Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Archive for the ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ Category

A brief history of climate change ‘scepticism’

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Here is my attempt to make sense of the academic literature categorising the rhetorical positions adopted by climate change ‘sceptics’.  However, please note that the term ‘sceptic’ is used solely for convenience: Given that the totality of post-industrial climate change can only be explained as primarily human-caused, these forms of ‘scepticism’ represent varying degrees of ideological blindness.
Categorising Climate Change ScepticsGiven the recent speech by Pope Francis on Capitol Hill, it will be interesting to see how resilient this ideological blindness is – and/or how strong the cognitive dissonance is – amongst the Catholic members of the Republican Party.

From Noah to Nordhaus via Inhofe

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US Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is a climate change sceptic primarily because he believes God has promised not to flood the Earth again; and the rainbow in the sky tells him it must be true.

Such ideologically-driven wilful blindness is very dangerous. Indeed, most climate scientists agree that it threatens the future of most life on Earth.

Sadly, such ideological blindness is not unique to those foolish enough to believe the Earth was created in 6 days only 6,000 years ago. As Stephan Lewandowsky et al have pointed out, adherence to libertarian ideology and free market economics are strongly correlated with a rejection of the scientific consensus that humans are the primary cause of post-Industrial climate change. Pseudo-skeptics may have attempted to discredit this research but, they cannot refute the empirical evidence for the above correlation.

Indeed, in his book Poles Apart: The international reporting of climate scepticism, James Painter provides ample evidence that climate change ‘scepticism’ is predominantly a feature of right-wing newspapers in English-speaking countries.

However, I digress from the story I want to tell…

It is no secret that stories of a global flood, like that of Noah and his Ark, are found in the earliest writings of numerous ancient civilisations around the World.  Until yesterday, however, I had no idea what this might have to do with an abrupt but temporary global cooling event, known as the Younger Dryas, which occurred between 11,500 and 12,900 years ago.

This came to my attention yesterday morning while watching television, when the presenters of BBC Breakfast began interviewing a journalist I had never heard of before.

For at least 20 years, Graham Hancock has, apparently, being telling anyone that would listen that a comet impact in Antarctica about 12,000 years ago – and the sudden sea level rise it caused – wiped out most evidence of an advanced human civilisation that predates any of the others by about 5,000 years. In doing some research on this yesterday, I discovered that this was something that the Huffington Post had picked up on in May this year.  However, digging a little deeper, I found that it is over 5 years since Hancock’s ‘smoking gun’ evidence was reported in the Scientific American magazine.  It would therefore appear that Hancock is very good at self publicity and recycling old news.

Even so, I nearly choked on my breakfast when Hancock suggested that the Giant Sphinx at Gaza was not built by the Egyptians. He pointed out that the Sphinx appears much more weathered (by rainfall) than the in-situ stone on the pyramids around it. However, the real clincher for his argument was the fact that organic material – which can be carbon dated – found at the Gobekli Tepe site in Turkey is about 12,000 years old. This is significant because all other early civilisations – that left behind monumental architecture – are thought to date from no more than 7,000 ago.

This has long been a mystery that archaeologists could not explain, but which is explained by the comet impact.

However, again as a result of research I did yesterday, I was amazed to find out that suggesting a comet impact might explain the origins of the story of Noah’s Ark was not just Hancock’s idea. It is one that can be traced all the way back to Edmund Halley in 1694, as blogger Jason Colavito pointed out in his summary of Graham Hancock at the end of last year.

So, Graham Hancock has used his skills as an investigative journalist to pull together evidence from different spheres of science to solve the archaeological mystery of Gobekli Tepe.  Therefore, given the amount of criticism he received 20 years ago for putting forward an idea with no supporting evidence, it is perhaps understandable that he is now making so much of the fact that the evidence has since been found.

However, even if the idea was not really his in the first place, I think this explanation for the Younger Dryas event is important because it highlights the fact that the vast majority of modern human civilisation is in danger of being wiped off the face of the Earth if large amounts of land-based ice slide into the sea.

Sadly, those who continue to dispute that this might happen – and/or assert that Antarctica is actually cooling – have picked a fight with science and history that they are bound to lose.

On what basis do I say this, you may well wonder. Well, for the record, here are two good reasons:

1. It is impossible to explain the totality of post-Industrial warming without acknowledging that the dominant factor is the 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 caused by the burning of fossil fuels (see also Fig 5 in Hansen et al 2007 below).

