|Climate Change Denial - Default Mode
By Bill Henderson
20 September, 2010
Climate scientists have identified global warming as the most important
environmental issue of our time, but it has taken over 20 years for the problem to
penetrate the public discourse in even the most superficial manner. While some nations
have done better than others, no nation has adequately reduced emissions and no nation has
a base of public citizens that are sufficiently socially and politically engaged in
response to climate change.
Kari Marie Norgaard
Is either climate change or the end of cheap oil a potential catastrophe that needs
emergency preventive action?
The broader presently non-existing discussion - and it should include everybody from David
Spratt to Matt Ridley - should be: Are our actions today possibly (probably -
potentially?) causing catastrophic consequences for future generations? And, if so, can
and should we initiate effective mitigation today? And if systemic change is necessary for
mitigation is such change possible within BAU, or, if not, how do we unblock so that
systemic change is possible quickly?
The Hirsch report to the US Dept of Energy, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management,
investigated the timing and possible implications of peak oil and advised that a crash
program was needed at least two decades before peak to prevent the chaos of a liquid fuel
Dimitry Orlov recently pointed out that:
"The oft-cited Hirsch Report states that it would take twenty years to prepare for
Peak Oil in order to avoid a severe and prolonged shortage of transportation fuels, and
so, given that the peak was back in 2005, we now have minus five years left to lollygag
before we have to start preparing. According to Hirsch et al., we have failed to prepare
In his opinion it is already too late to take precautionary steps to mitigate economic and
political collapse, surely a catastrophe that should be prevented. Not only has little
effective action been taken by the US government but there was no market lead transition
to alternative energy supplies over the past several decades as would be expected from the
Cornocopians of course argue that there is and will be no shortage of fossil fuels and
markets will handle the transition when needed. BAU is the default drive and there remains
no serious discussion of whether mitigation is needed, what scale of mitigation is
presently possible, or whether potential shortfalls could be considered an emergency.
We have the expertise and technology to quantify the potential shortfall danger in a
transparent and much more informing process, but such a process would require present
actors including governments and business to engage and supply relevant information and
this is not in the present best interest of key actors and so we stay in default mode with
only speculative planning.
The market failure to prepare for the end of cheap oil over the past several decades is
dwarfed by the failure of markets to take into account the potential consequences of
greenhouse gas (GHG) production over several centuries of burning fossil fuels.
Peak oil threatens economic and political collapse; war, possibly global nuclear war,
famine, failed states, etc. Climate change fueled by the increasing level of GHGs from our
primary source of energy now threatens civilization itself and, with increasing
probability, humanity itself along with the vast majority of species with which we now
share the planet. Our species is the premier adaptor but we will not survive if the
predicted cascade of extinctions of species and therefor ecosystems follows rapid
The informed science community has warned for several decades that GHGs are trapping more
heat from the sun and that our increasing emissions past a still uncertain level in the
atmosphere risk dangerous, possibly runaway warming. This precautionary emission ceiling
was for a decade argued to be 450ppm but with the already melting Arctic this
precautionary bright line is now considered 350ppm to not engage positive feedbacks and go
over tipping points.
To stay under 450ppm high per-capita emission countries like the US and Canada need to
reduce their GHG emissions to zero before 2020 (reasoning and citations here , below graph).
So without precautionary emergency action, presumably systemic reconfiguration of both
local and world economies, we will continue GHG emissions to exceed this precautionary
ceiling with predicable catastrophic consequences for future generations.
Two decades of failure to reduce emissions at either the national or global level leaves
us in default mode: same economy, same increase of emissions.
Denial. Let's try Rawl's Veil of Ignorance which has been useful in
inter-generational equity problems:
Now we benefit greatly by burning fossil fuels but likely won't live to see the most
serious consequences. Future generations will inherit certain benefit from our use of
fossil fuels but will suffer the suite or spectrum of possible climate change dangers.
Using the Veil, you don't know whether you live now or in a future generation and therefor
should consider what action we should take today if we were to maybe be in that future
Mark Lynas' book SIX DEGREES: Our Future on a Hotter Planet is a useful explanation
of the range of consequences of our emissions.
Our actions today are life threatening, civilization threatening, even human species
threatening. If we were serious we could cut our emissions by half in 5 years but it would
be a radical and painful restructuring of our socio-economy. But if the danger had a human
(Hitler) face and the danger was immediate we could mobilize and make great change easily.
And probably each and mostly all of us would survive, maybe even flourish and be better
for having a real mission on this Earth.
We don't act as if climate change could be this great danger to future generations. How
will future generations judge us for staying in an orthodoxy where there was no chance of
But just as it is getting hard to stay an outright denier of climate change, after at
least two decades of doing nothing it is going to get harder and harder to square knowing
that climate change is our legacy and will be catastrophic with time wasting fudges like
Kyoto, puny carbon taxes or leaky cap and trade, miniscule green power introduction, etc.
while we still blithely encourage, subsidize even, the production and use of the dirtiest
You really can't blame someone for being in denial but I think that there are an
increasing number of us who understand that we are lying to ourselves when we say we care.
And lying to ourselves cause we know we are just pretending to take action even as we know
that our GHG production today is at least mass murder of maybe billions, civilization
threatening if not humanity threatening. And we know that we could cut our emissions
significantly but we don't even really try - how evil is that? How much in denial are we?
We have the expertise and technology to quantify how our actions today endanger future
generations in a transparent and much more informing process - to do due diligence to future generations - but such a process
would require present actors including governments and business to engage and supply
relevant information and this is not in the present best interest of key actors and so we
stay in default mode with only limitedly informed, speculative planning and little action.
How evil is that? How stupid in the Age of Stupid?