Action 21 and Climate Change – Debunking Some Myths: Part 3

This is part 3 of a series of blogs for Action 21. Part 1 was about how Covid had made us think about our role within the community. Part 2 covered the story of Action 21 and its link to Agenda 21, the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit goals on environmental protection and sustainability. Part 3 moves on to tackle the history and culture of climate science denial.

What Is Climate Science Denial?

Discount Matrix (Meller and Shiff 1975)

In psychology, the term ‘discounting’ (PDF) is used to describe the ways in which people deny an uncomfortable reality, causing them to be stuck and unable to solve a problem. Therapists sometimes use the ‘Discount/Discounting Matrix’ to help their patients. It allows them to identify the level at which the patient is stuck. It is important to tackle discounting at the proper level. For example, the impact of a problem cannot be dealt with if the patient believes there is no problem. The history of climate science denial follows a very similar pattern.

The levels of discounting or denial fall into four hierarchical categories:

  1. Existence
  2. Significance
  3. Change Possibilities
  4. Personal Abilities

1 – Existence – There is no Problem

The 'Beast from the East' bites the UK | theWeather Club
Local cold snaps do not mean there is no global warming.

When scientific organisations began to gather significant evidence that warming was actually happening, the first level of discounting was to deny that this was the case. Older readers may remember a time when people argued that there was no such thing as global warming. People tried to prove that temperatures were not rising, or if they were, it was just a natural cycle of rise and fall. Deniers talked about local cold weather or said that there were higher temperatures in the Earth’s history. Sometimes they accepted the change but blamed it on solar activity. Even now, this level of denial still exists and is pushed as a narrative in spite of the overwhelming evidence we now have.

Is the Earth Actually Warming?

Much of the detailed work on collecting and analysing global temperatures has been carried out by NASA . This is important because they use different sources of data to draw reliable conclusions. These all show the same thing. Global temperatures have been rising since records began properly in the 1880s. Temperatures have continued to rise at an increasing rate in the 21st Century.

From NASA

Is it the Hottest it has Ever Been?

https://www.heritagedaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2009-ullen-ufault-ural-udithiverldmancosystem-1-scaled.jpg

No, of course not. Precise measurements before records began are not possible, but from evidence in ice cores, etc., it is estimated that in its long history, the Earth has been a good deal hotter (and sometimes colder) than it is now. However, the human species has only known a moderate and stable climate. What concerns us now is how much faster it is changing and the impact it will have. For a graphic representation, Ben Gregory’s animation below shows the temperature change away from the average over the last 2000 years up to 2019. (Temperatures prior to 1880 are worked out using a range of measures. We have not experienced warming like this in human history.

2 – Significance – The Problem Doesn’t Mean Anything

Environment secretary admits 'we cannot protect everyone ...
UK floods

As we moved from the 20th to the 21st Century, there was scientific concensus (general agreement across all of science) that the data was clear. Temperatures were rising. Changes also began to obviously affect people’s lives. Personal, local accounts are not used as reliable evidence on their own, but people’s lived experiences now reflect what the science predicts. Fires, storms, floods and freak weather across the globe have dominated the headlines. Rising sea levels have swamped low lying islands and coastal communities. But with a wider acceptance that there is definitely warming happening, the denial narrative shifted: it was happening, but it did not mean anything and anyway was nothing to do with human activity.

East Coasters, prepare for three decades of epic flooding
High tides in Florida. Source:https://grist.org/cities/east-coasters-prepare-for-three-decades-of-epic-flooding/

Does a Rise in Global Temperature Matter?

Pueblo Bonito: Chaco Culture, New Mexico
Pueblo Bonito in New Mexico. It is thought that the civilization collapsed because they failed to adapt to the changing climate.

It is impossible to list the many ways in which rising global temperatures matter. The effects reach into every aspect of our lives and impact on every living thing on the planet. A rise in global temperatures is not a simple, single issue but foremost, is causing a change in the Earth’s climate. There is genuine alarm in the scientific community about how human communities around the world will cope with the changes and ultimately there is speculation about whether this is a threat to existence. If that seems far-fetched, it is because we are used to relative stability in our climate and fundamental change is hard to imagine. However, it takes just a few degrees of temperature either way to make a large impact. Climate events have destroyed entire ecosystems and civilisations in the past.

Are things Really Changing?

The reason the scientific community and others have expressed their alarm, is that the evidence for the impact of climate change is now overwhelming and comes from all disciplines. Most of what was predicted, is now measurable. In many instances the reality now outstrips the prediction.

