Climate change denialists have won... for now

If someone agrees with the wacky assertions of George Pell on climate change then just give up trying to convince them. They won't change their mind. But that doesn't mean we can't tackle the problem.

October 27 2011 marked the end of any formal, structured engagement of mine with the wacky world of climate change denialism. It was not because I didn't care anymore. I did, and still do. Rather it was because the evidence had mounted that there was no longer any point. Fortunately, there are more important ways for me and, I think, the rest of us, to spend our finite time and energy.

It all came to a head for me with this article, published in (yet again) The Australian by the Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, in which Pell regaled us with his fascinating process of engagement with climate science. (You can read the link, and I don't want to waste time on the details of his articles, for that is not the point.)

It was the latest puff piece from Australia's conga line of denialists doing what they do best: repeating long-debunked nonsense about climate science with the clear aim of muddying a topic that is, by its very nature, a little complex. This is all done in the name of reinforcing the status quo. The only thing unique Pell brought to the piece was his own particular brand of pomposity, which I have to imagine is available on a range of topics.

I could have refuted this piece but I didn't. It has been done, and done, and done. Our most reputable scientific organisation has provided easily accessible resources of plain English answers to common climate questions. The Australian government has done the same. The IPCC reports themselves are, in all honesty, not too bad for the most part for anyone of moderate intelligence and genuine interest (like myself, a non-scientist).

George Monbiot had shown Ian Plimer up for the buffoon that he was both in print and on screen. A veritable squadron of leading scientists took his book to pieces in terms so clear no one could seriously contend that Plimer was a serious climate scientist. Greenman continues to produce his outstanding series of short videos, Climate Denial Crock of the Week.

The worst offenders in Australian media have been well and truly called out on their anti-climate science agenda.

Firstly, there was this exceptional open letter calling for a return to editorial responsibility above the false notion of "balanced" reporting of climate science. Then more recently, Robert Manne wrote an extensive essay that put very clear evidence and analysis behind the assertion of an outrightly biased agenda of The Australian in its reporting of climate science.  

Predictably, The Oz galloped to its own defence. Personally, I would find the case hard to argue when the presentation sent to me by Larry, a climate change denier who made a fool of himself in his brief email exchange with me, nominated The Australian as one of the entities that was on their side (I wish, I wish, I wish I could find that presentation on my hard drive).

My most recent contribution was to coin the phrase Queen Bee denial, to highlight the persistent practice of expecting answers delivered on a platter, rather than do the straightforward work of checking out some of the references I have linked above.

Everything that can be done in this space has been done. Contrary to persistent suggestion, scientists are not simply "poor communicators" who "can't speak to normal people". The great majority of the climate scientists I have met – and I have met and heard from many of Australia's best – are very good communicators. No, they are not Darryl Somers, and there is not a band, a cartoonist and a puppet ostrich to make it light entertainment. Its climate science, and it's kinda hard.

The late Steve Schneider once showed the patience of a saint, expertly fielding about an hour of questions from an audience of self-described "climate sceptics" for the Australian television program Insight. At the end of the show, it appeared that precisely no one had changed their mind. Telling our scientists to do a better job of communicating is a foolish cop-out on the failings of the rest of us, and a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the problem.

Here's the thing. If you take your cues from George Pell on climate change science, it actually does not matter what he says, or what I say in return. You will listen to him, and not to me. If you suspect I am being overly simplistic, well, I only wish I were.

About 18 months ago, The Age, as part of The Climate Agenda, investigated such an issue when addressing this clever question:

The Age has reported that just ''42 per cent of people [in Australia] believe in a wholly scientific explanation for the origins of life'', something that has been proven by science. By contrast, 34 per cent believe in UFOs and 22 per cent think witches exist'', something which has never been proven by science. Given this track record of acceptance of science, is it realistic to have a fruitful public debate on the science of climate change?

A few views were canvassed, but I have to offer my backing to that expressed by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, from the University of Western Australia's school of psychology.

He says people reject science “not because they are lacking information, and conversely, providing further information will not lead to greater acceptance.”

More important than information is people's world view and cultural beliefs – their ideology.

In the US, for example, the more educated you are as a Republican, the more likely you are to disbelieve climate change science. The reverse is true for Democrats and independents. Lewandowsky says when it comes to science debates ideologues ''are not in the business for any reason other than to defend their ideology.''

There is a pretty simple test for that last statement that I have placed in bold. If these people were in the business of debating science and not defending ideology, they would be working scientists, operating with the scientific method. Of course, the actual scientific debate occurs in the literature. Actual literature I mean, not 800 words in The Australian.

Cases are laid out clearly, points are committed to writing with references, and then subject to review and critique before publishing even occurs. But climate denialism fails in the world of real science. It simply cannot get up because it has all the scientific rigour of an episode of Mr Moon.

