Climate Change: Denial, Impact, and Innovation

Throughout history, humans have had a great fondness for the beauty of the world around us. Rachel Carson, catalyst for the modern environmental movement and author of Silent Spring aptly puts; “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Some of the most canonical works about nature remain prevalent to this day, including Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, and Monet’s Water Lilies. The lasting fame of these works perfectly illustrates the ongoing human fascination with the natural world.

And yet, as much as we admire nature, we forget that we are part of it. In the modern world, we behave as though it is something removed from us, and our detachment has convinced us to view it as a separate entity. It is easy to forget the harm we do to nature is harm equally reflected upon ourselves. Tearing down rainforests for agriculture, building cities on stolen Indigenous lands, dumping sewage and industrial waste into the same water bodies we overfish for profit- all these travesties are performed in the name of our personal gain. Economic growth, GDP and profit margins have become more important to our society than the lives of all the other creatures on our planet, and by extension, our own.  

Mary Shelley, a second generation Romantic and the author of Frankenstein said, “Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth.” This is the immense power of the natural world, and what we must fight to save.

The disproportionate impact of climate change

Climate change is defined as “a change in global or regional climate patterns, apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels.” Since the 19th century, the planet’s average surface temperature has increased by 1.1°C. Although this number seems insignificant, NASA’s extensive efforts in paleoclimatology (the study of climatic conditions in the past using evidence found in glacial deposits fossils and sediments) has revealed that in the past, a 5°C change has taken up to 5000 years.

Following the Industrial Revolution, emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, have increased significantly. A study published by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change depicts this growth visually, via the graph below.

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Source: Figure 1, FAQ 2.1, IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007), Chapter 2

Climate change is a pressing global crisis which has been proven over and over again to be real, by decades of research, and countless peer reviewed reports by scientists across a variety of disciplines globally. While climate change is an issue which will affect every person on the planet, certain groups will feel its impact disproportionately.

According to studies by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the greatest impact will be felt by those groups which are more reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods, or those with the least capacity to respond to natural disasters. This means those who live in poverty, particularly those in the global south. Some studies assert that 70% of the 1.3 billion people in the developing world living below the threshold of poverty are women. Others state that women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during disasters. Not only are women over-represented in poverty studies, they are also unequal participants in decision making processes, thus their best interests are often overlooked. It is deeply saddening that there are groups of people in the world who will suffer the effects of climate change far more significantly than others, through no fault of their own, especially when such groups are often the lowest contributors of carbon emissions, the leading cause of climate change.  

Climate change denialists

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we find climate change denialists. They are far removed from the situation of the most vulnerable. Climate change denialists (unfortunately) exist, and to give them attention is to buy into their inane ruse. They seem to thrive by creating dissent, and instilling anger in those with enough common sense to listen to experts whose entire lives have been dedicated to the study of the world around us. They appear to be nothing more than common internet “trolls”, however studies have been conducted into the psychology of climate change denialists, to find out which groups are more likely to fall into the category, and to understand their reasoning (or lack thereof).  

It turns out that the group which typifies climate change denialism is the conservative, white males (CWMs). This is not to say that all climate change denialists fit into this group, there are a range of people of varying ethnicities and genders included in studies, who make up a portion of the group. It also does not mean that all conservative males, or white males fit into this category. However, CWMs become the focus of the conversation around denialism because they represent the majority of denialists. For example, more than twice as many CWMS (65.1%) than all other adults (29.9%) believe that the seriousness of global warming is greatly exaggerated in the media.

The reasoning behind their ideas is unsurprising. CWMs tend to have an affinity for hierarchy, greater trust in authority figures, and oppose the democratisation of risk management and decision making. It is likely that they see less risk in the world, and prefer to hold onto decision making power because it allows them to both control the world around them, and benefit from it. On the other hand, groups like women, non-binary people, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of colour see the world as more dangerous, because they are more vulnerable. They benefit less from institutions controlled largely by CWMs, as they have far less power and control.

Thanks to their stable, relatively safe place in the world, most climate change denialists are privileged enough to spout pseudoscience and opinion to convey their message; that climate change is not real, and does not warrant ameliorative action. It is likely that they do this to protect their cultural identity, and their system justifying attitudes allow them to excuse their lack of empathy for those with far less privilege than themselves.

Education

In order to increase the proportion of people in the world who are respectful of its scientists and choose the life and health of the planet over profit, education is key. However, that education should not have the opposite effect of elevating people to believe themselves better, or worth more than other life on the planet. This sentiment is aptly put by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and author of Unbowed, Wangari Maathai. “Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instil in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.” Schools around the world are incorporating climate science into curriculums, high profile celebrities are backing the environmental movement, children and university students are taking the lead in global marches, and sustainable goods and services are entering mainstream markets. We are doing virtually everything possible to educate people on the realities of climate change and the necessity for conservation. The only step left is real ameliorative action from governments and large global corporations with the power to create change. Slowly but surely, combined global efforts will result in the necessary action.

Scientific discovery and innovation

One thing that is undeniable about humans is our resourcefulness. Over time we have solved problem after problem to create the ideal environment around us for our survival. Now we face another problem, how to make this manufactured environment cohesive with other life on the planet. There are numerous innovative inventions and discoveries constantly in progress.

For example:

1. Carbon dioxide (CO2), while the most famous greenhouse gas, is not the most damaging. Methane has been estimated as approximately 30% more efficient at trapping heat within the earth’s atmosphere. Researchers from Aberystwyth, Louisiana State, and Montana State universities in 2017 discovered the presence of methanotrophic, “methane eating” bacteria under Antarctic ice shelves. A San Francisco Bay Area company, “Mango Materials” uses these bacteria to convert waste methane into a biopolymer. The polymers are then used in the manufacture of biodegradable products such as clothing and industrial materials such as caps and closures for bottles; to combat the issue of plastic caps being too small for recycling.

2. The switch to renewable energy is already in progress, with the Clean Energy Council’s most recent report stating that renewable energy was responsible for 24% of Australia’s total energy generation in 2019.  

3. Single use plastics are responsible for the deaths of at least 100 000 marine animals a year. In 2017, biologist Federica Bertocchini of the Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria in Spain, discovered that the larvae of the wax moth, which infest beehives and eat the wax are also able to eat polyethylene, the most common single use plastic. This species has the potential to end the global plastic pollution crisis.

These are only a small portion of discoveries and innovative ideas from around the world. Despite the fact that their application to create real life solutions for climate change takes time, they are a step in the right direction, and give us hope for the future.

Conclusion

We have a long way to go, but humans are capable of cooperating to solve this crisis, and learn to live in harmony with all other life on the planet. As primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall said, “One individual cannot possibly make a difference, alone. It is individual efforts, collectively, that make a noticeable difference—all the difference in the world!” Our dependence on nature is immense, and we so easily forget it. It is the height of hubris for us to entertain the idea that we are above all the other living organisms on the planet. We must remember that we are as much a part of nature as any other living creature, and so any harm we cause to it, is harm we cause to ourselves. If we continue to burn, pollute, destroy and exploit, we will not come out unscathed. So, for the sake of our planet, and for the survival of our species, we must alter the exploitative nature of our societies and institutions. As Terry Williams, naturalist and “citizen writer” says, “To be whole. To be complete. Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” We know what is at stake; now is the time for action. No one is coming to save us. It is time that we save our home, and ourselves.

~ Priyanka Sharma

image sources: @greenpeace

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