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.

REQUIEM

FOR A

SPECIES

WHY WE RESIST THE TRUTH ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE

CLIVE HAMILTON

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

For more information on Earthscan publications, see http://www.earthscan.co.uk

or write to earthinfo@earthscan.co.uk

ISBN: 978-1-84971-081-7

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

Hamilton, Clive.

Requiem for a species / Clive Hamilton.

p. cm.

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.

QC903.H2185 2010

363.738’74—dc22

2010000214

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

our environmental policy, see http://www.earthscan.co.uk.

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.

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments vi

Preface viii

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

Notes 230

Index 274

v

viii

x

vii

vi

Acknowledgments

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

John Grimm.

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.

viii

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.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

vixii

viii

Preface

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

our mortality.

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

x

ix

PREFACE

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

is validated.

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

of it.

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

xi

REQUIEM FOR A SPECIES

x

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

xii

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PREFACE

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

become apparent.

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.

xiii

REQUIEM FOR A SPECIES

xii

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.

Xiv

http://www.earthscan.co.uk/Portals/0/pdfs/Preface_Requiem_for_a_Species.pdf

~ by Cory Morningstar on May 14, 2010.

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