That's why they inhabit this playing field of so called ‘public debate and scepticism’. Because they win, keep winning and as I am arguing, they actually can't lose. They feed their audience what their audience wants to hear. As Steve Sherwood once argued, this idea of public debates on climate change is like asking him to make the prosecution case for murder in three seconds.

As I explored for a public presentation, the tactics of denial are universal in the anti-science crowd, being born largely out of creationism, and adopted and refined for climate change, tobacco, anti-vaccine and even HIV/AIDS. They do it because it works, and it works because science and fact are only persuasive once someone is actually ready to listen. I cannot envisage a situation where someone who listens to George Pell on anything will listen to me on climate change. It is not going to happen.

It is, in my opinion, over. There is nothing left to do in this space.

The good news is, if you want to fix the climate, this has probably been the wrong fight all along, and there is somewhere far more profitable to put your energy.

Recall if you will that changing what people think is not actually the goal. Our goal is preventing runaway climate change. Most of the world's emissions come from the energy sector, and most of that from coal, followed by oil and gas. The best, most available substitute for coal and other fossil fuels is nuclear power. Always has been and in my opinion, will be for at least the rest of this century if not forever (with the commercialisation of Generation IV nuclear).

Now in a strange twist of politics and values, it is generally understood to be true that those of a more conservative disposition are quite often both in denial about climate change yet, broadly speaking, supportive of nuclear power. Science is invoked to support both positions. This only reinforces the general point I have been making so far of the pointlessness of debating climate change in the face of entrenched values.

I have to conclude that there is a powerful force at work: a commitment many people carry to needing to disagree with certain others. I raised this in my first ever presentation on changing my mind on nuclear. The mere fact of John Howard being pro-nuclear was enough to hold me in my opposition for a few extra years. Yes, it's daft and immature, but it’s incredibly prevalent and goes some way to explaining this curious state of affairs about the political divide of nuclear power.

The point is, however, that these people can be largely ignored. They don't actually matter. All they need to get behind the biggest, best and most effective response to climate change (in nuclear power) is a satisfactory financial argument, with a few lashings of energy security. Plenty of them would even be okay with paying a little more in the short-term to do away with the host of other pollutants from fossil fuels that even they will not embrace in the need to disagree with others. It's a non-fight.

I'm afraid the fight is with the Left. The fight for the climate is with the environmental movement, who keep a large enough portion of our population in knee-jerk opposition to nuclear that it becomes a political no-brainer (I know of no other policy position that simultaneously thrills both the Australian coal industry and the Australian environmental movement. It's a gift). The anti-nuclear wings of this movement do this with the same host of anti-science trickery as the climate denialists, with similar effectiveness.

Those are the minds we need to change, not the environmentalists but those listening to them. The beautiful thing is that in this case, it can be done.

For one thing, this audience, unlike the conservative one, cares about climate change, somewhere between a little and a lot. So with the exception of the true ideologues, the very fact of nuclear power being zero-carbon provides a very meaningful intellectual opening.

For another thing, we can appeal very honestly and sincerely to those values. We care too, a whole lot. We actually can achieve a position of trust and credibility in terms of values. From here we can then offer a factual understanding of nuclear power that has a chance of taking root. It's not spin, we actually do care. This works.

I, along with Barry Brook, fronted probably the most hostile possible audience (on paper) in Adelaide to do our thing. Yes, we were slagged off by some. But one woman stood up in this group of her own peers and announced that she had changed her mind. We had, without fail, appealed to a logical and unflinching line of genuine climate concern. It works.

Finally, it is already happening, in significant numbers and high profile cases. A remarkably uniform consensus is emerging among high profile environmentalists who formerly opposed nuclear power that we have been mistaken, and quite badly in fact. Most of these people are making up for lost time in bringing this message out. The recently premiered documentary by Robert Stone Pandora’s Promise will be telling this story to audiences worldwide.

This is where the fight for the climate is happening, over here on the left. The very act of structured engagement with climate denial means they win because our time has been wasted when we could have been doing this instead. Screw 'em. Honestly, just screw 'em. I know fighting is tempting but don't. Walk away. We've done all we can. They have their audience and we ain't getting them. It's like trying to sell a Vivaldi fan on Slipknot.

No, what we have to do is wake up our own team. Rest assured, if it's a fight you want, this one is hard work. But at least with this fight, there actually is a possibility of victory. It will be the sweetest one of all. The one where climate denialists are finally consigned to where they belong...


Ben Heard is Director of ThinkClimate Consulting, a climate and sustainability strategy firm. He blogs at Decarbonise SA, does some teaching at Adelaide University and authored the 2012 report Zero Carbon Options.

Related Articles