09 March 2024

Is scientific reticence the new climate denialism?

Jonathon Porritt (technically, Sir Jonathon Espie Porritt, 2nd Baronet, CBE) has an excellent piece out, called "Mainstream climate science: The new denialism?" 

It really is worth the read.  For people who have followed this blog, it won't be shockingly new, but in a forthright manner  he questions the startling new reality we are facing, which we discussed in  recent series for Pearls&Irritations

Porritt focusses on the "deceit" of "mainstream scientists, NGOs and commentators" have been "holding back" because of the alleged need to "protect people from the truth of climate change", noting that this strategy has not worked "as a way of enlisting the huge numbers of people required to force our politicians to start getting serious".

And he concludes that "we have to see off this patronising, manipulative, self-serving deceit ONCE AND FOR ALL".

Here is an extract from the early part of Porritt's analysis, in which he starts by summarising his analysis:

  1. The speed with which the climate is now changing is faster than (almost) all scientists thought possible.
  2. There is now zero prospect of holding the average temperature increase this century to below 1.5°C; even 2°C is beginning to slip out of reach. The vast majority of climate scientists know this, but rarely if ever give voice to this critically important reality.
  3. At the same time, the vast majority of people still haven’t a clue about what’s going on – and what this means for them and everything they hold dear.
  4. The current backlash against existing (already wholly inadequate) climate measures is also accelerating – and will cause considerable political damage in 2024. Those driving this backlash represent the same old climate denial that has been so damaging over so many years.
  5. The science-based institutions on which we depend to address this crisis have comprehensively failed us. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is incapable of telling the whole truth about accelerating climate change; the Conference of the Parties (under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) has been co-opted by the fossil fuel lobby to the point of total corruption.]
  6. By not calling out these incontrovertible realities, mainstream scientists are at risk of becoming the new climate deniers.

He then proceeds with this:

Hot off the press: we heard today (March 7th) that February was the hottest month ever, with an average temperature that was an astonishing 1.77°C above pre-industrial levels.

I don’t want to slow down the narrative here – so I’ve just given a flavour of some of that evidence about current extremes in the equivalent of an Appendix. And then further details about the speed with which certain “tipping points” are looming ever larger in a second Appendix. A quick glance is all you’ll need. But if you just can’t see why I’m getting so hot and bothered about all this, PLEASE check it out!

And there goes my reputation as a “glass half-full sort of a guy”! I will, from herein on, be badged as a full-on “doomist”, a “prophet of apocalyptic despair”, an anarchist/communist/subversive seeking “to bring down capitalism” by “existentializing” (I kid you not!) the “perfectly manageable threat of climate change”.

Guilty as charged.

It’s not just the right-wing crazies (of whom, more later) who follow that line. All sorts of serious commentators have subscribed (for years!) to the hypothesis that there’s only so much climate truth the little people can deal with. Here’s Pilita Clark writing in the Financial Times in August 2023:

“Doomist thinking is dangerous because it breeds paralysis and disengagement, which is precisely what the forces of climate inaction want.” “Doomism is ultimately a luxury that only a few can afford.”

Brilliant! So we’re the ones responsible for the lack of political traction, by virtue of a surfeit of hairshirt misery that only the middle class can afford!

These accusations of doomism are not new. Writing back in 2019, US author Jonathan Franzen put it like this:

“If you’re younger than 60, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilisation of life on Earth – massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under 30, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.

You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope today.”

I would be the first to acknowledge some kind of continuing denial sort-of makes sense. It can be very painful to have to properly embrace an understanding of what is actually happening in the climate today. And it can get even more disheartening when we take account of the constraints of human psychology and behaviour, let alone today’s political reality.

I get all that. But mainstream scientists, NGOs and commentators have been “holding back”, on those very grounds, for a long time. And it certainly hasn’t worked as a way of enlisting the huge numbers of people required to force our politicians to start getting serious.

Simple conclusion: we have to see off this patronising, manipulative, self-serving deceit (about needing to protect people from the truth of climate change) ONCE AND FOR ALL.

Particularly if you happen to be a climate scientist still playing the “we’ve got this covered” card.

The full article is here:

A similar analysis, focusing on the underestimation of existential climate risks by mainstream science, and particular the IPCC, was published by Ian Dunlop and myself in 2018 under the title "What Lies Beneath", with a foreword by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber which  amongst other things said that: 

It [What Lies Beneath] is the critical overview of well-informed intellectuals who sit outside the climate-science community, which has developed over the last fifty years. All such expert communities are prone to what the French call deformation professionelle and the German betriebsblindheit.

Expressed in plain English, experts tend to establish a peer world-view which becomes ever more rigid and focussed. Yet the crucial insights regarding the issue in question may lurk at the fringes, as this report suggests. This is particularly true when the issue is the very survival of our civilisation, where conventional means of analysis may become useless.