Blame perversity for the worst kind of climate change denial

The self-proclaimed climate change sceptics (a.k.a. contrarians, non-greenhouse theorists, etc.) are, in the greater scheme of things, really nothing more than a  silly diversion. Spending too much time on them only results in a bruised head from excessive banging against recycled walls.

But as I’ve pointed out in a few recent posts, it is my firm belief that these climate cranks are not the real problem — not by a long shot. The biggest obstacle blocking meaningful action on climate change and securing a zero-carbon energy supply are those ‘well meaning’ people who on the one hand acknowledge the science of global warming and related problems of human impacts on Earth systems (often expressing their profound concern for the danger posed by worsening global change), yet on the other hand act in ways that indicate they understand or care nothing about its implications — or else they have constructed a form of self-delusion that ends up spawning the most damaging form of denial of all.

Whilst on my Xmas/New Year break, a family member showed me an interesting newspaper clipping that has further provoked my thinking about what causes this pervasive ‘denying while believing’ phenomenon. And the piece wasn’t about climate change — at least that was not its focus.

No, it was about the biggest news of 2008. As most of you would have already surmised, this was not global warming, environmental degradation or even the energy, water or food crises. Each of these got their fair share of attention, from time to time, but in the 2008 wash-up, all were swept away with the tide of media, political and societal interest (perhaps alarm or anxiety are better terms) surrounding the great global financial meltdown.

That’s what this newspaper article was about. It was called ‘Blame perversity for the meltdown‘, written by Fairfax columnist Leon Gettler (who has also written persuasively about global warming in other Op Eds). Please do read the original. But I think I can also illustrate nicely here how what Leon says about they psychology of managerial self-reward is equally applicable to our current bind in facing up to the climate crisis. The similarity of the two problems is, to me, quite striking. So let me paraphrase (with only a few key words/phrases changed, indicated in red, and some added hyperlinks):

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THE market failure surrounding climate change has been blamed on greed, fraud and deceit; but the question is, why have they become so entrenched?

What’s been at play is the little-explored area of organisational perversity, collusion and turning a blind eye. In her book, The Perverse Organisation and Its Deadly Sins, RMIT academic Susan Long argues that organisations and corporations can create perverse systems, of which there are several forms.

First, there is the state of primary narcissism, where certain interests are pursued at the expense of the general good, and others are turned into objects to serve certain ends.

Second, there is a system where the awful truth is acknowledged and, at the same time, denied, echoing Freud’s view that there is a part of the personality that sees things realistically and another that is locked into a delusion.

Third, accomplices need to be seduced and set in place. These relationships need to be instrumental, turned into transactions. And perversion, she says, begets perversion. Which means collusion and turning a blind eye permeate the system.

Long sees organisational perversion working its way through the deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, wrath and, in the case of captains of industry and politicians who represent shareholders, sloth and neglect.

Her thesis helps explain Labor’s climate change advisor Ross Garnaut’s mistake in thinking the Government would act to protect voter’s long-term interest over short-term special interests, ignoring the forces of primary narcissism.

In other words, he expected that forward-thinking decision-makers, presented with the chance to create an energy revolution and lead the world in working to fix climate change to boot, would focus instead on the greater good of society and not pursue their own interests. For Garnaut, it was a case of not letting reality spoil ideology. The ideologue turned into a zealot.

Long’s position also shows how the weakly regulated and opaque multi-trillion dollar global energy market, which allows companies to treat the atmosphere like an open sewer with no commesurate penalty,  have left the climate system heading towards smoking ruins.

This was despite repeated warnings from the IPCC reviews over the last 18 years that human-cased emissions of greenhouse gases were geophysical weapons of mass destruction carrying dangers that, while so far relatively moderate in impact, are potentially lethal.

In similar keeping with the perverse system of acknowledging and denying reality, governments worldwide continue to embrace the WMD of carbon via deeply inadequate international climate treaties and distorted cap-and-trade systems which appear to regulate but actually do nothing to solve the problem.

The capacity to deny reality in the face of increasingly urgent scientific warnings tells us how governments and big businesses, intoxicated by years of fossil-fuel-derived profits, are allowed to continue to get away with emitting far more CO2 than the climate system can compensate for, and how they manage to convince voters that they are ‘striking the right balance’ when the climate system is hemorrhaging.

[some deleted sentences follow]

Scientists tells us that the world’s climate system is teetering perilously and the fact that this advice is ignored shows what happens when governments and institutions pursue their own interests while ignoring the public interest.

The events of recent weeks have highlighted the need to overhaul governance and to stop the perverse systems. If nothing else, they have shown that a system where governments can pretend they are doing one thing but are actually achieving the complete opposite does not work. As Long’s thesis suggests, there needs to be more surveillance of political self-reward. Supervision by voters at occasional elections alone is not enough to deal with the perversity.