Are Sea Levels Rising and Ice Loss Increasing?

It was predicted that the sea would warm and that levels would rise, alongside loss of ice and the release of fresh water into the ocean. This is now a measured reality.

This matters for many reasons:

  • flooding and erosion of coastal areas and the disappearance of low lying islands
  • inundation of salt water into freshwater systems
  • destruction of fragile habitats (polar regions, coral reefs, etc.)
  • disruption to the food-chain
  • changes to the distribution of marine species
  • change in reflectivity leading to an increase in warming (positive feedback)

Is there more Extreme Weather?

a group of people standing around a fire: Bruce McDougal watches embers fly over his property as the Bond Fire burns through the Silverado community in Orange County, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

In the past, some people in the UK have dismissed ‘global warming’ as something that they would welcome, giving them a balmier climate after centuries of cold and wet. Unfortunately climate change models predict an increase in extreme weather that will be less comfortable. Although it is a complex science, there is growing evidence that these predictions are correct. Extreme weather takes many forms and does not affect all areas in the same way, but often has dire consequences:

  • increase in rainfall and flooding
  • increased severity and frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes
  • heat waves and drought leading to crop failure, human displacement, civil unrest
  • extended warm dry periods leading to increased frequency and severity of forest fires
  • unseasonal weather affecting crop production
  • impact on native and alien species

Invasive alien species (IAS) are animals, plants or other organisms that are introduced into places outside their natural range, negatively impacting native biodiversity, ecosystem services or human well-being. Reasons for concern about invasive species focus on three main drivers:

(Source: IUCN)

  • Extreme climatic events can transport invasive species to new areas and decrease the resistance of habitats to invasions
  • new pathways open up due to changes in ice cover, deforestation etc.
  • many species can expand rapidly as new areas warm up

Are Species Really on the Move?

Biological models predict that species distribution is affected by climate change, though this is not a simple relationship and there are many mechanisms which contribute. However, there is much evidence of these predicted changes, with some worrying examples.

The changes already are quite dramatic. Malaria, for example, now appears higher up mountain slopes in Colombia and Ethiopia, as rising thermostats make way for mosquitoes at higher elevations. Leishmaniasis, a sometimes-fatal, once primarily tropical affliction, has moved into northern Texas as the sandflies that host the disease-causing parasite head north.

(National Geographic, 2017)

Is it Really Our Fault?

In 2013, the daily level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in human history. The last time levels were that high was about three to five million years ago, during the Pliocene Epoch.

From NASA

It is an accepted physical fact that CO2 (carbon-dioxide) is a major greenhouse gas. In prehistory, there have been greater concentrations of this gas due to volcanic activity etc. and these periods have been associated with higher temperatures. Increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, by the laws of physics, increases the greenhouse effect.

Why is there Denial?

There are psychological reasons why people choose to disbelieve uncomfortable facts, but vested interests have worked to muddy the waters and create the impression that there is a debate about the dangers and origins of climate change. Though they fuel a denial agenda, evidence is that they are well aware of the issues and have been for decades.

From the Guardian 2015

Is there a conspiracy?

A worrying recent trend is the growth in conspiracy myths and the rapidity with which these gain traction online through social media. These range from Flat Earth theories to Anti-Vaccination propaganda. Recently, climate science has been added to the culture with the promotion of outlandish theories in which the entire scientific community is supposedly collaborating to falsify information and install a global government. Disturbingly, an online search for ‘Agenda 21’ is as likely to bring up conspiracy theory sites as it is the original UN statement.

Hoax conspiracy theories have multiplied through social media. Source: https://www.buzzfeed.com/joeydurso/coronavirus-agenda-21-5g

Drilling down into these apparently disparate theories reveals the interesting information that they all have common points of origin, most notably small groups of far-right populists. It should be a matter of concern that they are gaining support from people who have no idea where they come from. It is very easy to set up a conspiracy theory. It takes an enormous amount of work to debunk one and efforts are often in vain once a person has convinced themself. Worryingly, the UK media often lend these fringe ideas weight by giving them a platform under the guise of ‘impartiality and balance’.

These hoax conspiracy theories have no more validity than the Flat Earth ‘theories’ which often go with them, hand in hand, and are pushed by the same groups. But they have an impact on human behaviour and people’s willingness to do the things that need to be done.

Part 4 will deal with how discounting stops us from taking action on a global and a personal level.

Young protesters with placards

J Nickels