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Why individuals deny collective responsibility for changes to the atmosphere and oceans

Post of the Month: April 2010


Subject:    | The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth's temperature to radiation
Date:       | 17 Apr 2010
Message-ID: |

Aren't you the Bill Ward who said:

"I oppose the policies because they would have no effect on temperatures, but show a very high probability of subjecting everyone to global tyranny under a Progressive/communist world government. My faith is in freedom."

I think that, in the above two sentences, we have insight into the *real* reasons why most AGW denialists are denialists. I actually do believe that it is an honest statement of his and many denialist sentiments, more-or-less.

I would say only that the truth is that Mr. Ward *really* *really* *really* wants AGW not to be true and for all those fancy pants scientists to be wrong. It is perfectly clear that he is *choosing* to believe scientific outliers and pseudoscientists or other denialist amateurs (and it is clear that he is a scientific amateur) rather than (tenatively, always tenatively) accepting the prevailing scientific consensus until or unless there is *real* evidence against it. Some denialists here even go further, dogmatically denying well-established science:

  1. that there has been a secular warming of the globe (a small but detectable one),
  2. that CO2 *is* a greenhouse gas and the second most important one in the atmosphere because it absorbs LWIR in a region that water vapor does not (often denied by introducing irrelevancies like CO2 is only 3% of the gas in the atmosphere),
  3. that human burning of fossil fuels has contributed to the observed increase in atmospheric CO2 (as if that CO2 could magically disappear rather than going into some sink -- namely the oceans even if it did disappear from the atmosphere).

Even most of the remaining scientific climate scientist skeptics (the outliers and obvious industry shills) no longer deny that there has been warming, but instead try to focus attention on non-anthropogenic causes. If the observed warming were due to an increase in solar input (which certainly was tested, but now has been shown to be an unlikely cause), I doubt that the denialist community would exist. So it is perfectly clear to me that what the denialist community wants to deny is anthropogenic causation.

But why? I think it is because he wants to believe that we still live in a world where we humans can collectively do anything we want and have no significant effect on the natural world. He wants to maintain the myth that we live in a golden frontier America, where it is perfectly acceptable to trap and eat millions of passenger pigeons and bison tongues (letting the rest rot on the ground). [Those examples are meant to be ironic. The fact is that, at certain population levels of humans, we could trap all the passenger pigeons and bison we, individually, needed and even waste a lot without having a significant impact on their populations. But even last century America was past that stage.]

That we humans can *actually* be living in a time when our collective activities can *actually* affect the entire 11 mile high troposphere above us and around the globe scares the shit out of them. Or that we can collectively *actually* affect the pH of the ocean. Or that we can collectively deplete non-renewable resources (or the economic equivalent -- make them rare and too expensive). And the denialist thinks that by denying AGW, somehow he can keep pretending that it isn't true that we have to make peace with the constraints of our real modern society and the limits of the environment that sustains us. Fear leads to denial; this can't be happening.

Denialists want to believe that they can do whatever they want without having to be responsible for the consequences because they do not want to believe that their individual actions (combined with those of the rest of the mass of humanity) can *have* collective consequences. Having to recognize that we are no longer, as a species, able to ignore our collective effect on the planet (earlier versions of the same sort of denialism included the idea that human actions could not pollute large rivers and lakes or groundwater or affect the acidity of rain on the East Coast or that certain chemicals could affect the ozone layer -- 'the cure to pollution is dilution' was their mantra until it was obvious that there was a limit to that) means having to discard the possibility of the myth of the 'frontier' 'golden age' where one did not have to worry about the collective consequences of individual actions.

The failure of the "individualistic" mythos of personal 'privilege' which would be required by openly recognizing that the situation has changed from their mythic 'golden age' (a "real" America that never really existed -- back when men were men, women were in the kitchen, gays were in the closet, mexicans were in the fields, Protestant Christianity was the unofficial state religion, the 'coloreds' were in their place, and governments never did anything) is so frightening that they even invent a mythical dystopia to fight against (the "global tyranny under a Progressive/communist world government"). This fantasy dystopia is being used to justify arguing against *any* collective responsibilities or *any* response. They *want* to be able to be irresponsible and to *not* have to worry about the possibilty (I would say reality) that *their* individual actions could affect their grandchildren; after all, they are preventing a dystopia that would eliminate their "freedom" (to do what is left unclear).

I see repeated examples where fear of necessary change required to deal with the present and future reality in the denialist community. [A similar denial that AIDS was caused by a virus rather than by "sin" meant that they could feel safe.] That denial doesn't mean that if we are to support *future* generations of humans on this planet, we don't have to *collectively* take actions (whether that be population reduction, care to work within the limits of sustainability, conservation of limited and fragile resources) that put *reasonable* constraints on individual options. Your freedom to drink yourself into a stupor ends when you get behind the steering wheel of your car. Your freedom to change the oil in your car ends when you dump it down the storm sewer to wind up in the local watercourse. So what "freedom" would you be losing if society were to switch from oil and coal to sources with less CO2 impact?

My personal preference is that we use capitalist economic mechanisms (put appropriate costs on behaviors or actions that affect a commons, organize financing mechanisms) to encourage solutions that are most economic. Other societies may use demand economics. Global problems require global actions, but the mechanisms for achieving a goal can be local. It matters little to me whether my car runs on oil or electricity or whether that electricity comes from a concentrated source like a nuclear power plant or a distributed source like rooftop solar panels or wind generators. Whatever accomplishes the twin goals of keeping our CO2 production within levels that can be buffered by natural mechanisms and still supply us with the energy we need (but not the massive amount we waste). But we won't reach that future by pretending that we can individually spew out *anything* without consequence. And to be able to continue pretending that humans currently, unlike in the distant past, have no collective impact on the global environment (atmosphere or ocean) is, ultimately, the goal of AGW denialism.

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