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I’ll have more to say on this general problem early in the new year (with an example using ants!), because I think this issue, perhaps more than any other, really strikes at the core of the climate and energy dilemmas.

See you all in 2009.

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8 Comments

  1. Sceptics – or as I prefer to call them, cranks – are a something more than a silly diversion. Politicians and business leaders don’t want to be seen to be radical (on this issue, at least), so having a bunch of cranks out there proclaiming that global warming doesn’t exist provides a spurious “balance” to the huge weight of evidence that it’s real and happening now. This leads to the adoption of a spurious “middle ground” where climate change is real and our fault, but perhaps not as bad as those extremist/alarmist scientists are suggesting.

    Scientists themselves buy in to this framing of the issue, as Hansen has noted in the past, by trying to avoid being seen to be “alarmist”, even when the results of their work are genuinely alarming.

    Cranks don’t have to make sense. Their continued noisy existence is enough to achieve the desired effect – and the careful orchestration of the crank chorus by the likes of the Heartland Institute should tell us all we need to know about whose desires are being fulfilled.

    I don’t mean to imply in this that the institutional blindness you describe doesn’t exist, just that the cranks provide a context within which it can seem rational.

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  2. “Believing while denying” is an inevitable phase on the journey to truth, that’s the best I can spin it! The visceral preoccupations of now compete with the decreasingly hypothetical, ever-nearer future. The cranks lack the self-awareness to even enter this state of mind,let alone move ahead to actively reducing consumption; no doubt a product of a society where the means of support arrives in pipes,cables,containers and bags, and where an education in the earth sciences is deemed optional,and the planet is a mysterious place from which status objects are won. And it’s no wonder that the MSM is obsessed with the economy; it’s the crude social mechanism which must be re-jigged to acknowledge ecological realities….so let’s jig away in 2009. Many thanks for your dynamic blogging, Barry.

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  3. Belief is really a 2D surface. Most academics at, for example, Adelaide
    University, believe, sincerely that global warming is a serious
    global problem. But is there a glut of
    bicycles at the bike racks? Is there a crush of people saying: “No, I won’t
    fly to that conference in Europe”? Has there been a mass conversion
    to low/no animal product diets? This is sincere belief with little
    action. It’s a long way from skepticism, but an equally long way
    from the kind of belief that implies a change in behaviour.

    A person in pharmacy or history or any other disciple, is far more
    concerned with their special problems and expects somebody else to
    deal with climate change. This is how it normally works. I don’t think
    about pharmaceuticals, that’s their job. I just expect the drugs to
    work, just like I expect Barry to solve this climate change problem,
    that’s his job. :)

    Happy new year Barry — great blog.

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  4. Why not lay blame where it belongs: at the feet of the economic powerbrokers who organize and manage a colossal pyramid scheme, a modern representation of the ancient Tower of Babel? Is the denial of anthropogenic global warming and the human-driven destabilization of Earth’s climate not primarily for the purpose of preserving the selfish material interests of a few wealthy and powerful people, and their minions?

    Let’s look a bit more closely at the scandulous ‘business’ of Bernie Madoff, confidence games, Ponzi schemes and other financial vehicles for funneling, accumulating and concentrating billions of dollars in unearned wealth into the hands of a tiny minority of people who comprise the top of the global economy.

    There are many minions of the wealthy and their bought-and-paid-for politicians who “spread the word” of these schemes. Con men operate pyramid schemes. They assure “plausible deniability” and “legal cover” for all that is said and done.

    Only a telling of the truth about what they are doing is forbidden. That is the one and only thing that is verboten. Do not break their vow of silence by telling what is true about the perpetration of the schemes {ie, the only games in town, so they say}, because the “houses of cards” out of which a modern Tower of Babel is constructed immediately is exposed as fraudulent and patently unsustainable. These pyramidal constructions can withstand any force except that which is presented by speaking out loudly and clearly about what is happening in these enterprises. As soon as light of what is true was shed on Bernie’s scheme, the house of cards he had constructed fell.

    Bernard Madoff may be the first of my “Not So GREAT GREED GRAB Generation’s” kingpins to find that his “house of cards” has collapsed; but I dare say, Bernie will not be the last. There are other kingpins and many too many minions ready, willing and able to play along in what looks like the greatest self-enrichment scam in human history.

    Why not say that greed is not good? Why not assign value to personal honesty, accountability and transparency?

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    http://sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?contentid=1176

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  5. A big factor in why the Australian governments targets were not good enough was related to the issue of rent seeking. Polluting industries were doing what they could to alter climate change policy so that the burden of emissions reduction was shifted away from them. The most successful rent seeking tactic is lying, distorting the truth, and saying a lot of nonsense. The main nonsense is that emissions reductions will be incredibly costly, and so costly that industries will close down (possibly heading overseas), jobs will be lost, and so on. Rent seekers did a huge amount of work sending out this message to the public and to government. I think that one thing that the climate change movement needs to focus on more is countering this message.

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