After Donald Trump won last month’s US presidential election, hot takes speedily declared it game over for the planet. But as Al Gore said at the weekend, “despair is just another form of denial”.
About this, he is entirely right. Now is not the time to cry into your graphs of melting Arctic sea ice. That only helps the people who profit from delay on climate change.
Because climate denial isn’t just something other people do – bad people, sad people, stupid people. It’s not just a niche hobby practised by the president-elect and weirder bits of the internet. It’s mainstream.
Yes, there are those marginal, attention-seeking types who see a bit of light climate denial as banter. You know the type, that annoying guy your mate went to uni with, Ukip candidates, embarrassing relatives.
Then there are the lonely ones who do it to make friends. There’s a strong social element to a lot of climate scepticism – conversations in comment threads, debates in forums, offline meetups. There’s even climate sceptic fanfic if you know where to look.
There are “lukewarmer” types who admit climate change is happening but flail around looking for reasons why we shouldn’t bother to act. They might argue it won’t be that bad, or even that it’ll have positives – see, for instance, most oil executives.
Some have a genuine – albeit skewed – love of science. The idea of busting a global warming myth carries the attractive illusion of heroic, outsider genius. It’s not for nothing that a group of Australian sceptics style themselves on Galileo.
There’s also a narrow empiricism to the idea that if you can see snow, global warming can’t be real. As Prof Joanna Haigh politely explained to Boris Johnson in response to one of his less-than-rigorous newspaper columns, it’s because scientists are so into empiricism that they bother to look at a load of data – not just what you can see out the window at that moment.
But there is an even bigger group than any of the above: the rest of us. You probably agree climate change is happening, have maybe even bothered to cut down on how much meat you eat or bunged Greenpeace a quid or two when Russia locked up those Arctic activists. But most of the time you avoid looking global warming in the eye.
In many ways this everyday denial is understandable. Climate change is abstract. We only know about it through vast, complex, global and multi-generational networks of interdisciplinary, highly advanced science. It’s easy for it to drop out of our minds, even if we believe in it.
It’s also very scary. A friend who, once upon a time, was the greenest person I knew, hugs her infant son tight and tells me softly, slowly: “I just can’t think about climate change since I had him.” This feels entirely rational to me.
But it’s this rather prosaic climate denial that lets the Trumps of the world get away with their more extreme forms. It also lets less extreme politicians and businesses off the hook, helping keep climate change as a low-priority topic. At best it puts the issue to one side, and allows us to imagine that Chinese solar businesses, Elon Musk, Ivanka Trump or some other ethereal hero will save us. At worst, it skips the issue entirely.
Not everyone has the luxury of ignoring climate change. People are already feeling it as droughts, wildfires and floods become more common. As temperatures creep ever higher, it’ll hit more and more of us, more and more obviously. Knock-on effects mean that, along with battling fire, water and mud, food will become more scarce. If you don’t spot climate change in the rising tides, you may well feel it in your stomach.
This is already happening. Arguably, the way climate change affected crops was a contributing factor in the Arab spring.
But here’s the hopeful bit. Climate change happens by degree, and every fraction of a degree celsius matters. Last month’s report saying we’re already 1.2C above pre-industrial levels is bad. But 1.2C is less risky than 1.5C, which is less risky than 2C.
This doesn’t let us off the hook. Indeed, the idea that 2C is somehow safe is itself a pernicious bit of climate denial. But there isn’t a single point or temperature at which everything is lost. There will always be something to fight for.
A few years ago I saw a climate scientist glumly sitting on a table in a seminar room, swinging his legs, quietly sketching out the vision of the future that kept him awake at night. His picture wasn’t an all-out dystopia where we’ve destroyed humanity. What scared him was a future where we do take action on climate change, but only some. A few rich people live in a comfortable bubble they’ve managed to insulate themselves in, and everyone else is left to battle the storms. Perhaps those lucky few notice the plight of the people they’ve left behind. Or perhaps they insulate themselves from that too.
That future is possible. It might even be probable. But it’s not inevitable. We can choose to see climate change, and we can choose to do this before it’s too late. So how can we escape the quagmire of denial? As it turns out, the first step isn’t that hard: just talk about it. To your friends, family, colleagues – even to yourself. By talking about climate change, you’ll make it feel less scary. By talking about it, we’ll unlock solutions. And, crucially, it’s by talking about climate change that we’ll break the silence that allows it to go unnoticed and ignored.
Press link for more: The Guardian