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Dissecting the sceptics (2)

An appreciation of human nature – not just hard science – is needed to fight the rising tide of climate-change denial, argues Bill McKibben.

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The climate deniers come with a few built-in advantages. Thanks to Exxon Mobil and others with a vested interest in debunking climate-change research, their “think tanks” have plenty of money, none of which gets wasted doing actual research to disprove climate change. It’s also useful for a movement to have its own television network, in this case US media giant Fox, though even more crucial to the denial movement are a few right-wing British tabloids that validate each new “scandal” and put it into media play.

That these guys are geniuses at working the media was proved this February when even the New York Times, normally sensible on the issue of global warming, ran a front page story, “Skeptics Find Fault With UN Climate Panel”, which recycled most of the accusations of the past few months.

Access to money and the media is not the only, or even the main reason for the success of the climate deniers, however. Their success in the United States can be credited significantly to the way they tap into the main currents of our politics of the moment with far more savvy and power than most environmentalists can muster. They’ve understood the popular rage at elites. They’ve grasped the widespread feelings of powerlessness – and the widespread suspicion that we’re being ripped off by mysterious forces beyond our control.

The passion with which people attack former US vice-president and environmental campaigner Al Gore, for instance, often seems focused on the charge that he’s making large sums of money from green investments and that the whole idea is little more than a scam designed to enrich everyone involved. This may be wrong – Gore has testified under oath that he donates his green profits to the cause and scientists are not getting rich researching climate change – but it resonates with lots of people. I get many emails a day on the same theme: “The game is up. We’re on to you.”

When I say it resonates with lots of people, I mean lots of people. When it comes to global warming, we’re pretty much all easy sells because we live the life that produces the carbon dioxide that’s at the heart of the crisis and because we like that life. Very few people really want to change in any meaningful way, and given half a chance to think they don’t need to, they’ll take it. Especially when it sounds expensive and especially when the economy stinks. As David Harsanyi, a columnist for the Denver Post, says: “If they’re going to ask a nation – a world – to fundamentally alter its economy and ask citizens to alter their lifestyles, the believers’ credibility and evidence had better be unassailable.”

“Unassailable” sets the bar impossibly high when there is a dedicated corps of assailants out there hard at work. It is true that those of us who want to see some national and international effort to fight global warming need to keep making the case that the science is strong. That’s starting to happen. There are new websites and iPhone apps to provide clear and powerful answers to the sceptic trash-talking and, strangely enough, the denier effort may, in some ways, be making the case itself: if you go over the multi-volume report from the IPCC with a fine-tooth comb and come up with three or four lousy citations, that’s pretty strong testimony to its essential accuracy.

Clearly, however, the antiseptic attempt to hide behind the magisterium of science in an effort to avoid the rough-and-tumble of politics is a mistake. It’s a mistake because science can be – and should be – argued about infinitely. Science is, in fact, nothing but an ongoing argument, which is one reason why it sounds so disingenuous to most people when someone insists that the science is “settled”. That’s especially true of people who have been told at various times in their lives that some food is good for you only to be told later that it might increase your likelihood of dying.

Anyone who works seriously on the science soon realises that we know more than enough to start taking action but less than we someday will. There will always be controversy over exactly what we can now say with any certainty. That’s life on the cutting edge. I certainly don’t turn my back on the research – we’ve spent the last two years at my website, 350.org, building what Foreign Policy magazine called “the largest ever coordinated global rally” around a previously obscure data point, the amount of atmospheric carbon that scientists say is safe, measured in parts per million.

But it’s a mistake to concentrate solely on the science for another reason. Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about it. And feelings count at least as much as knowledge, especially when those feelings are valid. People are getting ripped off. They are powerless against large forces that are, at the moment, beyond their control. Anger is justified.

So let’s figure out how to talk about it. Let’s look at Exxon Mobil, which, in each of the last three years, has made more money than any company in the history of money. Its business model involves using the atmosphere as an open sewer for the carbon dioxide that is the inevitable by-product of the fossil fuel it sells. And yet we let it do this for free. It doesn’t pay a red cent for potentially wrecking our world.

Right now, there’s a bill in the Congress – cap-and-dividend, it’s called – that would charge Exxon for that right and use the proceeds to send a cheque to everyone in the country every month. Yes, the company would pass on the charge at the pump, but 80% of Americans (all except the top-income energy hogs) would still make money out of the deal. That represents good science because it starts to send a signal that we should park that SUV. But it’s also good politics.

Keep in mind that fear and rage aren’t the only feelings around. They’re powerful feelings, to be sure, but they’re not all that we feel. And they are not us at our best. There’s also love, a force that has often helped motivate large-scale change and one that cynics in particular have little power to rouse. Love for poor people around the world, for instance. If you think it’s not real, you haven’t been to church recently. People who take the Gospel seriously also take seriously indeed the injunction to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. It’s becoming patently obvious that nothing challenges that goal quite like the rising seas and spreading deserts of climate change.

There’s also the deep love for creation, for the natural world. We were born to be in contact with the world around us and, though much of modernity is designed to insulate us from nature, it doesn’t really work. Any time the natural world breaks through – a sunset, an hour in the garden – we’re suddenly vulnerable to the realisation that we care about things beyond ourselves. That’s why art and music need to be part of the story, right alongside bar graphs and pie charts. When we campaign about climate change at 350.org, we make sure to do it in the most beautiful places we know, the iconic spots that conjure up people’s connection to their history, their identity, their hope.

