The Art of Denial

Karl Popper wrote at the start of the 20th century, “I think that we shall have to get accustomed to the idea that we must not look upon science as a ‘body of knowledge’, but rather as a system of hypotheses, or as a system of guesses or anticipations that in principle cannot be justified, but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know they are ‘true’. . . .”

As a threat comes closer, our options for dealing with it become more and more limited. In the case of climate, studies suggest that we have a narrow window of opportunity to make some meaningful changes before irreversible damage is done. It is, therefore, imperative that we remove our heads from the proverbial sand. So why has this problem failed to get much traction despite warnings from the scientific community and from some members of the defence establishment? There are arguably three overriding explanations.

  1. In the first place, the uncertainty of science undermines the political will to act. Politicians do not like to operate in an uncertain environment and are likely to put such issues on the back burner. And warning about climate change is difficult. Because the public has a somewhat hazy understanding about how climate change manifests itself and because specific predictions are bound at times to be wrong, it is all too easy to throw the baby out with the bath water.
  2. Closely related to this is the communications dilemma. A lot of climate change is about creeping dangers. These appear remote and, sadly, rather boring to a public that likes drama. But if we attempt to wake the public up — as Former Vice President Al Gore did in An Inconvenient Truth — we may distort or manipulate the evidence. This too can give ammunition to the sceptics.
  3. Finally, the problem has failed to really get our attention because it is all too easy to see it as the other man’s problem. If the correlation between industrialization and accelerated climate change is indeed true, there would be both logic and justice in our doing proportionally more than others at this time to remedy the problem. The fact is, however, that in developed countries we have some confidence that our powers to adapt will outpace the problems created by climate change. We do not, therefore, see it as a problem that will affect our vital interests. And so our enthusiasm to deal with it is correspondingly less. ~ US: GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE: NATIONAL SECURITY IMPLICATIONS, May 2008
  4. Note: Awareness of death can also play a big role, and makes us vulnerable to manipulation by hooking into death anxiety.

Funding of denial

Politics of (non)denial