2. Although the interior of Antarctica may be cooling – and the sea ice around it may not be shrinking because of the huge expanse of the surrounding Southern Ocean – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Antarctic peninsula are amongst the fastest-warming places on the planet.

Fig 5. in Hansen et al (2007), 'Climate simulations for 1880-2003 with GISS modelE'. Clim. Dyn., 29, 661-696

Fig 5. in Hansen et al (2007), ‘Climate simulations for 1880-2003 with GISS modelE’. Clim. Dyn., 29, 661-696

To conclude, I can do no better than to refer, once again, to the six reasons put forward by the formerly-sceptical economist William D. Nordhaus as to ‘Why the global Warming Skeptics are Wrong‘.


10 Sept 2015 (15:00 BST): With apologies for any confusion caused, this blog post has now been edited to remove repetition and ambiguity resulting from my hasty/poor proof-reading of the original.

Why is the G7 still ignoring what scientists and economists say?

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Image credit: Yale Climate Connections

Image credit: Yale Climate Connections

Despite the scientific and economic consensus – that 80% of known fossil fuels must be left in the ground if humanity is to avoid allowing climate change to become unstoppable and irreversible (IEA, IMF, IPCC, OECD, etc.) – the best the G7 can do is propose that we stop burning fossil fuels by the end of the century…

If the BBC report of the second day of this week’s G7 Summit in Germany is to be believed, this may be due to more tangible fears of a Greek exit from the Euro-zone and/or emerging threats like Islamic State.

However, I suspect that our global politicians are simply unwilling or unable to face the reality that such a proposal – that humanity can take 85 years to wean itself off its hydrocarbon addiction – is not a strategy that a significant proportion of species on Earth are likely to survive…

But please don’t take my word for it, just Google “80% of species face extinction by climate change” and take a look at the results you get, like this one: One in six species faces extinction as a result of climate change (i.e. even 17% would be significant).

The above article, on The Conservation website, cites research recently published by the author, Mark Urban, in the Science journal; the abstract of which reads as follows:

Current predictions of extinction risks from climate change vary widely depending on the specific assumptions and geographic and taxonomic focus of each study. I synthesized published studies in order to estimate a global mean extinction rate and determine which factors contribute the greatest uncertainty to climate change–induced extinction risks. Results suggest that extinction risks will accelerate with future global temperatures, threatening up to one in six species under current policies. Extinction risks were highest in South America, Australia, and New Zealand, and risks did not vary by taxonomic group. Realistic assumptions about extinction debt and dispersal capacity substantially increased extinction risks. We urgently need to adopt strategies that limit further climate change if we are to avoid an acceleration of global extinctions.
Urban, M.C. (2015), ‘Accelerating extinction risk from climate change’, Science 348 (6234) pp.571-573

17% may be a lot less than 80% but, as this most recent synthesis of available research states, previous estimates of the risk “vary widely” and – given the complexity of ecological systems upon which we rely for food production (etc) – I think most biologists would agree that 17% is still very significant.

The scientific and economic consensus is that global CO2 emissions must peak within a decade in order to avoid a runaway greenhouse effect taking hold.  Is failing to do this really a risk that humanity should be taking?

As the BBC has pointed out, the G7’s stance may well signal (to investors) that the end of fossil fuel era is approaching.  However, whereas the G7’s mid-century target is for emissions to be cut 40-70% globally compared with 2010, the scientific and economic consensus makes the G7 appear reckless and/or complacent in suggesting that we can afford to burn fossil fuels at all past 2050.

Ultimately, I think the reason for humanity’s collective failure to address the urgency of the need for action on climate change comes down to psychology.  After all, being in denial is cheaper than being in therapy.


Also worthy of note is this attempt by The Carbon Brief to be positive about the G7’s communique:

James Delingpole is full of sheet

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Banner to my old James Delingpile blog

Banner to my old ‘James Delingpile’ blog

Hi folks. Sorry for the distinct lack of blog posts over the last 12 months (it’s a long story I will not bore you with).

James Delingpole is the reason that I started blogging four years ago. (If this is news to you, please see Background.) I have therefore been drawn out of blogging hibernation by the fact that James’ name features on the winning exhibit of this year’s Anglia Ruskin Sustainability Art Prize.