The great irony is that the climate sceptics have prospered by insisting that their opponents are radicals. In fact, those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew. Here’s the definition of radical: doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere because you’re not completely convinced it will be a disaster. We want to remove every possible doubt before we convict in the courtroom because an innocent man in a jail cell is a scandal. But outside of it we should act more conservatively.

In the long run, the climate deniers will lose; they’ll be a footnote to history. (Hey, even OJ Simpson is finally in jail). But they’ll lose because we’ll all lose. Because, by delaying action, they will have helped prevent us from taking the steps we need to take while there’s still time. If we’re going to make real change while it matters, it’s important to remember that their scepticism isn’t the root of the problem. It simply plays on our deep-seated resistance to change. That’s what gives the climate cynics ground to operate. That’s what we need to overcome and, at bottom, that’s a battle as much about courage and hope as about data.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including the forthcoming
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

earlier version of this article was published by TomDispatch.com. It is used here with permission.

Homepage image from 350.org

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匿名 | Anonymous




Translated by Fang Imogen Liu.
Translation edited by Meng Si.

What planet is the author living on?

This is one of the worst researched articles I have had the misfortune to read. If you bothered to look at the Oxfam report on the sceptic movement, you'll see £6,000,000,000 institutions with thousands of people matches along side an ex weatherman and a few bloggers.

If there is any money from being a sceptic, I'd like to see some of it, because I'm sick and tired of spending my own limited time and resources replying to stupid articles like this!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Move along.

Nothing to see here! Nothing corrupt! Shut up and send cash! Al Gore needs your green dollars!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Andrew Stevenson

China's political system and responses to climate change

McKibben's article points to some interesting differences between Chinese and western approaches to climate change. In the west, the debate on what action to take has been retarded by the fossil fuel lobby and, especially in the US, an instinctive resistance to any government interference in the economy. China's political system currently appears less susceptible to both these obstacles, and in many ways it has been far-sighted in its climate response.

However, China is still in a stage where it is able to benefit from expanding its renewables industries, improving energy efficiencies, etc: the really hard choices will come when it has to cut emissions (and not just carbon intensity). Some commentators have already alleged that this was one reason for China's opposition to global targets at Copenhagen.

When the time comes for cuts, will China be able to resist the pressure applied by businesses, officials etc who benefit from cheap, dirty coal power? Will China's political system help or hinder a shift from global warming as "a problem created by the West" to "solutions that we will all pay for"?

Andrew Stevenson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





THE TRUTH HURTS' the oil companies are trying any way they can to twist facts distort the truth ,they have billion to loose in profit and will spend million to disprove global warming.You don't believe that fact check there profits for the last ten years numbers don't lie only the industries that want to make sure there profits are unchanged You can see the pollution in China you see it first hand .Do you remember the tabbaco companies of the 1980's how they lied about tabbaco not causing cancer the carbon industries are doing the same ,like the tabbaco companies the carbon companies will get sued

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The Scientists' Niche

The IPCC's errors are in fact quite minor, but have actually come to be an influence favouring the denial of climate change, which really is incomprehensible. However, the scientists of the IPCC need to remind themselves that scientific research must be done according to scientific research methodology. Furthermore, entirely without political interference.

(Translated by Ruaridhi Bannatyne)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous









At midnight the light seems neat and beautiful. I came to the quiet coastline with soft breeze, little waves, lovely sounds of tide pats on the shore. I try to feel the world, the charming nature, to feel It's fantastic. At that moment, the peace in my soul relieved my mind. Everything in my mind was pure, nothing about behalf, nothing about privilege. Only the greatness between the heaven and earth.

If someday my children ask me what's global warming and what's revenge of the nature,or why those frequantly coming catastrophe happened and what's the causes leading to them. I don't think I can answer them right now. But someday I have to tell them the truth, because they are to be the hosts of the nation. If we're not able to solve this crisis, or unwilling to face it,we should at least let new generations know what to do and how to survival on this amazing earth.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The most basic knowledge of science.

Firstly - of the greenhouse gasses - steam is the most important one; the impact of CO2 is much less. Besides, we long ago reached saturation, so adding more CO2 can't basically lead to global warming.

Secondly, the climate of our planet has always changed. Before the arrival of mankind, there were some ferocious changes. Natural factors lead to definite cycles of alternately colder or warmer temperatures and that is the truth about climate change.

Thirdly, global warming is a great thing and the advantages outweigh the disadvanatages.

Lastly, reducing carbon emissions means developed countries holding the developing nations back while engaging in plundering these developing nations.

[Translator: Suzanne Reynolds]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Are Chinese people second- class citizens?

People of China, rise up, for the country, for yourselves.

According to the calculations of the IPCC emission reduction plan (the most suitable such plan, fairest to countries still developing), under the present situation in which developed countries have exported all of their highly resource consuming and high-emission industry to developing countries, of a world total of 8000 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted, developed countries with a population comprising less than 15% of the total world population emit more than 40% of world emissions.
Their average emissions per person are actually 2.3 times that of developing countries! This also means that when the total emissions of developing countries reach 40% of those of developed countries, they will have no choice but to buy these so- called "carbon credits".