“Climate Change Denial” by Haydn Washington & John Cook

Cook_Washington_Climate_Change_DenialISBN 978-1-84971-336-8. “Climate Change Denial – Heads in the Sand” by Haydn Washington & John Cook was published in 2011 by Earthscan. 2011 seems a lifetime ago. The book was written around the time of the Copenhagen Climate Change conference. Yet this remains the most up-to-date book on the topic having been written and published AFTER both James Hoggan’s “Climate Cover-Up” and Mike Hulme’s “Why do we disagree about climate change?“. It also post-dates “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes and & Erik M. Conway. There is vastly more to this book than simply climate change denial – Washington and Cook look at solutions too. However, there are some issues.

There are 7 chapters plus a useful summary at the end. In the first chapter the authors draw a line between denying and scepticism before launching into the actual science of climate change in chapter 2. In the 3rd chapter they tackle the main types of arguments used by deniers such as conspiracy theories, fake experts, impossible expectations, logical fallacies and cherry-picking. The long history of science-denial is retold through chapter 4 before chapter 5 describes how our society allows denial to happen. Chapter 6 moves into the territory of solutions to denial (which is largely a discussion of philosophies). Then chapter 7 rounds it off with a set of technological and cultural changes that are required to solve global warming.

The work leans heavily on the previous books by Oreskes, Hoggan, Hulme et al with the genuine novelty arising in the philosophy section where we look at “modern” versus “post-modern” views of science. However we should not make light of Washington and Haydn’s contribution if only be the sheer weight of references at the back of each chapter – they are very well read even if the main body of the text seems to repetitively cite the same authors.

The duo write of the long history of science-denial that “started with the denial of nuclear winter”. I immediately turned to our review of Stephen H. Schneider’s “Science as a Contact Sport”. Schneider was critical of the nuclear winter theory yet he was no climate change denier. He was a champion of climate science and he fell out with Carl Sagan about Sagan’s promotion of the nuclear winter theory. Schneider said the models didn’t support this theory and it was being promoted for ideological reasons (real fear of dying in a nuclear holocaust!) – not because it was scientifically valid. It was at this point that an alarm bell rang so I kept a critical eye out through the rest of Cook and Washington’s writing – surely they must know that the nuclear winter issue is a red flag amongst climate scientists? Or are they really not that well read as the citations imply?

Moving on to the section of why we allow denial to prosper…. We are ALL to blame state the authors. Not for them any simple narrative with cartoon bad guys like Exxon or the Koch brothers (although they do, inevitably, get a look-in). It isn’t helpful to get paranoid about the great evil forces at work behind faceless corporations. The simple fact is that WE allow this to happen as if we almost subconsciously want the problem to not be there. However the language the authors use quickly pitch the issue as an ethical one. To them the issue is one of our culture not having the right “values”. The right values being those that instil “intrinsic values” into our appreciation of nature. The authors willing admit that species extinction gives THEM “nightmares” yet they are puzzled because others do not seem concerned. We would hazard a guess and say this is because we do not apply any extrinsic value upon nature? We might point them at Tony Juniper’s “What has nature ever done for us?” as a far more useful analysis. We simply do not understand what nature is worth hence we do not value it. Washington and Cook seem to expect our culture to magically “love” nature for what it is rather than the services it provides.

These authors condemn the valuation of natural capital as a “fixation on economics” – something they describe as:

“…resourcist (nature as just a resource), modernist (or sometimes postmodernist), consumerist, utilitarian and anthropocentric…”

We would say all of these things are true but most of them are NOT incompatible with supporting the scientific reality of climate change. Nor are they incompatible with being committed to action to resolve this predicament. If we value nature as a resource we won’t waste it. If anything the problem can be defined by the lack of utilitarianism. If we put nature at the centre of this problem, rather than human beings, we will never see the purpose of acting. This is not just about “ecology”. Somehow this can look like we are being asked to sacrifice ourselves for the “ecology” and its sustainability rather than our own. This looks like an illustration of the sort of “anti-human” environmentalism argued by Ian Plimer in “Heaven and Earth“. Can these authors see an irony? Yet they go on to deny Plimer’s point.

