to simply relate what is happening in the world. It becomes an ontological pursuit, just as Catholic theology is. Yet the belief in a natural system that would work perfectly and harmoniously if we humans just let it be is no more supported by science than is the belief in a Christian, Muslim or any other god. The living environment is in a constant state of flux, and would remain unbalanced even if we humans didn’t exist.

Deep down, we don’t want to know the whole truth, because that would show up our own weakness and inaction.

Nature will not save us. We have well and truly entered the Anthropocene, the epoch of human-induced environmental change and mass extinctions; there is no turning back. We are too powerful for us to imagine we can simply withdraw our influence and have nature restored to “balance”. We need to act to control what is around us as well as ourselves. Technology is going to play an increasing role, but so will restraint – real restraint, not just posturing and token gestures. We cannot afford to have the quest for climate change awareness turned into a battle of ontologies; we need to convince people that in this case science is not trying to overthrow any belief systems. It is simply the messenger seeking to convey what is happening to the climate.

I lost my house on Black Saturday in 2009, and almost my life. In the Australian sclerophyll, fire is immanent. But it is rarely clearly “natural”. All the fires of Black Saturday were the result of human agency: machine misuse, powerline malfunction and arson. Though the cause of the fire that destroyed my house is officially listed as “unknown”, it was almost certainly deliberately lit. But many people have told me they are sure at least some fires that day were started by lightning, despite the clear skies. They don’t want to believe people started the fires; that would be to acknowledge that humans can and do cause “natural” catastrophes. It is not that we don’t know this; it is that we don’t want to know it. It is a similar situation with climate change. Deep down, we don’t want to know the whole truth, because that would show up our own weakness and inaction. We have to believe it is other humans who cause and abet climate change, people like Tony Abbott, to maintain our sense of rectitude.

Tony Abbott: Fire is not a function of climate change, it’s a function of life in Australia. © Craig Greenhill / Newspix

Science does not deal in certainties. Climate change deniers cling to this. If 95 per cent of climate scientists accept anthropogenic change is happening, the deniers will subscribe to the remaining minority of sceptics. It doesn’t help that at the other extreme (for there are always two poles to a debate), climate change alarmists promote their views equally loudly. When rash predictions prove false, they undermine the credibility of the larger argument. In 2007, James Lovelock, the man behind the Gaia hypothesis that held the Earth up to be a self-regulating organism, predicted that within a century people would retreat to the Arctic to live. Last year, he conceded he and others like Al Gore had been “alarmist”. As Lovelock pointed out, we know that climate change has the potential to be cataclysmic but the science is too complex to predict the details.

After Black Saturday, as I surveyed the ashen soil of my property, I knew what I had experienced was connected to climate change. In the decade-long drought leading up to that day, I had seen not just a drop in rainfall but also the end of any discernible pattern in the weather. This lack of rhythm has continued. Some summers have been wetter than winter or spring.

Weather data show that conditions predisposed to fire are becoming more prevalent. We also feel it. Still I hear people comment that Black Saturday was a “bad day” unlikely to come again. Many authorities at the moment are urging people not be complacent about fire. But the complacencies about climate change and about fire are related. We cannot live fulfilling lives in a state of high anxiety about what might happen. We certainly can’t accept this about our homes. We must have some sense of security, even if this is delusional. We might accept in one part of our mind that fire could hit anywhere and that climate change threatens our future, but we can’t live with that as a constant reality. So we forget fire, and we see others as responsible. We all have a little bit of denial in us.

Robert Kenny

Robert Kenny is a writer and scholar. His latest book is Gardens of Fire.

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