In the book I reviewed on Monday, Sam Moore and Alex Roberts’ book on ecofascism, there is a brief section on denial. They suggest that “denial has many forms”, and they name five. It’s a passing mention in the book, but I thought it was a useful way of thinking about some common obstructions to climate action.
- Trend denial: This is the original sin of climate denial – just insisting that it isn’t happening in the first place. The world isn’t warming. Everything is fine. The scientists lie. Anthony Watts, a leading climate denial blogger, maintains to this day that the design of weather stations skews the data and that there is no significant warming. Unless your professional pride depends on it as it does with Watts, it gets harder to hold this position with every passing year. But fear not. There are plenty of fall-back positions.
- Attribution denial: climate change may be happening, we be-grudgingly acknowledge. But it’s not caused by human activity of any kind. It’s the sun, or it’s a natural cycle. Or we just don’t know and there’s no consensus. “No one knows the future pace of global warming, or indeed its precise causes”, as The Times was telling its readers in 2019 in response to Extinction Rebellion protests. Where climate denial has been deliberately fostered, this has usually been the main focus. There’s not much point arguing about the physical evidence of warming, but you can push forward alternative theories to protect fossil fuel profits for as long as possible.
- Impact denial: This is perhaps a more niche form of climate denial, but it’s the stated position of various prominent voices in the field and it denies that warming trends have dangerous effects. Matt Ridley, for example, argues that the harm from climate change “is currently smaller than the good it is doing, through longer growing seasons, milder winters, slightly higher rainfall, and faster growth rates of crops and forests because of CO2 fertiliser.” This is a very selective view of course. People experiencing drought and famine in Somalia and Northern Kenya right now aren’t going to see the benefits of milder winters in the global North.
- Action denial: This form of denial maintains that while it’s all happening and it is serious, we don’t need to do anything. Or we can’t do anything. It might even be counter-productive to try. Bjorn Lomborg is the go-to commentator for this line of thinking, and it’s summed up in his latest book False Alarm: How climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor and fails to fix the planet. The arguments here are often over the economics and the politics of climate, rather than the science. A recurring theme is that it is better to adapt to a warming world than to risk radical changes to society.
- Urgency denial: I reckon this is the most common form of denial in government and business at the moment. It’s evident in goals set decades in the future than earlier, or in declared targets with no strategy for getting there. Yes, it matters, say urgency deniers. But it’s not an emergency. It’s not a crisis. This too is selective, and a matter of climate privilege. If you’re looking out on a flooded home or a burning hillside right now, it very much is an emergency. Every time someone says we have time, it’s worth asking who the ‘we’ is that they’re referring to. For some it’s already too late.
These five forms of denial kind of follow each other. If you’re inclined to reject climate action, you may well move through all of them in sequence. The later stages, especially urgency, are more respectable and perhaps represent the status quo. But the effect is exactly the same as the more obvious and more disingenuous trend or attribution denial. All forms delay and undermine action. All forms sacrifice those most exposed to the harm of climate change while the more privileged prevaricate.
All of them need to be challenged, but being aware of different types of denial might help us to talk more intelligently about the things that hold back a proportionate response to climate change.