Published September 24th, 2012
The relevance of Twitter and Tweets to my life and society at large continues to elude me, even though we have had an IRIS twitter account for several years. Mostly, Twitter reminds me of the Roald Dahl book, The Twits! (By the way, the Roald Dahl museum in Great Missenden, UK has a Sustainability programme)
Nevertheless, I felt compelled to Tweet what President Obama said about "climate change not being a hoax", during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. A ton of other people also tweeted this! Obama's comment has inspired me to write a series of 10 blogs exploring why the president of the USA actually had to make this statement. He might equally have said "there is no evidence that mermaids are real."
I spent a good part of the last year, while living in the USA, trying to wrap my head around why so many of its citizens are able to dismiss the evidence of human-induced climate change. I have given a lot of thought to the link between science, policy and politics. As well, I have been reading about personality types, learning styles, economics, etc. etc.
Which brings me to Cognitive Dissonance. This is the state of holding conflicting cognitions. As in, for example, refusing to believe that IPCC scientist reports that carbon emissions from human sources are causing climate change, while at the same time, happily living in a country where most of the infrastructure is directly based on technology that comes from the very same scientific method. To a rationale thinker, who respects the power of peer-reviewed research and logical thought, this particular example of cognitive dissonance is puzzling and unfathomable. But it's so widespread that I have been compelled to ask - what's the science behind this?
Two excellent CBC radio programmes about Risk in the IDEAS series currently being (re)broadcast in the afternoons, directly address my question. Additionally, in a study published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change, Yale University researchers found that climate change denial was associated more with cognitive dissonance than scientific illiteracy.
Here's a summary: "On the simplest level, we take risks to derive benefits. If the benefit outweighs the risk, we've made a good decision. But decisions are subject to bias, even those of experts. How do we live with uncertainty and make good decisions? Vancouver broadcaster Kathleen Flaherty talks with risk takers, risk managers and risk assessors to find out." (from the Ideas with Paul Kennedy website)
Clearly, if human-induced climate change is real, then NOT taking serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions constitutes extremely risky behaviour. Why aren't people in the countries with the highest carbon footprints, such as Canada and the USA NOT acting more decisively? Obviously, they must be thinking that the experts are biased. Even though we are talking about widespread scientific consensus!
The interviews and conversations with researchers and authors in the programmes explain how and why people react to uncertainty and risk with inaction. Basically, people avoid thinking uncomfortable thoughts by convincing themselves that everything is ok. How so? Well, for a start, they tend to hang out with others who have similar outlooks and beliefs, which leads to all kinds of fundamentalist and dogmatic denialist thinking, because there is no one there to challenge them.
The example of the consequences that can come from surrounding oneself with "yes men", that is given in the programme, is that of Lord John Browne, former CEO of BP. BP had failed to address poor safety practices at the Texas City oil refinery where there was an explosion in 2005. Apparently, Lord Browne has said in subsequent interviews that he was not questioned and challenged enough by those in his immediate circle, or something to that effect. But, of course, as Kathleen Flaherty pointed out, the membership of his top management team was his choice.
I strongly recommend this programme to everyone wanting to understand how denial arises in the face of bad news and uncertainty - and climate change. This is the process of self-delusion. Of course, the extreme irony about using Lord John Browne as an example of the tendency to avoid those speaking inconvenient truths to power, is that in 1997 he was one of the only Big Oil executives to publicly endorse the IPCC consensus on climate change being related to human activities, and to refer to its second assessment. Browne also rebranded British Petroleum as BP, and "Beyond Petroleum", and is considered a visionary.
And, one last thing: the programme gave an alarming statistic that 30% of US white males interviewed believed that all activities are risk-free. This contrasted with women, and African American men and women amongst whom there was hardly anyone holding this view. This lack of ability to detect and acknowledge risk would, logically, be occurring amongst white male bankers. And, we all know what happened on Wall Street a few years ago! You can download the podcasts here