Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change

Global warming science has become a battleground in a wider cultural war, particularly in the United States where rejecting climate science has been seamlessly adopted by right-wing populism—notably by the Tea Party, the movement of those who demand their fair share of injustice. In these circumstances scientific facts are trumped by beliefs, so that climate denial is due more to a surplus of culture than a deficit of information. History can illuminate the present in a way no contemporary analysis can, and this paper draws on three historical episodes to provide a more nuanced understanding of the nature of climate denial. First, the campaign in the 1920s against Einstein’s general theory of relativity provides an uncannily complete template for the conservative attack on climate science eight decades later. Secondly, in many speeches throughout the 1930s Winston Churchill aimed “to prick the bloated bladder of soggy hopes” for enduring peace. But his “alarmist” warnings of Nazi aggression were met with derision. The public was deaf to any messages but reassuring ones. The third episode is less history than historical allegory, that of how the French responded to German occupation. Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague describes the strategies deployed by those trapped in a plague-ridden town to avoid facing up to the truth, and the courage of the few who do.The phenomenon of climate denial suggests that three centuries ago the forces of Enlightenment science had entered into a contingent alliance only with the commitment to a rational social order, and that the “subjectivity” that allowed us to extract Nature’s secrets also gave us the self-certainty to ignore the knowledge if it proved too discomforting.


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