Responding to climate change: what’s your excuse?

In his book Carbon Detox, George Marshall sees parallels between smokers and climate-change deniers. Both find complex arguments for not dealing with the problem, he writes in this excerpt.

[Excerpted by chinadialogue with permission from Carbon Detox: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Real About Climate Change, by George Marshall; Copyright © Octopus Publishing Group Ltd 2007; text copyright © George Marshall 2007.]

All of the strategies that smokers use to avoid facing the risks of their addiction have direct parallels in our response to climate change.

[Marshall lists these smokers’ strategies as: “It’s a long way off yet” before ill health sets in; “It won’t happen to me”; “I don’t want to lose my one pleasure”, as they define their addiction; “I’m a smoker”, in their engrained self-image; and “Can I have one of yours?” – meeting a craving without acknowledging being hooked.]

First of all, we tend to define climate change as a problem for other people in the future. In polls, more people say that climate change is a threat for future generations or other countries than a threat to themselves now. The victims we imagine (and are encouraged to imagine) are in poor countries or are polar bears, not our own elderly dying of heatstroke.

Because the impacts of climate change are dispersed and hard to imagine, we tend greatly to underestimate their scale in comparison to higher profile threats, such as terrorism. It is interesting that American public concern about climate change leapt following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina because, for the first time, people could assess its risk in terms of a dramatic and knowable event.

When told that we will need to change the way we live, we often see it as a matter of giving something up rather than gaining something better. And, like smokers, many of the things that we fear losing, especially cars and flights, are deeply engrained in our minds as “pleasures”, even if we find them unsatisfying or unpleasant.

Like smokers, we define ourselves around our high-carbon habits. Our lifestyles are such a powerful statement of who we are that many people feel actively threatened by suggestions that they could live differently. They see it as a criticism of who they are and a pressure to become someone they are not. Telling a shopping addict that she can live with less is about as effective as telling the rebels puffing away around the back of the bike sheds that they should be more like the school prefects. It is not very effective communication.

And finally, when we recognise the overall problem but refuse to admit to our addiction, we find all kinds of sneaky ways to transfer responsibility to someone else, just like the cigarette scroungers. If we feel guilty about our holiday flight but want to make it anyway, we can pay money to carbon-offset companies to install low-energy light bulbs in some shantytown. They reduce emissions and we keep flying.

At an international level, there is now a vast, new, carbon-trading market on which major polluters can buy and sell “carbon credits”. British Airways argues that there is no need to reduce the amount we fly because it can buy up “carbon credits” from companies that have reduced their emissions. It’s a strategy that will require a lot more charm than BA can muster.

But there is a positive side to this comparison. It should be much easier to cut out carbon than cut out cigarettes. Nicotine is one of the most addictive chemicals we know and constantly nags for replenishment.

Dealing with climate change is hardly in the same league. You don’t wake up in the middle of the night with a desperate desire to turn on the heating and every light in the house – not unless you are an insomniac, anyway.

The lifestyle decisions that lead us to our high emissions are habits, not addictions. They can be deeply engrained in our behaviour and self-image but, once they are challenged, they lose their hold over us.

Stifling your inner sceptic

Had I written the previous chapter [“Smokescreens”] forty years ago, I would have added one more strategy that smokers use to avoid dealing with their addiction: “The dangers are only a theory.”

Smokers know that there is growing scientific evidence that smoking causes life-threatening diseases, but they prefer to believe that it is still a matter for debate and that the science is unsettled. They are strongly encouraged to believe this by the tobacco industry, which pours millions of dollars into quasi-scientific front groups and research designed to undermine the medical consensus.

In 1954, when the first strong evidence emerged of a connection between smoking and lung cancer, the US tobacco companies placed a full-page advertisement in 448 newspapers stating that “there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes of lung cancer”. To back up this claim, they formed the seemingly independent Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC), which hire scientists and doctors to argue against the scientific evidence on the health impacts of smoking.

Their strategy was not to win the argument but to create the impression that the science had not been settled. As a memo from the tobacco company Brown and Williamson noted, “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”

Forty years later, when US oil and coal companies felt threatened by the growing scientific consensus on climate change, they reproduced the same tried-and-tested tactics.

Between 1998 and 2005, Exxon Mobil alone poured $16 million into think-tanks and bogus research groups that argued that climate change was not serious, was not proven or was not caused by human activity.

From the late 1990s onwards, a small handful of professional pundits began to appear with alarming regularity in the British media, usually in staged debates against real scientists. Not all of them are funded directly by oil and coal companies. Some are motivated by a deep loathing for environmentalism. Some are failed academics enjoying the spotlight for the first time. And some are people whose careers are in the doldrums and who want to be back in that spotlight.

However, regardless of their personal motivations or feigned independence, they are linked together as one network. They write books together, sit on the boards of each other’s front organizations, give each other grants, appear on the same conference podia or on the same websites, borrow each other’s arguments and quote each other’s “research”. They like to call themselves “sceptics”, suggesting the independent and critical analysis of free thinkers and outsiders. A better description, albeit less pithy, would be “opportunistic, self-promoting climate-change deniers”. I have met or debated against most of them, and, as you can tell, they are not my favourite people.

