Monday, September 26, 2011

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand / Haydn Washington and John Cook -- London: Earthscan, 2011

In recent years, a number of books have been published exposing the corporate-sponsored cottage industry that is challenging the conclusions of climate science. See, for example, James Hoggan's Climate Cover Up and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's Merchants of Doubt. Haydn Washington and John Cook's Climate Change Denial is clearly within this genre. Indeed, much of its research relies on the work of these other books. It does, however, take an important step beyond the critiques of the denial industry by inquiring into the psychology of denial and by noting the extent to which our entire culture is in denial about the consequences of climate change.

The first chapter distinguishes denial from skepticism and attributes the former to those who reject the fact or significance of climate change. It attributes the latter to the scientific community which increasingly is warning us about the dangers of climate change. The second chapter provides the mandatory outline of the conclusions of climate science. Chapters three and four recount various forms of denial and the history of the denial industry. The work is fine, but the two books mentioned above provide greater detail. A great deal of space is devoted to criticizing Ian Plimer's 2009 book Heaven and Earth. Washington and Cook begin by noting that it is tempting to dismiss Plimer's book out of hand, and after a cursory examination of it, this option does not seem unreasonable; however, Washington and Cook believe the work has become too important within the denial industry to ignore. Their critique is trenchant, without becoming mired in detail.

Chapters five through seven are, however, the most important of the book, though not necessarily the most well-written. In these chapters, Washington and Cook take up the social, political, and psychological questions as to why the denial industry's public relations efforts have been so successful in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary. The answers, roughly put, are that we have allowed the denial industry to get away with too many distortions and falsehoods and that we ourselves have fallen prey to a form of denial they call "implicatory denial."

The necessary response is to recognize that we are all -- to some extent -- in denial about the consequences of climate change. Washington and Cook exhort us to "Accept reality!" and begin acting to transform our lifestyles in ways that will reduce our carbon footprint. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that our politicians will do nothing about the pending catastrophe until we force them to act. We must not be content with nice sounding policy statements and instead demand concrete actions that will reduce the world's carbon emissions. In particular, we must find a way to put a price on carbon so that there is an incentive to conserve and so that alternative energies can become more competitive.

In chapter seven, Washington and Cook discuss six alternative energy sources that don't emit significant amounts of carbon. They make valuable references to other books that discuss these alternatives in greater detail. They go on to discuss two more very controversial non-carbon alternatives: nuclear power and the technology to capture and sequester the carbon that results from coal fired power plants. Washington and Cook are critical of both, claiming that they will not quickly and significantly reduce carbon emissions. They also note the dangers that these technologies pose. In the same vein, they warn against geoengineering.

If we take Washington and Cook's advice and accept that the pending climate catastrophe requires action, we still need to be careful about assessing the extent of the danger and the consequences of our actions to address the problems of climate change. It is here that the environmentalist community must come to terms with the role of nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and geoengineering projects. A number of writers concerned about climate change, particularly, James Hansen and George Monbiot, look favorably on some of these options which probably reflects their concerns about reaching a "tipping point" with regard to climate change. As such a future is not at all impossible, it seems prudent not to summarily reject options for reducing carbon emissions; however, Washington and Cook correctly recognize that the dangers these options pose are extreme. If it is prudent not to rule out extremely dangerous measures, then it is even more prudent to re-double our efforts to bring about not just a low carbon society, but a low energy society. Much can be gained by returning to lifestyles where the quality of life is not dependent upon the profligate energy consumption of the last one hundred years.

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