October 2012 was the 323rd consecutive month for which the global temperature was above average. The odds of this happening randomly are literally astronomical: one in ten to the hundredth power. For comparison, there are ten to the eightieth power atoms in the known universe. So if all the atoms in the universe were white, except one was green, your odds of reaching blindly into a bag of all the atoms in the universe and picking out the green one would be greater than that of having 323 consecutive months of above average temperatures were global warming not happening.
A sane person might think that in the face of this, and with life on earth at stake, the debate over whether global warming is happening would have ended. A sane person might think that in the face of melting glaciers and melting ice caps, we would be desperately discussing how to stop it. A sane person might think that after Hurricane Sandy ripped into New York City (the center of the universe, according to some), the denial would be over.
But this sane person would be wrong. In December of 2012, former head of the EPA and White House “Climate Czar” Carol Browner said, “A majority in our House of Representatives appears to not even think the problem is real. It’s sort of stunning to me because I’ve never seen the breadth of scientific consensus on an environmental issue like there is on this.” The next speaker at the event, a conference about the Clean Air Act, was Joe Barton, chairman emeritus of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce who currently sits on the Environment and the Economy subcommittee. As if to prove her point, he stated that atmospheric carbon can’t be dangerous because it’s “a necessity of life.” In fact, he noted, he was exhaling carbon as he spoke! Q.E.D. Besides, he said, greenhouses are good things: “There’s a reason that you build things called greenhouses, and that’s to help things grow.”
It would be easy enough to laugh at his stupidity if he weren’t in a position of power and using that position to help kill what remains of the planet. It would be easy enough to just label his denial “stunning” and move on. But his denial is part of a larger pattern, and articulating patterns is the first step toward changing them.
I first learned about the stages of denial from trauma expert Judith Herman, who said, “Whether it’s genocide, military aggression, rape, wife beating, or child abuse, the same dynamic plays itself out.” It begins, she says, “with an indignant, almost rageful denial.” Where global warming is concerned, there is plenty of rage, but, strangely, hardly any of it is directed at civilization or captains of industry for causing the warming that is contributing to the murder of the planet. Instead, it is primarily felt by those who deny that global warming is taking place, and is aimed at those who provide evidence counter to their denial.
Anger, according to Herman, is followed by “the suggestion that the person bringing forward the information — whether it’s the victim or another informant — is lying, crazy, malicious, or has been put up to it by someone else.” The first political piece I ever published was an op-ed about global warming in a regional newspaper. The first letter to the editor about my first political piece followed Judith Herman’s script explicitly by calling me a liar. I’m not alone. A Google search for “global warming” and “liar” brings up more than 33 million web pages. A representative sample of these includes a video called “Al Gore, Liar”; an article from Business Insider titled “Greenpeace’s Director Busted for Lying About the Effects of Global Warming”; and “A Political Who’s Who of Global Warming Liars,” which lists the politicians who believe in global warming.
Here’s how one blogger put it: “Finally a real consensus on global warming: It’s a lie.” We can know global warming is a lie, according to this writer, because “the latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of American Adults [sic] shows that 69% say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data in order to support their own theories and beliefs.” This particular article has a bigger problem than the rank stupidity of pretending that a belief that some scientists may have falsified data means that the field as a whole is “a lie,” which is the belief that a poll of the beliefs of Americans (or anyone) implies anything about physical reality. Reality is determined by reality, not consensus.
There are plenty of instances where the deniers claim that those who believe in global warming are crazy. A few quick headlines: “Insane British Global Warming Ad,” “California’s Insane Global Warming Initiative,” “Why the Global Warming Crowd Is Insane.” As for the claim that those who believe in global warming have been put up to it by someone else, I recently read a global warming denialist screed with the title “Follow the Money that Drives the Climate Warming Alarm,” which described how “the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis has been kept alive by the power of money for over two decades.” According to one source, this money flows from the solar energy lobby, which of course is massive compared to the tiny oil and natural gas lobbies.
And what if the denialist’s efforts to discredit fail? “There are a number of fallback positions to which perpetrators can retreat if the evidence is so overwhelming and irrefutable it cannot be ignored, or rather, suppressed,” says Herman. These include “the whole raft of predictable rationalizations used to excuse everything from rape to genocide: the victim exaggerates; the victim enjoyed it; the victim provoked or otherwise brought it on herself; the victim wasn’t really harmed; and even if some slight damage has been done, it’s now time to forget the past and get on with our lives.”
Right on script, global warming deniers accuse activists of exaggerating, never mind that the global warming we are witnessing now greatly exceeds almost all previous estimates. Just last week I read that “new scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is ‘worse than previously expected,’ rather than ‘not as bad as previously expected.’” The article quotes Naomi Oreskes, a science historian with the University of California, San Diego, as saying, “We’re seeing mounting evidence now that the scientific community, rather than overstating the claim or being alarmist, is the opposite.”
Other denialist claims that fall into the rationalization category: global warming is actually good for us (“Warming Up to Climate Change: The Many Benefits of Increased Atmospheric CO 2 ” was the name of a session at a recent conference of conservative lobbyists); global warming is “natural” (i.e., the planet’s fault); global warming won’t harm the planet (and if it does, we just need to, as one pseudo-environmentalist puts it, “play God” and geoengineer it).
Judith Herman’s articulation of this pattern has helped me recognize the maddening comments of climate deniers for what they are: a script more or less followed by most abusers. It’s imperative that we recognize and call out this pattern. So long as we don’t, we allow the abusers to choose the rhetorical field of battle. And instead of talking about what is to be done to stop this or that atrocity, we are stuck insisting that the atrocity is happening at all, that we aren’t crazy, or lying, or so on. The perpetrators thus keep us on the defensive. And no matter what proof we provide, they will never listen. Because the purpose was never to gain understanding, or even to debate: the purpose was, from the first to the last, to obfuscate, so that they can continue to exploit.
Sandy didn’t break the denial. Hundreds dead in a massive typhoon in the Philippines didn’t break the denial. Three hundred twenty-three months in a row of above-average temperatures haven’t broken the denial. As I write this, the eighteenth round of climate talks at Doha is ending the way previous talks have ended: with, as Reuters put it, “no progress on curbing greenhouse emissions,” and with the United States taking a lead role in denial and obstruction.
At some point, those of us who care about life on the planet have to confront not only the denial of others, but our own denial as well, by which I mean our belief that if 323 months won’t convince them, then 324 months will; that if after eighteen climate conferences global carbon emissions are higher than ever, then the nineteenth conference will lead to a different result. We’ve got to stop wasting time trying to convince those who refuse to be convinced that reality is real, so that we can begin discussing how best to stop the rapid, unprecedented, undeniable warming of the planet.
Originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of OrionFiled in Essays