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Insidious Climate Change Denial: Do You Have ICCD?

By Bill Henderson

11 July, 2010

There are people who deny that climate change is happening, that it is caused by increasing greenhouse gases (GHG) from burning fossil fuels, or that it is potentially so serious as to be civilization even humanity threatening. There are worldview and monetary reasons for such denial, but since 97 percent to 98 percent of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenet that combustion of fossil fuels is the source of global climate change their denial costs valuable time now but is ultimately untenable.

But there is another class of deniers that must be overcome if we are to successfully mitigate climate change: those that do know that climate change is happening, do know the GHG cause and effect, and do recognize the spectrum of climate change dangers, but refuse to recognize that mitigation of a scale necessary is not possible within the presently configured socio-economy (developed world/global). This widespread denial keeps us telling ourselves carbon addict lies like putting a price on carbon or growing a green economy or clean coal or saving the planet by being a smart shopper as climate change solutions.

For convenience I'll label this form of denial Insidious Climate Change Denial or ICCD. I think it is more important an obstacle to overcome than flatearth denial because even as the emerging science informs policy makers - if not publics - ICCD still keeps us wishing and hoping instead of treating climate change as an emergency.

I think I'm accusing you of climate change denial, of ICCD; and so I'd better have powerful evidence that I can quickly present before you click on. So let me up the ante and add that since we benefit today from using fossil fuels while the costs will fall on future generations, and because we live in very insecure economic times, I fully expect that you will have strong reasons for denial.

There is also a very strong bias in favor of incremental change in our socio-economies; systemic change is too dangerous to the built up complexity of service sector economies. So climate change must fit into and be mitigated with measures that do not challenge business as usual (BAU).

Consider: Is 100% emission reduction possible by 2020?


Shellnhuber's graph describes the 100% by 2020 reduction needed by countries like the US and Canada with 20 tonne plus per capita annual emissions. The 100% emission reduction by 2020 is part of a global budget needed to have a 60-70% chance of staying below 2C, the presently agreed upon precautionary ceiling to protect against dangerous, uncontrollable, runaway warming.

This is not just his opinion but the product of several key papers on a global carbon budget published over the past couple of years: Meinshausen, Allen, the WGBU (Shellnhuber) paper, and the Anderson-Bows paper commenting upon what we've learned about carbon budgets.

If you have high per-capita emissions (plus 20 tonnes) and the global per-capita emission rate over the next century to stay below 450 ppm / 2 C is somewhere below 2 tonnes annually then you are using a decades worth of your 21st century budget each year of present emissions. Countries like the US, Canada and Australia will, at present emission rates, use up their whole carbon budget for the next century in just the next decade. Deep, immediate cuts are necessary.

The Bali target of 25% by 2020 is today regarded as a big stretch, laughable now in these post-Copenhagen, Climategate times, but the actual science, the reality, is that to have only a 70% chance of staying under 450 ppm / 2C the bottom line is 100% by 2020.

Are you still in ICCD? Will you take the time to look up my citations and the science behind 100% by 2020? Or do just consider 100% by 2020 impossible and will click away still in denial cause it's just not possible so why waste time?

But the Arctic is melting and with the possibility of potent latent positive feedbacks in a climate history where even small forcings have whipsawed climate in our past, there is a substantive scientific case that getting below 350 ppm fast - not just staying below 450 ppm - has to be our new precautionary bottom line. Climate change isn't a slow, long term threat but tipping points that we are passing over today. Climate change is an emergency requiring urgent action.

So at least 100% by 2020. Impossible or not, that's the bottom line.

There is also another line of reasoning for such Draconian action:

Leemans and Eickhout (2004) found that adaptive capacity decreases rapidly with an increasing rate of climate change. Their study finds that five percent of all ecosystems cannot adapt more quickly than 0.1 °C per decade over time.

Forests will be among the ecosystems to experience problems first because their ability to migrate to stay within the climate zone they are adapted to is limited. If the rate is 0.3 °C per decade, 15 percent of ecosystems will not be able to adapt. If the rate should exceed 0.4 °C per decade, all ecosystems will be quickly destroyed, opportunistic species will dominate, and the breakdown of biological material will lead to even greater emissions of CO2. This will in turn increase the rate of warming.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global average temperature today is increasing by 0.2 °C per decade.

Humans are superbly adaptable but we are halfway to no hope of adaption and still increasing emissions and still increasing the speed of temperature change.

Now if you are committed to fighting climate change and acting in due diligence to future generations and still reading then I'm guessing that you are out of ICCD and your eyes will open wide next time you browse through Grist or Treehugger let alone your local paper.

And you will see how your governments aren't being anywhere close to honest with you. And looking around, because Big ENGOs choose (or their funders choose) only solutions possible within BAU (The Environmental Mainstream is Obsolete), the environmental mainstream is clearly firmly stuck in ICCD. Their positive things you can do to fight climate change, while still worth doing, necessary even, now look childish or American Green (pardon my Empire of Illusions allusion) considering what really needs to be done.

There are also very important but seriously underappreciated constraints upon businesses and governments that severely restrict mitigation within continuing economic and political BAU.

Path dependence only allows certain change - cars using new fuels are possible, but rebuilding railways might now be no longer economical. Policy space is not a level playing field - Friedman's Golden Straitjacket doesn't allow local governments to close coal mines or put up tariff barriers to encourage relocalization. His Electronic Herd's investments and the personal, corporate and government laminate of investments stretch many decades into the future - can any market economy government impose mitigation measures that negatively affect the economy by even minor percentage points?

Economic and political BAU requires and must engender more of the same - more car-sprawl-consumer GDP with ever more emissions (while those in ICCD focus their attention at marginal growth in renewables and local produce).

In order to have a chance at getting back below 350 fast, before the melting icecap trigger to more warming is irreversible (let alone the old precautionary ceiling of 450 ppm / 2C) we must escape BAU. Plans for CCS, solar panels on the White House, electric cars or tax shifting policies are lies we deniers tell ourselves cause we really don't want to face up to the real change we owe future generations. But we must.

Once you escape ICCD there is hope - the key step recommended by Sutton /Spratt in CLIMATE CODE RED, by Lester Brown in PLAN-B 3.0 and by the UK 100 Month group and many others: use existing emergency legislation to escape political and economic business as usual where systemic change is not possible.

Get out of denial. Escape BAU so that systemic change is possible. In one local first; then emergency action in the US, the EU or China, and then it goes global. And then our kids and their kids have a chance at a future.

bill (at) pacificfringe.net