Two reports emerged recently which, in their own ways, should count as turning points in the public’s perception of climate change. The first, and most disquieting, was put out by the Mauna Loa observatory to impart the dark news that the level of carbon in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million, i.e. within every million units of air, there are now 400 units of CO2. To put that into context, one of the United States’ most formidable climate change activist groups, the 350 movement, takes its name from the safest maximum amount of CO2 in the air. That we have now passed this point – for the first time in three million years – should be making every stakeholder in the climate change ‘debate’, from the President of the United States to the lowliest newspaper sub-editor, sharpen their literal and metaphorical pencils for robustly renewed calls to arms. But, no, the game remains unchanged, most of the principal players seemingly content with their business-as-usual indifference, idly passing the time like Nero as civilisation teeters.
The second report, more widely discussed though still under-reported given its significance, revealed the findings of the most comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature on anthropogenic (human-induced) global warming ever conducted. The report, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, concluded that, of the 11,994 climate change-related abstracts examined, 97 percent ‘endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.’ It is not the first appearance of the 97 percent figure regarding the scientific consensus on climate change, but the scale and rigorous methodology of this analysis ought to conclusively discredit the idea that ‘the science is still not settled.’ The crowning absurdity of the denialist movement is that the same people who will go to their graves with these specious words on their lips will never in their lifetimes demand the same level of scientific substantiation before giving up cigarettes, having their children immunised or wearing sunscreen at the beach.
One need only Google ‘97%’ to see the contrarians at work, spinning their tired old webs full of conspiracy theories, half-truths and equivocations. The blogosphere brims with these ‘freethinkers’, valiantly battling against the ‘groupthink’ of the climate change consensus. The studies outlined above have shrunk the denialists’ playing space still further, but their fealty to a lost cause, like Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese intelligence officer finally relieved of his World War II duties in 1974, is their raison d’être. They will not be swayed because their position is one built on ideology, and therefore cannot be penetrated by reason. A 100 percent scientific consensus would do no good; the obfuscaters will go on obfuscating. Even as the streams run ever clearer, they will go on poking their crooked little sticks into the sediment, muddying the water with unpredictable results like mischief-making children who can see no more than five minutes in front of them.
In a world in which Barack Obama approvingly tweets the latest climate news to his tens of millions of followers, what recourse do the deniers have left? Curiously, their modus operandi remains unchanged. It is, after all, their status as heroic outsiders that energises them. The fact that they remain disproportionately influential remains similarly, gallingly intact. One third of Americans maintain that climate change is a hoax. In Australia, prominent denialists like Andrew Bolt keep up popular blogs and strong TV profiles. The Coalition, likely to be in power by the end of the year, is stacked with denialists. (A key adviser to Tony Abbott, Maurice Newman, is even a subscriber to ludicrous and utterly disproved conspiracy theories about wind turbines). Two Liberal MPs – perhaps only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak – have recently begun to push for a further dilution of their party’s climate change policy, a policy which Malcolm Turnbull once said could not be criticised because it did not exist. Abbott has already announced he will abolish both the Climate Commission, the Tim Flannery-led body for explaining climate change to the public, and the carbon price established by the Gillard government in 2012.
In a truly bizarre recent Herald Sun article, ‘Signs that warming scare is all hot air’, Andrew Bolt thanks God ‘for the 10 signs that this madness is over.’ The ‘10 signs’ of which Bolt speaks are not worth repeating – they amount to the usual denialist consommé of scientific cherry picking, fallacious logic, gratuitous left-bashing and a shamelessly dodgy cameo (Ian Plimer in this case) – but one sentence is noteworthy: ‘Now it’s time to hold the guilty to account.’ What Bolt seems to mean by this is that what he calls variously ‘alarmism’ and ‘warmism’ is dead in the water, and that those who have argued that climate change is real and that it is a clear and present danger now have a case to answer for frightening us and squandering our taxpayer dollars. Never mind the hypocrisy that Bolt here is doing what he’s tirelessly accusing everybody else of doing; that is, shutting down debate, stifling free discourse etc. What is extraordinary is the apparently serious suggestion that it is the people who accept, rather than deny, the reality of anthropogenic climate change who must be put in the dock of public opinion. It occurs to me that precisely the opposite argument can, and should, now be made.
What will we – and, perhaps more pertinently, our children, and our children’s children – judge to be the culpability of denialists like Bolt, if even a fraction of today’s worst predictions for the climate are ultimately borne out? What the contrarians do not grasp is that the price we need to be paying now to avert the gravest impacts of climate change will be as nothing to the price we will have to pay – in money, resources, and human life – if we continue to shirk our responsibilities to future generations. History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain, and his fellow appeasers who refused to see the danger Nazism posed to the world. It will not be kind to those like Bolt who seek a different kind of ‘peace in our time’, an embrace of blissful ignorance in the face of uncomfortable facts.
We face an uncertain future, but not an unimaginable one. The World Bank – hardly a radical organisation – submitted this bleak vision of the future in its Turn Down the Heat report late last year: ‘…we’re on track for a 4˚C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.’ Australia, as La Trobe University’s Dr. Benjamin Habib pointed out to me in a recent email exchange, will be highly vulnerable if there is a mass movement of climate refugees from Northern India due to the drying out of the Ganges River Basin, the most heavily populated part of the country. Habib wrote: ‘Given that as [the] westerly journey into Afghanistan is unlikely due to geographical and political factors and escape to the north is blocked by the mountains, and to the east Bangladesh is in just as much trouble with much the same set of problems, mass exodus by boat to Australia is not out of the realms of possibility.’ That’s to say nothing of what may become of Australia’s pastoral lands, its fish stocks, its coral reefs, its coastal areas, and its innumerable species – many of them unique to this country – lurching towards extinction in acutely at-risk habitats.
There is virtually no end to predictions of this kind which do not rest on ‘alarmism’ but the most accurate science available to us. It is incumbent upon the denialists to explain to the public why an organisation like the World Bank would say such things if they did not think them highly credible, and why they would spend billions of dollars on what it calls ‘clean investment and climate resilience.’ It is incumbent upon the denialists to explain to the public why academics with no vested interests would give credence to such troubling scenarios if they were not plausible.
If they will not prepare for these possibilities, then the denialists like Andrew Bolt and Ian Plimer may have to prepare for another: that their imprudent rhetoric will become increasingly intolerable as the human cost of inaction on climate change mounts. There is no telling how much damage they, and their high-powered cohorts amongst the fossil fuel lobbyists, have done, and how much more they will do in the months and years ahead. What is sure is that their words, like those of the dupes who went on apologising for the horrors of the Soviet Union long after the truth had become available to everybody, will echo down the ages. It may be too late for the planet, but it is not too late for the denialists to begin to comprehend this: that their contrarianism stopped looking heroic a long time ago, has now passed into the realms of utter folly, and may yet evolve into responsibility for environmental and social devastation on an untold scale.