Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change
In his first blog post for Earthscan, Clive Hamilton introduces his new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, published by Earthscan on April 16th 2010.
Read this extract on the roots of denialism, published on the Guardian books website today, and visit www.earthscan.co.uk/requiem for more author articles, videos and reviews, including a free download of the Preface.
WHY WE RESIST THE TRUTH ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE
London • Washington, DC
First published in 2010 by Earthscan
Copyright © Clive Hamilton, 2010
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Earthscan publishes in association with the International Institute for
Environment and Development
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Typeset by Midland Typesetters, Australia
Cover design by Susanne Harris
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Requiem for a species / Clive Hamilton.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-84971-081-7 (hbk.)
1. Climatic changes—Social aspects. 2. Global warming—Social aspects.
3. Twenty-first century—Forecasts. I. Title.
At Earthscan we strive to minimize our environmental impacts and carbon
footprint through reducing waste, recycling and offsetting our CO2 emissions,
including those created through publication of this book. For more details of
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Printed and bound in the UK by TJ International,
an ISO 14001 accredited company. The paper used
is FSC certified and the inks are vegetable based.
1 No escaping the science 1
2 Growth fetishism 32
3 The consumer self 66
4 Many forms of denial 95
5 Disconnection from Nature 134
6 Is there a way out? 159
7 The four-degree world 190
8 Reconstructing a future 209
Appendix: Greenhouse gases 227
In preparing this book I have been more than usually reliant on
the expertise of others. Drafts of the first chapter have been read
by a number of experts in climate science—Alice Bows, Graeme
Pearman and Mike Raupach. David Spratt also provided very
helpful insights. As the argument of the book depends on the
science reported in Chapter 1, I am greatly indebted to them.
Chapter 4, on forms of denial, has benefited greatly from
comments provided by Tim Kasser, Robert Manne, Tony
Leiserowitz and Scott Cowdell.
Chapter 5, on our disconnection from Nature, has been
thoroughly enriched by comments from my colleagues Wayne
Hudson, James Haire and Scott Cowdell, as well as from
participants in seminars at the Centre for Applied Philosophy
and Public Ethics at the Australian National University and the
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.
I also benefited from discussions with Mary Evelyn Tucker and
Chapter 7, a report on a conference at the University of
Oxford, has been improved after comments on a draft from Peter
Christoff, David Karoly and Mark Stafford Smith.
Chapter 8, the most difficult to write, has benefited from
comments provided by Scott Cowdell and David McKnight.
I would like to extend special thanks to Andrew Glikson, who
provided helpful advice throughout, particularly on the science,
and Cordelia Fine, who generously devoted time to reading most
of the manuscript and providing feedback.
I’m grateful to Gus Speth for facilitating a visit to Yale
University where a large portion of the book was written.
Charles Sturt University has shown an admirable commitment
to promoting public debate by providing me with the freedom to
research and write this book unencumbered by other obligations.
As always, Elizabeth Weiss at Allen & Unwin has been a
fount of support and good advice. The teams at Allen & Unwin
and Earthscan have been a pleasure to work with.
Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts
are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the
world only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global
warming. Apart from the climate ‘sceptics’, most people do not
disbelieve what the climate scientists have been saying about the
calamities expected to befall us. But accepting intellectually is not
the same as accepting emotionally the possibility that the world
as we know it is heading for a horrible end. It’s the same with
our own deaths; we all ‘accept’ that we will die, but it is only
when death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of
Over the last five years, almost every advance in climate
science has painted a more disturbing picture of the future. The
reluctant conclusion of the most eminent climate scientists is that
the world is now on a path to a very unpleasant future and it is
too late to stop it. Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the
climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed
panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate
science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming
that will this century bring about a radically transformed world
that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life. As
I will show, this is no longer an expectation of what might happen
if we do not act soon; this will happen, even if the most optimistic
assessment of how the world might respond to the climate disruption
The Copenhagen Conference in December 2009 was the
last hope for humanity to pull back from the abyss. But a
binding commitment from the major polluting nations to shift
their econ omies immediately onto a path of rapid emission
cuts proved too hard. In light of the fierce urgency to act,
there was a sense at the Copenhagen conference that we were
witnessing not so much the making of history, but the ending
Some climate scientists feel guilty that they did not ring the
alarm bells earlier, so that we could have acted in time. But it’s not
their fault. As I will argue, despite our pretensions to rationality,
scientific facts are fighting against more powerful forces. Apart
from institutional factors that have prevented early action—the
power of industry, the rise of money politics and bureaucratic
inertia—we have never really believed the dire warnings of the
scientists. Unreasoning optimism is one of humankind’s greatest
virtues and most dangerous foibles. Primo Levi quotes an old
German adage that encapsulates our psychological resistance to
the scientific warnings: ‘Things whose existence is not morally
possible cannot exist.’1
In the past, environmental warnings have often taken on
an apocalyptic tone, and it is to be expected that the public
greets them with a certain weariness. Yet climate change is
unique among environmental threats because its risks have been
systematically understated by both campaigners and, until very
REQUIEM FOR A SPECIES
recently, most scientists. Environmental campaigners, naturally
optimistic people, have been slow to accept the full implications
of the science and worry about immobilising the public with too
much fear. With the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions
now exceeding the worst-case scenarios of a few years ago, and
the expectation that we will soon pass tipping points that will
trigger irreversible changes to the climate, it is now apparent that
the Cassandras—the global warming pessimists—are proving to
be right and the Pollyannas—the optimists—wrong. In the
Greek myth Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo,
but when she failed to return his love Apollo issued a curse so
that her prophecies would not be believed. I think the climate
scientists, who for two decades have been sending warnings
about global warming and its impacts, must sometimes feel like
Cassandras cursed by Apollo, and never more so than now.