The authors then suggest [rightly] that some of us still think that…

“…environmental issues are just about “tree-hugging”…”

…yet Cook & Washington blame this on society’s ignorance of ecology. They then identify another reason: our ignorance of the impact of exponential growth on a finite planet. The authors join together [what we would argue as] faulty reasoning alongside a very rational one within the same page of the book. Curious – almost schizophrenic. Clearly they see these approaches as complementary – maybe they are. However we see thinking that could only result in further resistance – further denial. Washington & Cook have read Hulme and the quote Hulme but they do not seem to have learnt from it: this is NOT an environmental issue to be solved by environmentalists. This thinking invites denial. Deniers have enough reasons already to despise the “bloody hippies” hence should we avoid using the soft language of “ecology”?

Putting this to one side – why do we allow denial to prosper? The fact we deny is not surprising. We allow it to happen – by why? Neo-liberalism and whatever is “politically feasible” rears its ugly head…

“…as if nature will change the laws of physics to meet the desires of the political spin-doctors.”

It seems as people we believe…

“…in climate change, expressed concern about it, yet live lives as though they did not know.”

Yet the “information deficit model” is thus inadequate to understand how people respond to climate change. We KNOW what the science says. But we do nothing. It is Orwellian ‘double-think’. To overcome it we have to “rewrite the myths we live by and articulate the necessary conditions for sustainability”. If we are to overcome the tree-hugging myths we must learn to communicate in a way that reaches people’s gut instinct. We must give them what they want not promise them what they fear:

“Unlike what the deniers claim, however, climate change action will not mean going to live in caves and dress in skins. Nor will it mean a drastic drop in the real quality of life.”

However Cook and Washington lurch from moments of supreme clarity [like the above] to go on, within a couple pages, to start talking about the “environmental crisis”. Another tree-hugging cliché? There is no “crisis”. There is no emergency. The slow decay in our sustainability will take hundreds of years – a death by a thousand cuts… But don’t the brethren of true believers always talk up every predicament as a “crisis”? This sort of language will alienate people and lead us into denial.

Let’s move onto page 111:

“…as an environmental scientist, one of us (Washington) has been frustrated at times when people have said ‘let’s not focus on doom and gloom’, as if we should ignore the seriousness of the situation we face.”

Is this really the narrative the authors wish to communicate when facing denial? The situation is “serious” and we have to face doom and gloom? This is the recipe with a dubious track record in overcoming denial.

“We have to face reality” state the authors. Time has always “been running” but we must never lose hope. It is never too late. Such positive statements rub page-space with much softer concepts that seem out of place in 2010. Rapidly we are moved on to the “dream of Earth repair” and the “great work” of fixing our climate. It might be a valid philosophical point to show this in other’s work but Cook and Washington genuinely present this as an antidote to denial – an alternate view would see it as only leading to further denial. Write the authors:

“Ideologies also stop us from accepting reality. These can be capitalism, socialism, resourcism, consumerism….”

…but apparently not environmentalism? It must be really hard for these two to really be that introspective. They fall into the typical trap of simply believing that if everyone could see the world the way THEY see it then everyone would be on board. But there are no such magic bullets. As Cook and Washington wrote several times they believe in no such silver bullet when it comes to technological solutions – yet they fall for it on the philosophical side and fail to examine all the possibilities. Theirs is the archetypal “environmentalist” point of view. “Environmentalism” is itself a world-view within which devotees suffer an inability to conjure the anthropocentric argument required to persuade others to act.

Cook & Washington prefer to not look within the failings of environmentalism but, instead, deliver a “modernist” versus “post-modernist” view of the debate. This did prove to be a quite original angle in explaining the roots of the modern anti-science movement but it fell short of delivering anything approaching a genuine solution. Yes, we understand the problem but where does it leave us? How do you tackle a world-view that is essentially at right-angles to reality and rejects rational thought? Surely you have to threaten the perception of security that such dogma supplies? Simply demonstrating that they are wrong is insufficient because this has never been about science. It is a clash of worldviews. A cultural war.

