Climate change realism requires lifting veil of denial
In a 2009 episode of TV’s The Simpsons, Lisa is in her room when she turns to her social-studies assignment. It asks what Springfield will be like in 50 years, so she searches the Net, at first cheerfully curious. But, with deepening horror, she uncovers a series of articles making grim and gloomy projections.
“Water gone, people drink soap,” “World war over last drop of oil”: the headlines predict an ugly future for eight-year-old Lisa.
Now in her classroom, transformed, all fire and brimstone, she begins her presentation. “There is no Springfield 50 years in the future,” she declaims. “With global warming trapping the CO2 inside our poisonous atmosphere, our superheated oceans will rise, drowning our lowlands, leaving what’s left of humanity baking in deserts that once fed the world.”
The evidence is overwhelming and convincing. Our actions are quickly changing the geochemistry of the planet. The destruction of marine and terrestrial ecosystems in the form of a growing number of dead zones in the ocean, a reduction of biodiversity, droughts, floods, deforestation, and ocean acidification is fully under way. “We are overdoing it,” says James Hoggan, a Vancouver public-relations executive who is completing a book with the working title The Polluted Public Square, in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “I think we all know that.”
On May 9, readings from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii revealed that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had passed 400 parts per million. We’re approaching some tipping points that will reinforce warming and establish runaway changes in a domino effect. As ice in the Arctic or Greenland melts, for instance, the sunlight and heat energy it once reflected get absorbed in the now open waters, warming surrounding oceans, melting the Siberian permafrost and releasing the methane it contains. Considering these feedback effects, it looks like we’re already set to raise temperatures by 2 ° C.
“If we get well away from 2 ° C, it’s really not going to be a world [in which] most of our kids will want to live,” Stephen Sheppard, a professor in the UBC forestry faculty, says in a Skype interview. “It’s looking less likely all the time that we’ll stay within 2 ° C. We don’t have a lot of room and a lot of time. If I was a betting man, I would say we won’t, but I would hope we get a lot closer to 2 degrees than 4 degrees or, God forbid, 5 or 6 degrees.”
“I have no doubt this is the most important moment in the history of the planet,” says Robert Jensen, a professor in the school of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, in a Skype interview. “People often say that’s alarmist or hysterical, but I think it’s simply an accurate assessment of the world.”
In this light, recent warnings begin to look more like a vivid picture of an imminent future. On June 19, the World Bank issued a report predicting widespread food shortages, unprecedented heat waves, intense cyclones, and a sub Saharan Africa parched by droughts, making staple crops unable to grow. “It’s going to go so quickly that many of us alive now will see a lot worsening,” says Sheppard, author of Visualizing Climate Change: A Guide to Visual Communication of Climate Change and Developing Local Solutions.
A 4 ° C rise in average temperatures, which is increasingly becoming very possible, would destroy about 85 percent of the Amazon forest. “This is going to hurt you soon, as an individual, as opposed to some abstract view of what might happen to the planet 50 years from now when you might be dead and gone,” says physician turned scientist Ajit Varki, coauthor of Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, in a phone interview.
We’re entering a future hostile to human life.
“The future,” baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “ain’t what it used to be.”
After Lisa’s presentation, looking despondent and frazzled and with the weight of this knowledge bearing down on her, she is sent to a therapist who concludes that she “is suffering from environment-related despair” and prescribes a drug called Ignorital.
Despite the surplus evidence telling us that the world as we know it is already gone, we continue to, yes, ignore it all. “Humans delude themselves all the time about everything,” says SFU professor of environmental economics Mark Jaccard, author of the upcoming book Deluding Ourselves to Disaster: Why We Fail to Act on the Climate Threat, in a phone interview. Some will do so by denying the science, and others will accept the research—but only intellectually and abstractly and not emotionally. Many of us, that is, will go about our days and make plans for a future that the science tells us may not be what we expect. And we do so not because of a lack of information but due to our psychology.