There have been any number of books and reports over the
years explaining just how ominous the future looks and how little
time we have left to act. This book is about why we have ignored
those warnings. It is a book about the frailties of the human
species, the perversity of our institutions and the psychological
dispositions that have set us on a self-destructive path. It is about
our strange obsessions, our penchant for avoiding the facts, and,
especially, our hubris. It is the story of a battle within us between
the forces that should have caused us to protect the Earth—our
capacity to reason and our connection to Nature—and those that
in the end have won out—our greed, materialism and alienation
from Nature. And it is about the twenty-first century consequences
of these failures.
For some years I could see intellectually that the gap between
the actions demanded by the science and what our political
institutions could deliver was large and probably unbridgeable,
yet emotionally I could not accept what this really meant for the
future of the world. It was only in September 2008, after reading
a number of new books, reports and scientific papers, that I finally
allowed myself to make the shift and to admit that we simply are
not going to act with anything like the urgency required. Humanity’s
determination to transform the planet for its own material
benefit is now backfiring on us in the most spectacular way, so
that the climate crisis is for the human species now an existential
one. On one level, I felt relief: relief at finally admitting what
my rational brain had been telling me; relief at no longer having
to spend energy on false hopes; and relief at being able to let go
of some anger at the politicians, business executives and climate
sceptics who are largely responsible for delaying action against
global warming until it became too late. Yet capitulating to the
truth initiated a period of turmoil that lasted at least as long as it
took to write this book. So why write it? I hope the reasons will
Accepting the reality of climate change does not mean we
should do nothing. Cutting global emissions quickly and deeply
can at least delay some of the worst effects of warming. But sooner
or later we must face up to the truth and try to understand why
we have allowed the situation that now confronts us. Apart from
the need to understand how we arrived at this point, the main
justification for the book is that by setting out what we face we
can better prepare ourselves for it.
Undoubtedly I will be accused of doom-mongering. Prophecies
of doom have always been of two types. Some, like those of
doomsday cults, have been built on a belief in a ‘truth’ revealed
by a supernatural force or the delusions of a charismatic leader.
REQUIEM FOR A SPECIES
Sooner or later the facts assert themselves and the prophecy is
proven wrong. The second type is based on the possibility of a
real disaster but one whose probability is exaggerated. Survivalist
communities sprang up during the Cold War because those who
joined were convinced that nuclear war would break out, leading
to the end of civilisation. There was indeed a chance of that
happening, but most people believed it was lower than expected
by survivalists and the latter were legitimately accused of doommongering.
The same may be said for a number of real but small
risks that have led some to forecast the end of the world—the
Y2K bug and a collision with an asteroid come to mind.
Until recently, catastrophic global warming fell into the latter
category, and anyone predicting the end of modern civilisation
was arguably guilty of exaggerating the known risks because the
prevailing warming projections indicated there was a good chance
that early action could prevent dangerous climate change. But in
the last few years scientists’ predictions about climate change have
become much more certain and much more alarming, with bigger
and irreversible changes now expected sooner. After a decade
of little real action, even with a very optimistic assessment of
the likelihood of the world taking the necessary action and in the
absence of so-called unknown unknowns, catastrophic climate
change is now virtually certain.
In these circumstances refusing to accept that we face a very
unpleasant future becomes perverse. Denial requires a wilful misreading
of the science, a romantic view of the ability of political
institutions to respond, or faith in divine intervention. Climate
Pollyannas adopt the same tactic as doom-mongers, but in reverse:
instead of taking a very small risk of disaster and exaggerating it,
they take a very high risk of disaster and minimise it.