The award-winning piece, by third year BA (Hons) Fine Art student Ian Wolter, is a supposed memorial inscribed with the names of a (hopefully) dying breed of individuals who – entirely illegitimately – claim to be climate change ‘sceptics’. That is to say, they claim to be ‘sceptical’ about the fact that humans are the primary cause of post-Industrial climate change.

Thus, I say “entirely illegitimately” because, as I have often said before, true ‘scepticism’ is the foundation of modern science: It is the reason modernity emerged from the mysticism of the Earth-centred Universe wherein the Roman Catholic Church attempted to hold back the progress of scientific enquiry.

True scepticism is the willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads you. This is in stark contrast with supposed climate change ‘sceptics’ who choose to believe in scientific and/or political conspiracy theories – and reject all the evidence that conflicts with their ideological prejudices.

The prize-winning artwork includes the names of many of those that featured in my MA dissertation and my book – and who have featured on this blog (see ‘Peddlers of Doubt – monkeys or organ grinders’ (20 Feb 2012) and the posts that followed it).

Whereas the third Viscount – and former Lord – Christopher Monckton of Brenchley has described the artwork as a “death threat” , it is simply an optimistic assertion that the days of pseudo scepticism are numbered… As, indeed, was a recent post on the Yale [Unversity] Climate Connections website – entitled ‘Climate Warnings: Heard, but not Listened to’ (subtitled “With all that climate scientists have cautioned us about over the past three decades, we’ve forfeited all rights to say ‘nobody saw this coming'”), which began as follows:

Twenty-seven years ago, when the world briefly awoke to the threats of global warming and tropical deforestation, scientists could only speculate on what changes might come in the future. Now, one need only look and observe.

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil

The trouble is, of course, that these supposed sceptics refuse to accept the validity of any evidence that conflicts with what they want to believe (i.e. that humans are not primarily responsible for ongoing climate disruption): They are like the ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil’ monkeys.

The really crazy thing in all of this – and the primary reason for this blog post – is the length James Delingpole has gone to defend the self-confessed ideological basis of his rejection of the fact that climate change is an inevitable consequence of pumping 300 million years-worth off carbon into the atmosphere in about 300 years…

I say James Delingpole is “full of sheet” because of the two full pages that the Daily Mail newspaper allowed to cover with his Watermelon conspiracy theory – that dismisses all those who assert that human-caused climate change is a reality that must be faced as “climate zealots”.

Indeed, rather than accepting that the majority of relevantly-qualified scientists might actually be right, he prefers to dismiss them all as part of…

“…[a] powerful climate alarmist establishment — which includes everyone from the UN, Nasa and the Royal Society to the BBC and The Guardian [newspaper]…”

So, as I said, James is a self-confessed conspiracy theorist and – since he also admits to being completely incapable of – and uninterested in – assessing science for himself, I am not going to waste any more time refuting his cognitive dissonance.

Merchants of Doubt need to do the math

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A feature-length documentary, based on the content of the Merchants of Doubt book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, went on general release at movie theatres in the USA this weekend.

As points out, it has already attracted the attention of an odd mixture of ideologically-motivated deniers of the reality of anthropogenic climate disruption.

I say “odd” because, as per the above link, those who prefer to see climate science as a conspiracy to raise taxes (and install worldwide Communist government via the united Nations, etc.) include both longstanding disputers of inconvenient science like Fred Singer (who questions whether the movie is defamatory) and self-confessed non-experts like James Delingpole.

Both of the above would have done well to watch a recent BBC Four (television) programme – Climate Change by Numbers. In contrast to just about every other programme about climate change that you might have seen, this one is presented by three mathematicians. A 30-second trailer is inserted below but, if you have not seen the full 74-minute programme (opens in a new window), I really would recommend it.

The programme focuses on three numbers:
— 0.85 Celsius – the rise in average global surface temperatures since the 1880s.
— 95% – the certainty of the scientific community that this is primarily human-caused.
— 1 trillion tonnes – humanity’s carbon budget to avoid 0.85 increasing to 2 Celsius.

Along the way, the programme highlights the early work of Svante Arrhenius – who determined that a halving of atmospheric CO2 could cause a 4 Celsius drop in temperature (and therefore that a doubling of CO2 will cause a 4 Celsius rise).

With regard to the accuracy of computer models, the programme highlights the way in which this has been proven by their ability to predict the cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions.