However, they are often very persuasive because they are professional communicators, and they can be enthusiastic and charming. They can pick whatever arguments they think best suit their case, whether they are true or not. In debates they are usually put up against real scientists who, let’s face it, are rarely great speakers. It is like a court case where a top barrister leads the prosecution and a librarian leads the defence. Of course they win the arguments.

Now, be honest. Have you ever heard and been swayed by any of the following arguments?

“The scientists are still undecided” 

No, they are not. Every scientific institution in the world accepts that climate change is caused by human activity and says so regularly. There are 2,500 scientists who report to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and their conclusions are rigorously challenged. Claims that thousands of scientists disagree are falsified: the number of qualified practising climate scientists who disagree with the consensus is tiny and shrinking. They are as marginal as “scientists” who claim that black people are less intelligent or that evolution does not exist. The news media love the debate format, but it gives a totally false sense of the balance of opinion.

“There are still uncertainties” 

Yes, there are plenty of uncertainties. The world’s climate system is very complex, and the predicted impacts sit in a very wide range. But there is not one model that says that there will be no impacts. Even the lowest level of the predictions is serious, and all the indications are that we are going to experience the higher end.

“This graph, chart, table, piece of ‘research’ shows that carbon dioxide is not causing climate change”

There are repeated claims that the increase in world temperatures is being caused by something else: sunspots or cosmic rays or a change in the earth’s tilt or the CIA or who knows what. The problem is this: if something else is causing climate change, what is all of that carbon dioxide doing?

No one denies that carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas that retains heat in the atmosphere. Any rival theory about climate change has to explain why 40% more carbon dioxide is making no difference to world temperatures. And not one of them can do this.

“The solutions to climate change will cost more than the impacts”

This argument, championed by the Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg in his book The Sceptical Environmentalist and innumerable interviews, sounds very reasonable. He accepts that climate change is serious but argues that the costs of reducing emissions will be far higher than the costs of adapting to the impacts. Lomborg’s claims have been seriously attacked by his colleagues and by other academics – remember that he is a statistician, not an economist.

In 2006 the British government commissioned Professor Nicholas Stern, the former head economist to the World Bank, to evaluate the relative economic costs of reducing emissions or suffering the impacts of climate change. Stern took 575 pages of data and analysis (as opposed to Lomborg’s 20) to conclude that if we do not reduce our emissions, we risk “major disruption to economic and social activity, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century”. And even this sobering assessment does not even begin to account for the suffering of subsistence farmers in the world’s poorest countries whose livelihoods barely register in economic models.

The reason why self-publicists such as Lomborg get such a positive hearing is that we feel short-term losses more painfully that long-term gains. He is telling us that if we change our behaviour we stand to gain little and lose a lot. There’s one group of people who use this argument all the time to avoid changing their behaviour. Addicts.

Time to face your inner sceptic 

I don’t want to go into any more detail about specific deniers or their arguments. What is much more my concern is the effect that they have had on you. If you have accepted any of the arguments of the climate-change-denial industry – and there are many more – they have successfully created a sceptic mentality inside you that will reject, deflect or ignore the real and strong evidence of the problem. The dangerous sceptic is not the one who appears on TV but the one inside your own head. So this is not an argument with sceptics, it is an argument with your inner sceptic.

If you are a Traditionalist, you may be especially vulnerable to sceptic arguments because they will offer the hope that the “change” in climate change has been exaggerated. Sceptics often appear in the guise of middle-aged academics, which is deeply reassuring to Traditionalists, and they are strongly promoted by the Traditionalist press […].

The first step to accepting climate change is to stifle your inner sceptic.

Remember: of course there will be uncertainties. There will be exaggerations and false alarms. This is a rapidly changingfield. But none of this undermines the fundamental truth ofclimate change.

When you encounter someone with arguments that disagree with the scientific consensus, don’t let your judgement be swayed by the persuasiveness of the person putting the argument forward. Ask yourself: What is their motive? Do they have any legitimacy or any support from real experts? Why do I really want to believe what they say?

And if they seem to be scientists from a legitimate university, just look them up on the Internet and you will instantly find page after page of detailed information about their real activities.

Above all, remember the history of the tobacco industry. Forty years on and millions of premature deaths later, the misinformation campaign has failed. No smoker holds any hope that the science is unsettled or that smoking does not cause cancer. Misinformation campaigns that serve vested interests always lose in the end, but we will need to win this one a lot faster.


(Excerpted by chinadialogue with permission from Carbon Detox: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Real About Climate Change, by George Marshall; Copyright © Octopus Publishing Group Ltd 2007; text copyright © George Marshall 2007.)

George Marshall is director of the Oxford, England-based Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN).

 Homepage photo by Tahmid Munaz