What Makes Climate Sceptics Tick?

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A recent Lowy Institute survey found that compared to 2007, concern about climate change has become yesterday’s news. It’s fallen from number one to number seven on the hit list: outranked by the economy, jobs, and terrorism. Fears for our only home have slid down the charts in favour of the more immediate.

Too frequently, calls for environmental reform are being met with responses drawn from the lexicon of economics — "recession" being the most ubiquitous. In other words, when in doubt about the climate, we focus instead on our fears about the economy which seems more manageable.

On Four Corners this week, the Liberal Party’s climate change deniers came out in spectacular fashion. They took on the epithet "climate change sceptic" with stubborn pride.

Declaring himself a non-believer — as though comprehension of scientific reality was akin to religious zeal — South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi declared, "We have rain, we have crops. The earth is not melting"; while leader of the opposition in the Senate, Nick Minchin, objected to policies "that frankly terrify 12-year-old children, by saying the planet is going to melt".

Actually it is the polar caps and glaciers that are melting — the Earth is flooding, burning and drying. But to these sceptics, the leading world scientists who are sounding the alarm are being "alarmist".

The bipartisan Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts issued the results of its inquiry into climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities last month. It documents the erosion of Australian beaches and argues strongly against further development in many coastal areas as well as recommending evacuation plans for extreme storm surges. It warns of health threats arising from the migration south of insect-borne diseases — hitherto rarely seen in Australia — like dengue fever.

In his address to the Lowy Institute last week, Kevin Rudd accurately and passionately stated the grim reality of the global warming challenge. How he can do this and then propose generous support for polluting industries and a puny five per cent cap on emission cuts is beyond me.

Meanwhile, our supermarket shelves remain stocked and our taps are still flowing. We turn on the heating or the cooling and are lulled and feel safe. We worry about our mortgages, the stock market, the value of real estate, and about supporting our lifestyles into the future. Meanwhile our true future — the planet and its infrastructure of earth, air, water and biodiversity — is at risk.

Even if many of us recognise that something is going terribly wrong with our world, we still fall back into forgetting: planning summer holidays and renovating kitchens. The news reports provide daily bulletins on consumer confidence, inflation and expected interest rate rises.

To find new ways to deal with this encroaching catastrophe, its depth must first be fully confronted.

Denial is a psychological defence mechanism that has survival value. It may protect us from excessive psychological injury until we are ready to face an intolerable reality. It enables us to plan for the future and to live in the present moment despite the existential reality of human vulnerability and mortality. We could die at any moment but we go on with our lives, making plans, naively confident of our immediate and future survival. Horrible things happen but we take comfort in the unspoken belief that it won’t happen to me or my loved ones.

Denial also enables us to "switch off" from the plight of others: refugees, the homeless and destitute in our streets, the traumatised and displaced persons on our screens. Denial may help people endure the unendurable or disassociate from our own pain or the pain of others. It prevents crucial action and maintains harmful beliefs and responses. Denial is a fear response and stubborn refusal to allow reality to encroach on an unyielding desire to keep the world the same. But, as powerful as it is, denial doesn’t change the facts of life on Earth.

Climate change denial is an enormous handicap and it’s already caused us to lose precious time confronting the issues. But denial has many states. It can allow us to ignore danger or inspire us to action. The positive face of denial is that it can enable us to tackle this seemingly impossible challenge.

Depressed people often have reduced capacity for denial and therefore for hope. They see the odds against them too clearly and are too aware of dismal reality. Complete incapacity for one-eyed optimism and hope renders them immobile and helpless and may lead at last to self-destruction.

To have any chance of success and survival, what we need is biased optimism — we need to take and enact a hopeful stance, even when the odds seem stacked against us. The paradox of denial is that it holds the key to planetary suicide or rescue. It is the essence of hope or of despair.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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