The Five Stages of Climate Change Denial

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

On July 29th I attended yet another “Global Summit on Sustainability”, this time jointly hosted by the UK-based World Council for Corporate Governance (WCFCG) and the Indian Institute of Directors (IOD) at the National Liberal Club in London.  Our very own co-founder John Elkington adroitly side-stepped the kind of technology failure that would torpedo a lesser public speaker by discarding his prepared speech and instead delivering a riveting keynote off-the-cuff.  It culminated in the warning that inter-generational equity is becoming an increasingly significant sustainability driver, with a potentially explosive sense of outrage rising among young people, directed toward the baby boomer generation judged to have acted so irresponsibly with their legacy.

John was followed by Lord Anthony Giddens, Emeritus Professor at the LSE and author of the excellent book The Politics of Climate Change.  Whereas John had emphasized the systemic nature of the challenges we face – The Sustainability Survey which we conducted with GlobeScan in 2009 highlighted twelve separate (but related) threats deemed by global sustainability experts to be “urgent” – Giddens zeroed in on what he called the defining issues of the 21st century: climate change and energy security.

Climate change is different from the other urgent threats (like water shortages, poverty, biodiversity loss, food security, economic instability, etc.) in that it is a cumulative phenomenon that cannot easily be reversed.  The Earth’s climate system may change – indeed, may have already changed – irrevocably, while we are mostly too busy to notice.  Furthermore, climate change is historically unique because, as Giddens stated, no other civilisation in world history has been remotely this close to “changing the very nature of nature”.

According to Giddens, June 2010 was the 304th consecutive month in which the global surface temperature exceeded the 20th century average, as evidenced in The Met Office graphs.  Still, incredibly, we hear loud dissenting voices.  But the nature of the dissent is definitely changing, and here I offer what we might call the 5 stages of climate change denial – please feel free to challenge or build upon these.  I do believe it’s essential to identify where people stand in the debate, in order to know on which level to engage.  Also, watch carefully as those with powerful vested interests – hell-bent on obfuscation and delayed action – flit effortlessly from one stage of denial to another (often apparently without realising the internal inconsistency in their arguments):

1) Climate change isn’t happening

This point of view has all but completely disappeared in the face of an overwhelming body of scientific evidence to the contrary.  These are the “flat Earthers” of the climate change debate, and it can be difficult to know whether to feel anger or extreme sympathy towards them.

2) Climate change is happening, but it’s part of the Earth’s natural cycles

Harder for the layman to refute when presented with the largely obvious fact that our home planet has cycled through several ice ages over the millenia, but a huge body of scientific evidence points to a human signature in the types of changes we are currently experiencing.

3) Climate change is happening, it may well be due to human activity, but it’s generally beneficial

“So what if sub-Saharan Africa fries and Bangladesh goes under?  The frozen wastes of Siberia will become the new bread-basket of the world!”  It’s incredible to think that otherwise reasonable people are advocating a planetary-scale experiment – with human civilisation at the centre – in which we would knowingly create conditions that have not existed since hundreds of thousands of years before homo sapiens first walked the Earth.  (Modern humans are understood to have appeared around 150,000-200,000 years ago, while atmospheric GHG concentrations are now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.)

4) Climate change is happening, it’s probably due to human activity, but it’s not going to be as bad as the computer models suggest

This is a relatively new one, and it’s quite sophisticated because it is really difficult to refute.  The basic argument is that computer-based projections of the climate sensitivity to growing GHG concentrations have been over-stated, and that we can continue to dig stuff out of the ground and set it on fire with impunity.  This point of view was expressed by Pat Michaels in last week’s Financial Times.

5) Climate change is happening, it is caused by human activity, it’s a really bad thing, but there’s very little we can do about it and there are lots of other bad things we should attack first

Bjoern Lomborg has virtually trade-marked this position.  It’s very clever because it casts those who would advocate for monumental efforts to embrace a truly sustainable model of human development as well-meaning but ultimately misguided.  However, it falls over because unless we do successfully tackle climate change, the future of human civilisation as we know it hangs in the balance, and an unimaginably difficult existence awaits billions.

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