The human psyche isn’t well-equipped, some researchers argue, to conceptualize and digest the catastrophic changes on the horizon. The overwhelming evidence that things are rapidly changing for the worse is, evidently, so painful it inspires enough feelings of guilt and fear that we unconsciously prop up some pretty effective defence mechanisms.
“There are emotions that are really disturbing that come up with climate change,” says University of Oregon sociology professor Kari Marie Norgaard, author of Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, in a Skype interview with the Straight. “So I focus on three emotions: guilt, helplessness, and fear about the future. Psychological theory says that people don’t want to experience them. And we have all kinds of ways to normalize that.”
We distract ourselves from the bleak reality. “People change the subject or tell a joke,” Norgaard says. “I don’t watch or listen to the news in the morning because I get so agitated I can’t get on with my day. Some of the people I interviewed talked about managing that sense of guilt by not reading all of the information in a certain report because it would be too overwhelming.”
We’ll maintain a sunny optimism about our capacity to solve the problem. Clive Hamilton’s latest book, published in April, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, explores one of its manifestations: geoengineering. Large-scale intervention in the environment to technologically fix our way out of the problem is likely rooted in wishful thinking. “I run into people who say, ‘Yeah, we’re probably changing the climate, but when it gets really dire, we humans will then act,’ ” Jaccard says.
Published in May, Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction betrays a kind of denial wearing the mask of optimism. The book seriously considers, for instance, the possibility of humans living on other planets and terraforming the moons of Saturn.
Of course, Some denial is a good thing, amounting to positive illusions that can inspire hope and courage. “Our brains evolved to be able to deny unpleasant realities,” Varki says. “That’s part and parcel of evolving this ability to deny mortality. We have this peculiar gift, if you like. Because of our ability to deny reality, we can do amazing things that no other animal can do. But it’s also very dangerous for us.…When it comes to climate change—you can coin the word climate holocaust—we’re not taking it that seriously.”
The recent floods in Calgary and Toronto, the steady stream of research telling us that we should discontinue the tar sands, stop fracking, end coal production, and plug the pipelines: none of these seem enough to overcome our apparent need to feel like everything is all right. We persist in our ways, apparently unwilling to, as Jensen says, “replace the predatory, corporate capitalism that we live under”, a system that itself might be one expansive monument to the denial of our connection to the planet and the consequences of violating it.
When Lisa starts taking Ignorital, her world transforms into one composed of smiley faces, where Barney Gumble vomits smiley faces, smiley faces billow from smokestacks, and people bleed smiley faces. Eventually, Marge takes Lisa off the medication because she finds her about to kiss a cooling fan that looked to her like one big, inviting smiley face. This is the danger of unrealistic optimism.
Will we learn this lesson and turn away from our unrealistic optimism, from this maladaptive defence mechanism, and take on the mature one of facing the reality squarely and unflinchingly? Will we, in a sense, grow up?
Jensen, who’s written a book entitled We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out, believes we have to.
“Most people associate the term apocalypse with Christian end-times talk about a rapture and the end of the world. I point out that the word apocalypse, which is Greek, and its Latin corollary, revelation, are not about the end of the world,” he says. “They’re about a coming to clarity. The word actually means ‘a lifting of the veil’. And I think that’s a good way to understand the task in front of us, to convey that we are at a very dramatic point in human history, that we have to lift the veil which has kept us from seeing the effect of the large-scale human presence on the planet clearly.
“Coming to terms with this grief,” Jensen continues, “or this sense of anguish, is the first step to being able to deal with the problems.” That will be difficult for all of us, but it is necessary.
Collectively awakening to the projections of climate disruption is the first step to effectively tackling them, and it’s also what an emotionally secure and honest species should be fearless enough to do.
“We must have the courage to endure pessimism,” psychologist Martin Seligman wrote in 1990’s Learned Optimism, and we must endure the realization that we have lost a better future.
“Bart, in my concurrent adventure,” Lisa tells her brother, who has also lost something in the episode, “I learned a really important lesson. You can’t wallow in despair. Face things as they really are.”