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The Good Life –
Hugh McKay
The Brain That
Changes Itself –
Norman Doidge
Requiem for a
Species –
Clive Hamilton
Reasons to
Stay Alive –
Matt Haige
A short History
of Progress –
Ronald Wright
Emotional Intelligence:
why it can matter

more than IQ -
Daniel Goleman
The Idiot Brain -
Dean Burnett

Requiem for a species: why we resist the truth about climate change”

by Clive Hamilton  - Allen & Unwin 2010

 In the first paragraph of the preface Clive Hamilton indicates the primary message of this book:

 “Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the world only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global warming. Apart from the climate ‘sceptics’, most people do not disbelieve what the climate scientists have been saying about the calamities expected to befall us. But accepting intellectually is not the same as accepting emotionally the possibility that the world as we know it is heading for a horrible end. It’s the same with our own deaths: we all ‘accept’ that we will die, but it is only when death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of our mortality.”

 In summary, this book presents the evidence showing how the human species now has the capacity to fundamentally alter the biosphere of the earth. Having presented and examined that evidence, Hamilton goes on to consider the economic, social and political attitudes in human recognition or denial of human impact on the biosphere. 

 In the first chapter he outlines basic climate science and says that we cannot escape the evidence before us. He points out that many humans have not accepted the threats posed by global warming, but in many cases have tried to attack the scientists who have given the message. For at least 3 million years the earth’s atmosphere has been beautifully balanced at around 300 parts per million (ppm) of CO­­2. However, since the start of the industrial age the level has reached approximately 400 ppm and it is still rising. Already global temperatures are rising and many effects have been experienced.  Most climate scientists have shown the considerable disruption in the Earth’s environment to be expected if CO­2 rises above 450 ppm.  Because of the long duration of CO­­2 concentration in the upper atmosphere, it appears highly likely that this level will be approached, no matter what remedial action is now taken. So climate changes, already experienced are set to continue.

 A large part of the book is concerned with the way in which many people have challenged the idea of any limits to economic growth. With several countries announcing that they will not introduce any measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if these adversely affect the economy of their particular country. Hamilton considers two major reports by well-known economists who reviewed an economic/political approach to CO­­2 control, the report by Nicholas Stern in UK and that by Ross Garner in Australia. He points out that both of these reports did not seem to fully appreciate the nature of global warming - that it does not respond in a linear fashion to CO­­2 growth, nor that growth at a particular time can be reversed later, with little adverse effect. Both the reports suggest that it would be possible to allow CO­­2 concentration to rise to 550 ppm and then be lowered. A US economist, William Naudhaus, goes further in denouncing those two reports and, with a very clinical economic analysis, suggests that we should do nothing, but simply allow CO­­2 emissions to grow and accept disasters, storms and diseases as the world temperature rises. His analysis shows this would have the least damage on GDP. A chilling approach.  As Hamilton points out, environmental changes, with loss of crops, storms and disease will create jobs, such as: disaster recovery, rebuilding, treatment of ill and injured people; activities which increase GDP and thus grow the economy.  Is this what we want?

Hamilton considers the many forms of denial that humans invoke when they are faced with evidence or values that they do not want to accept. He quotes the situation that Leo Festinger experienced and wrote about in his 1956 book “When Prophecy Fails”. In the early 1950s, a woman known as Marianne Keech (whose real name was Dorothy Martin) claimed an extraterritorial communication had told her that a global flood would happen at midnight on 21st of December 1954. To survive, people should sell up their possessions and gather at her house on that day to be rescued by a spaceship from another planet. Many people did just that and of course there was much distress when nothing happened at the appointed time. However the group was saved from deep despondency when they were told, around 4 AM that morning, of a new message saying that God had stopped the flood, because the group had spread so much light. Believing that their devotion had not been in vain, the group continued for some years to spread their message throughout the world.

 Festinger, then a young psychologist, had joined the group and studied it before and after the predicted doomsday. It was the response of the group, to continue their belief in spite of contrary evidence, that stimulated him to develop the theory of cognitive dissonance; now well accepted and studied by many psychologists. Cognitive dissonance has been characterised as the art of lying to yourself.  Mental stress or discomfort arises when holding two contradictory beliefs or values at the same time. Humans always strive for internal consistency, but there are many situations leading to cognitive dissonance.

 In the book Hamilton says:

“Festinger’s analysis helps us understand the phenomenon of climate change ‘scepticism’ or, more accurately, denial. If humans are rational creatures, we would expect that as the scientific evidence confirming human-induced global warming has become overwhelming, the deniers would adjust their beliefs to accommodate the facts. Yet they have become more vehement in their attacks on climate scientists, environmentalists and anyone who accepts the evidence for global warming. They have ways of explaining away the facts: scientists have distorted their results to obtain more research funding; other scientists in possession of the truth have been silenced; governments have caved in to pressure from environmentalists who are hell-bent on destroying the free market system.”