There follows a brief discussion on population control and the Ehrlich principle [Impact = population x affluence x technology] before the authors move on to the tragedy of the commons… Then ethics. And by page 120 the dynamic duo are ripping apart consumerism as a worldview. Oh yes, consumers are bad.

“…we need to reveal the creative, psychological, spiritual and ethical work that climate change can do..”

Spiritual? Surely this is another example of the sort of soft language and “irrational” thought that is part of the problem, not the solution? Is this not something to be explored a little more deeply as a concept? So (as these authors argue) solving climate change is now a “dream that people can believe in“? We seriously suspect that this will give deniers tons of credible material to re-inforce their worldview – a view made up of stereotypes of endless leftist greens trying to dream up a new future for them. Language matters. Is ‘dreaming’ the right metaphor at all? The authors state that:

“Many people […] care about the Earth; they care about cherishing the natural world…”

How was this judgement reached? Who are these people? These is an opinion that is no more or less valid than me stating that most people do not give a shit about the Earth. They care where the next meal and pay-check comes from. Period. Until you can join the two there will be very little ‘cherishing’.

We learn from Cook & Washington that tackling climate change goes beyond limited political ideologies. Neither Marxist nor Capitalists “get it”. Both espouse more consumption and growth forever. Then we are moved onto solutions that include a peculiar creature the authors dub “civic environmentalism”. Their description on pages 128 and 129 is apt for the Transition movement yet they never mention Transition.  This is curious. Why the subterfuge? Do the authors find it so alien the idea that civic society can engage in the transition to a post-carbon society without any reference to an environmentalist framework? Clearly these two do not “get it” either.

This is a minor quibble as Washington and Cook do make it clear that they support this transition alongside several other grassroots and top-down initiatives. They call it “silver buckshot” not silver bullets. It is good that we don’t get trapped in the old arguments about singular solutions. We are aligned when they write:

“…it is somewhat foolish to scare people with ideas of radical social change and the immediate abandonment of the market economy. This just plays into the hands of the conspiracy theorists (and deniers), who see it as a Marxist plot.”

So we move onto chapter 7 to look at technological solutions. It isn’t entirely clear how this fits in the book but it is welcome anyway. The authors hit the ground running tackling the attitudes of traditional environmentalists who are often so techno-phobic. Then we are onto one very important question: what is progress? What are we progressing towards? What is progress for?

“We need a renewable conversion that goes hand-in-hand with a reduction in consumerism.”

Yes, exactly, hence the Transition has to be a part of this game. This goes way beyond a bit of tree-hugging. This is changing a culture.

“Acting on climate change is thus not going to send us back to the caves.”

This is the key mission of the Transition – the communication of the desirability of the change – a change that is real progress, not a step back into a hair-shirt existence. We must demonstrate how the Transition is a better quality of life. This will pull the rug from beneath the denier’s attractive meme. However, even here we see a puzzling feature. The authors reject nuclear and carbon-capture and storage. How does this fit with the silver buckshot argument?

I liked this book and would recommend it. It is a good read and ask a lot of the right questions. The authors may well get little mileage out of their ‘big idea’ of the “Great Work of Earth repair”. It does not sufficiently encompass a broad enough array of worldviews. Denial is well described as “a pathology that threatens the web of life with which we evolved” but we must put human beings into the centre of that web rather than frittering away the reader’s sympathy by going on to write about “our brother and sister species who share this Earth“. We depend upon ecosystem services for our survival. All of these points sit side by side within the same paragraph on page 155 as part of the conclusion to the book. They certainly mix it up. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry – find yourself rolling your eyes to heaven then violently agreeing with Cook and Washington… Maybe this strange dichotomy is a result of having two authors.

So, do read it – see what YOU make of it. It doesn’t offer a clear enough narrative or roadmap to solve climate change denial. It is an exploration. It opens up a few new ideas but chases down too many dead ends that have already been abandoned.

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