Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Denial - a necessary delusion or betraying the future?

I listened to a speech by the leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, MP, in nearby Huddersfield this evening. Talking to a public meeting organised by Kirklees Green Party ahead of the local elections in May, she covered a wide agenda, but it was, maybe unsurprisingly, on the environment and the prospect of runaway global warming that she was at her most passionate.
The Greens' Caroline Lucas (left) - no denying
She talked about how many scientists are warning that the "best estimates" used by Government planners and by negotiators in international climate change conferences are exceedingly conservative, several years out of date and fail to take account of "feedback", where the release of greenhouse gasses increases at an exponential rate.

She warned that the next ten years are utterly critical - there is no time to wait. The failure to act keeps her awake at night, she explained, citing the film "The Age of Stupid" and the question posed by the Custodian, played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite. "Why," he asks in the film, where he plays the last man on Earth looking back at current times, "why when we knew what was wrong, did we not do anything to save ourselves?"

Perhaps one of the crassest statements I have ever heard was from the otherwise normally excellent broadcaster Eddie Mair a few years ago on BBC Radio 4. Climate change negotiators at the Cancun conference were, he said, struggling to reach agreement because the USA continued to refuse to take part in a formal agreement: if they could not reach agreement, they might as well give up and go home and forget about it. 

I don't think it was what he intended, but his comment somehow captured the lack of urgency on climate change, the way that, even now, many senior policymakers and politicians continue to see it as optional - a sort of good thing to do when their is money in the kitty and nothing better to do. A charitable option to "help the planet", as if somehow the planet is something apart from us.

Except of course that it isn't. We can't go home and forget about it, because the planet is home and home is the planet. We might try to ignore it, we may not want to think about it. But in the end we can't escape from it. If we poison the planet, we poison ourselves.

Yet, oddly, we don't look at it this way - we talk piously of "saving the planet" alongside efforts to raise money for charity causes and sick puppies. It's a Sunday sort of thing - something to get round to when there is time. And if we do a little bit, our bit, we can stand aside from the disaster when it comes - it won't affect us, will it?

Denial is perhaps one of the most human of things. We deny that which is too difficult, too awful or overwhelming to contemplate.

So it is with the crisis we face. Who wants to think that, in the next few years, in our lifetimes, we may fail to act and as a result condemn not just "the planet" but possibly ourselves and certainly the next generation to degradation and destruction? Isn't carrying on the party, closing our eyes to tomorrow, so much more appealing?

It is nothing new. History is littered with whole societies that denied the obvious, and in some cases perished as a result.

In 1453, with Constantinople surrounded by 80,000 Turkish troops and their allies, many of the Byzantines inside the great walls of the City refused to believe there was a real threat, convincing themselves of Divine Protection which absolved them of any need to act.  When the Turkish Sultan demanded substantial tribute to call off the siege, the destitute Byzantine Emperor pleaded for assistance from his nobles, but they denied their huge wealth, insisting they could afford nothing. Yet when the city finally fell, they were found to be hiding huge hordes of riches they would now no longer have the chance to use.The victorious Sultan was so moved to anger by this selfishness that he had a large number of the captive Byzantine elite executed on the spot.

History is littered with such examples - where the awful reality can be so troubling to normality that somehow the need and opportunities to challenge and change it are set aside. And yet, were we to acknowledge the potential disasters facing us, isn't denial a wholly understandable response?

Perhaps. But it is not to excuse this; it may be very human but it is not acceptable. The threats facing us are too great, too total and long lasting to permit avoidance. Greens need to show an alternative that is positive and progressive, but equally which does not soft-pedal what has to be done - a new, more equal society; massive changes to personal habits; different, less personal forms of transport; different energy sources; a very different attitude towards  consumption; a vision for a very different world to now.

But one where Pete does not need to remember us.


  1. Here is the nasty face of Eco Fascism that the Greens encourage.

    “Johnny Ball ‘abused by environmentalists’ over climate change "denial"

    Veteran children’s television presenter Johnny Ball claimed today his career was being wrecked by environmentalists.
    The 72-year-old said he had been subjected to a malicious harassment campaign after dismissing climate change as “alarmist nonsense”.
    Mr Ball, who has built up a prolific public speaking career over the last decade, said his bookings had plummeted by around 90 per cent following abuse from environmental extremists.
    In an interview, he told how websites had been set up in his name featuring pornographic images and a blogger wrote that he should “not be allowed near children”.
    One imposter also attempted to cancel Mr Ball’s booking at a training day for maths teachers in Northampton next month, he said.
    Police are now investigating the claims.”

    Ball was a very popular science presenter on British TV some years back, and I recall with fondness his attempts to make science accessible to children. It seems he is being treated similarly to popular former TV environmentalist David Bellamy who is also publicly sceptical.

    I frankly don’t look forward to a world where the opinions of thoroughly nasty people like these (the activists) are tolerated and where simply asking questions results in the "denier" label and the opprobrium that goes with it.

  2. I have to confess that I was totally unaware of Johnny Ball's views on climate change until he popped up making these claims the other day. Greens do not and never have supported making false allegations about people or stopping them speak - how he knows for certain who has caused the 90% reduction in his bookings, I don't know. Given that his profile has not exactly been high of late, that may be more to do with it than the odd unkind comment posted anonymously (and probably largely unread until he drew attention to it) somewhere on the web. Could he be simply courting publicity to get his bookings up? He's ceertainly had plenty of the free variety in the last few days.

    As to his credentials and the logic of his arguments, I will leave you with this article, which contains a highly articulate defence of his position on climate change in Johnny's own, very clear words: