‘We are all climate skeptics’: how to cope with global warming – Q&A

Katowice, Poland - Australian philosopher and author Clive Hamilton has written several books on climate change, including best-seller "Requiem for a Species".

As the world's nations met in Katowice, Poland to hammer out a climate rescue plan, Hamilton talked to AFP about how hard it is to wrap one's mind around the threat of global warming.

Q. Has the threat of climate change been downplayed?

A. The accusation of "climate alarmism" is a clever invention by a PR firm for fossil interests. In fact, scientists and environmentalists have been reluctant to tell the public the full truth about the extent and irreversibility of global warming.

There are a couple of reasons for downplaying the dangers.

Some scientists have been bullied out of telling the full truth by constant attacks from climate science deniers and conservative politicians. They are only human, I suppose, but as experts they have a responsibility to inform the public about the science -- especially when worst-case scenarios are coming true.

Environmentalists have different reasons. They are convinced that telling doom-laden stories is counter-productive, that they must "give people hope" because doom-and-gloom immobilises people or makes them want to live it up because we are all going to die.

Where is the evidence that people switch off and give up when the news is too grim? In fact, history shows that once humans face up to the full truth, however horrible, they respond in the best way they can.

When someone tells me we must "give people hope", I ask them: "Hope for what, exactly?" We have passed the point where a warming world can be avoided. The question now is: What must we do to try to keep it to two degrees Celsius instead of four.

Q. You once said "we are all climate sceptics". What did you mean?

A. The number of people who have faced up to the full truth of the climate science has been very small. But recently it has been growing. We see more and more young people who have learned climate science at school and are now angry and demanding action.

But even those of us who know the full truth find it hard to live with on a daily basis.

There are those who deny the truth, those who tell themselves it can’t be that bad, those who believe a solution will be found to make it go away, and those who know the truth but only allow it out at certain times.

A few with strong psychological resources are able to live with it all of the time. Some activists are like that.

Q. How, then, does one cope with the knowledge that climate impacts will likely wreak havoc and misery on a global scale?

A. It’s frightening to think about a future at four degrees -- the extinctions, the crop failures, the mass migrations, the storms and fires. So we protect ourselves using various psychological coping strategies.

We put it out of our minds, skip over the news stories, tell ourselves that humans have solved hard problems before, or hope that God will save us.

Q. At COP21 in Paris, in 2015, you were optimistic that humanity might rise to the task at hand. How did that moment of hope feel? Did it last?

A. The Paris COP was a unique event, when world leaders came together for the first time in a spirit of cooperation. Finally, it seemed, the turning point had arrived.

The atmosphere was intoxicating, and I was caught up in it. A few hard-heads, like [scientist] Kevin Anderson, were saying "it’s too late, it won’t work," but I chose to listen to the broad range of sensible, committed people who were convinced that this was, or could be, the turning point.

To have a glimmer of hope after being oppressed for so long by the warming projections for years felt liberating. I should have known better.

Explaining global warming

What happened? In a word, Trump. But don’t forget, he was elected as a climate science denier. Trump’s victory only underlined how badly Obama handled climate change.

Q. If it is too late to restore Nature, should we try to re-engineer the planet to create a stable future?

The most deluded form of wishful thinking is propagated by believers in "the good Anthropocene." They are convinced that -- despite the massive consensus of world experts that climate change will bring a world of woes -- humans will create a wonderful world of prosperity for everyone in a green garden of delights.

This vision is surprisingly influential, especially in the United States where being optimistic is rooted in the culture. With their long and bloody history of human depredation, Europeans are better prepared psychologically for what is to come.

By Marlowe Hood