 Hamilton suggests that the neo-conservatives were in a quandary when the science they had embraced as a major driver to economic growth, also showed that there is a scientific constraint to that growth. The matter came to a head in 1992 with the Rio Earth Summit considering global warming.  President George Bush Snr. saw the political dangers and instructed the US delegation to water down, or block, most diplomatic initiatives.

 Many large organisations, including of course those depending on fossil fuels, decided that the best way to counter any attempts at reducing CO­­2 emissions was to spread doubt about the science. To a large extent this approach has worked very effectively so that the general public in many parts of the world is now very confused and uncertain about climate science, in spite of increasing evidence. In this situation, as Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna identified many years ago, we use defence mechanisms to shield ourselves from distressing features of the world. Thus we distract ourselves whenever the topic of global warming comes up – an everyday form of denial. It is similar to the approach that most people take when the question of their own death is considered.

 The book has a long chapter on how humans have, by-and-large, attempted to disconnect themselves and their cities from nature, even though nature periodically demonstrates its massive power with earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and cyclonic storms.

 Hamilton considers some of the technological systems that can be adopted to reduce CO­­2 emission and to mitigate the effects of climate change. He goes through the technology and benefits of alternative energy sources, including: hydroelectric, solar, wind, tidal, wave and geothermal. He discusses nuclear energy sources and outlines some of the remaining risks. Large scale geoengineering solutions are considered, but he points out that most of these are still at the embryonic stage and have some major improperly understood risks. He mentions schemes such as seeding the ocean with iron filings to encourage tiny marine plants – phytoplankton – to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, even though there is very little understanding of what this will do to the oceans. Another scheme that has been suggested is to shade the whole globe by injecting materials such as sulphate aerosols into the upper atmosphere. As well as possibly reducing the temperature of the earth, this will certainly have side-effects such as the change in the colour of the sky to a grey or very pale blue and possibly influence the growth of crops. One scary aspect of injecting an aerosol is that it could be performed by any country and it would then influence everybody on earth for years to come.

 There is a chapter outlining some of the conclusions reached by an eminent group of climate scientists who met for a conference in 2009, specifically considering the situation if the world temperature rose by 4°. The conclusions found at the conference are certainly not encouraging.

 The final chapter “Reconstructing a future”, is Hamilton’s concept of how to live when one firmly believes in the science of anthropomorphic (human induced) climate change and its adverse effects on life in the future. In the preface he says this was the most difficult chapter to write because it is the situation that he personally believes he must live with. Indeed anybody who accepts the science finds it ‘an unpleasant truth’, as Al Gore pointed out. In Hamilton’s view we have reached this unpleasant situation because of a failure in national and international governance. Reporting by spin doctors has replaced honest communication. As the years go by and the situation becomes more critical, people will have to accept the fact that the future will be vastly different to the past. It had been largely accepted in almost all nations that there would be endless progress and a stable future with our capacity to control the natural world. Now we must accept that this is not the case and we will have to plan for a different world with increasing problems and the need for constant adaption to situations that humans have never previously known. Psychologists and psychiatrists are already treating people facing depression from the realisation of climate change and its implications. In many cases they are suggesting that their clients should ‘be optimistic about the future’. Hamilton suggests this indicates a failure by the psychologists and psychiatrists to fully grasp the significance of the situation.

 His final message is that while we may despair of the situation, we need to move forward and accept reality. Then we must move into the phase of action to live in the future as it is likely to be. He suggests these stages (despair, acceptance, action) are the essential human approaches to any major loss, such as a financial crash, a divorce or the death of the partner.

 While this might be considered a rather depressing book, it offers a realistic picture of global science and the nature of society, economics and politics driven by the psychology of human beings. We face a challenging future and, although our species is one of the ‘newest kids on the block’ in relation to the life of this planet, we have developed rapidly and have faced many challenges. If we can overcome our selfish and short-term emotions, we should be able to develop a satisfactory long-lasting lifestyle for all peoples on this fragile spaceship. The book certainly triggers some deep thought about why people do what they do.

 It is appropriate to note that in the four years since the book was published several reports have shown significant increases in global temperature and upper atmosphere CO­­2. It is pleasing to note that several of the large-population countries and regions, such as China, Europe and USA, are starting to recognise the dangers facing the world and steps, albeit slowly, are being taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Some smaller nations, such as Australia and Canada, still follow policies for immediate political and economic gain whilst ignoring long-term influences on the environment and indeed on the economy.

 RH Brown
11 September 2014
(13th anniversary of anniversary of that significant US catastrophe that changed the world)

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