With regard to our carbon budget, the programme highlights the fact that humanity has already burnt 0.5 trillion tonnes and, unless radical changes are made to global trends, will burn the remaining 0.5 trillion tonnes within 30 years. It also points out that, as ongoing events might well suggest, even 2 Celsius could have severe and pervasive impacts (as the IPCC described them last year).

All very inconvenient for libertarians everywhere, I guess.

Addendum (17 March 2015):
The final third of the programme includes a discussion of ‘extreme value analysis’ (EVA), which Wikipedia helpfully describes as “a branch of statistics… [that] seeks to assess… the probability of events that are more extreme than any previously observed”. Flood defences like the Woolwich Barrier on the Thames estuary were designed using EVA. However, crucially, EVA assumes that average parameter values do not change over time. Therefore, given that climate change invalidates this assumption, it is now accepted that London will need greater protection from flooding in the future. This is why I included a link to (my blog post about) the ‘Climate Departure’ reseach of Mora et al. (i.e. below), which estimates the regional variation in the date by which future climates will have departed from what has hitherto been considered normal.

See also:

Why do our politicians not act on IPCC advice?

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Washington and Cook - Climate Change DenialI am hereby delighted to invite all my readers to indicate (by voting on a question [on the Survey Monkey website] that I have created) why they think our politicians continue to fail to respond effectively to the increasingly stark warnings (such as IPCC AR5 reports) from the scientific community?

With reference to my response to a recent comment on my blog, the choice seems to me to be either:

(a) they understand the risk of continuing inaction but believe taking action would be electorally suicidal;
(b) they discount the warnings because they choose to believe that technology alone will solve the problem.

What do people think? Is there another explanation?
Please vote at

If you feel you must insert an alternative explanation (the survey question allows this but I would prefer that people choose from the above options), please feel free to comment below as well (or instead).

N.B. This survey will close on the 13th of May and is not part of my PhD research.

Why am I here?

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My Dad with my children in 2008.

My Dad with my children in 2008.

This post is dedicated to the memory of my father, Henry Chester Lack (1926-2009), who would have been 88 today.

The University of Liverpool run an online training module for all off-Campus and/or International students in the first year of their PhD studies. As part of this, I have been asked to explain (to a non-technical audience) why I am doing what I am doing. Here is what I said:


Q1. What do I intend to research?
I intend to research the historical development of the disputation of climate science in British newspapers since 1988. This will be done by keyword searches of online databases of newspaper content at specific times over the last 25 years. These will include the time of significant publications (e.g. IPCC reports) and events (e.g. extreme weather). The intention is to document the arguments of – and the counter-factual claims made by – those who dispute the reality, reliability and/or reasonableness of the scientific consensus (that ongoing change is primarily a consequence of the post-industrial burning of fossil fuels); and whether or not these have changed in response to increasing scientific confidence in that consensus.

Q2. Why does it interest me?
I believe this research will be of great societal benefit because the fossil fuel industry has spent much of the last three decades disputing the science indicating that our burning of its product is damaging the environment. In so doing, it has copied a strategy invented by the tobacco industry to delay the effective regulation of its business; and a large proportion of humanity appears to have failed to learn from this recent history. Consequently, disputing the reality, reliability or reasonableness of the modern consensus regarding climate science can only be justified by the invocation of scientific or political conspiracy theories.

Q3. What do you want your audience to learn as a result of reading this?
Conspiracy theory has been defined as the invocation of a more-complicated explanation for something (based on little or no evidence) in preference to the simplest-possible explanation (taking all evidence at face value). Whereas there is no precedent for the global scientific community conspiring to manufacture alarm simply to perpetuate scientific research (i.e. conspiracy theory), there is a precedent for global industries conspiring to manufacture doubt regarding very inconvenient science (i.e. conspiracy fact).

Q4. How can I make things more interesting?
Here is a quote from one of the heroes of modern climate science, Stephen H Schneider, who said: “If you deny a clear preponderance of evidence, you have crossed the line from legitimate skeptic to ideological denier.” In other words, the rejection of a clear preponderance of evidence is ideologically-motivated denial (not skepticism). To see the context within which Schneider reached this conclusion, please see the following article by John Mashey on DeSmogBlog (i.e. ‘Clearing the PR Pollution That Clouds Climate Science’) recently:

Written by Martin Lack

30 April 2014 at 16:00


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