18th July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Shetland Life: Editorial

Misplaced optimism

Late last month, the Scottish government’s chief scientist, Professor Anne Glover, was in Shetland to discuss the threat of global warming and the efforts to reduce carbon emissions. According to Professor Glover, Shetlanders have the ideas and, hopefully, the enthusiasm to be pioneers in the fight against climate change.

I am not entirely sure on what grounds this optimism is based, however, since, to me, it seems the islands are suffering as badly as anywhere else from environmental tokenism, apathy and inaction. Still, it’s nice to be praised, even when it’s undeserved.

It now looks clear that the challenge of tackling global warming has grown considerably more difficult. Where once it was obvious that a steep, hard climb lay before us, now what we are facing is a solid brick wall, apparently insurmountable.

The reason for this change is not technical; it is not even financial. The reason is that public opinion is not on the scientists’ side, and is even turning increasingly against them. Without public support, no meaningful measures can or will be taken.

The term “climate change denial” has been criticised by those at whom it is aimed because of its not-so-subtle connection to “holocaust denial”. The link is not entirely unjustified I would argue, as both involve a rejection of nearly all available evidence, but nevertheless the term is rather ambiguous since there are several different types of “denial”.
There are those, first of all, who accept that the earth is warming and that the change is man-made, but who do not believe it is worth doing anything about it because they, personally, will not be affected. This is a denial of individual responsibility. Then there are those who believe that the earth is warming but that it is an entirely natural change, and that nothing can be done to stop it, which is a denial of collective responsibility. Then, finally, there are those who believe that the entire climate change phenomenon is some kind of hoax or conspiracy, cleverly cooked up by scientists and politicians as a way of justifying increased taxes, which will in turn be spent on cleaning moats and buying duck houses. Or something like that. This argument is not so much a denial of anything; it is better described as a catastrophic breakdown of common sense.

And yet it is a view that is surprisingly widely held. According to recent polls, there seems to be an increasing belief that climate scientists are either lying to the public or are simply mistaken. This, when you think about it, is quite extraordinary. I can think of no other subject on which people have been led to doubt so completely the intelligence or integrity of professional scientists.

A recent newspaper column made an interesting and amusing comparison with another specialised profession: engineers. If 99 out of 100 engineers announced that a bridge was totally unsafe, only the foolish or suicidal would proceed to drive their truck across it. But, while a similar proportion of climate scientists are agreed on the cause and potential effects of global warming, around half of the population are now choosing to side with the one per cent who claim that everything is okay. Why might this be?

The reason, I think, is human nature. People are much better at reacting to immediate threats than they are at avoiding potential future threats, which requires foresight and imagination. The threat of global warming seems fairly distant to most people (though in fact it is not). On the other hand, the threat of increased taxation, fuel rationing or any other attack on our “way of life” seems immediate and terrifying. Most people, therefore, fear the immediate rather than the more serious, long-term threat. It is illogical, but our instincts are not governed by logic.

Climate change deniers / sceptics have been accused of being detached from nature; but in fact that is not the case. As a response to this situation, “denial” or “scepticism” among the public has absolutely nothing to do with the available evidence, since the vast majority of us do not fully understand it (not being scientists). But it is an entirely natural response – far more natural, indeed, than planning ahead for an uncertain future.

It is for this reason that I believe Professor Glover’s optimism to be, unfortunately, misplaced.

Malachy Tallack