Is climate denial over? Not until behaviours change

Society may recognise that climate change exists, but we are still dishonest about solutions. An economic reckoning is due, says Tad DeLay.
'Future of Denial: The Ideologies of Climate Change' was published in April 2024 by Verso Press.
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  • Buy here from Verso (£16 hardback / £8 ebook)

The age of denial is over, or so we are regularly told. With each new climate report, protest, and catastrophe, we hear “the age of denial is over,” often with that precise phrasing.

More familiar words and phrases in climate journalism include: the Anthropocene; evidence is now unequivocal; made worse by climate change; the effects of which will fall disproportionately on younger generations; call for action at the next summit; net-zero emissions by 2050; 97% of scientists agree; window for action is closing. You could layer clichés and build a template for most of the next article. The age of denial is over, and yet!

Six years have now passed since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report showing emissions must plummet by half by 2030 and zero by 2050 to have a chance at limiting warming to 1.5°C. Three years have passed since the President of the International Energy Agency (IEA) called for a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure: “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.”

Merely two percent of pandemic recovery funds went to energy-related sustainability. IEA reports show emissions set new records in 2023, followed by “no clear peak in sight.”

"Currently extractable fossil fuel reserves could release 3,328 GtCO2, enough to raise temperatures to 2.8°C"

Annually, our mode of production pumps out approximately forty-one gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. About 37.5 GtCO2 come from fossil emissions (electricity, transport, industry, and buildings). The remaining 3.9 GtCO2 come from agriculture and land use.

Burning coal, oil, and natural gas account for over 80% of total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions (35.1 GtCO2). The other 2.4 GtCO2 of fossil emissions are landfills and industrial processes such as chemicals and cement, which could still cause emissions even if we decarbonised the energy sector.

Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions and gross domestic product (GPD) correlate tightly (0.93 correlation). Further close correlations include world GDP and primary energy (0.92), atmospheric carbon dioxide and world primary energy (0.98), atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and world GDP (0.96), atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and world GDP per capita (0.98), and world GDP growth and world primary energy growth (0.83).

Decoupling these relationships is not quite within our capabilities. At least not yet, not globally. Some misleadingly claim we have already decoupled, such as President Obama when he bragged of economic growth and shrinking emissions, a decline largely due to a transition from one fossil fuel (coal) to another fossil fuel (natural gas, or methane).

"Worldwide CO2 emissions and GDP correlate tightly. Decoupling these is not yet within our capabilities."

My new book, Future of Denial, examines similar myths in which decoupling is not only solvable but, miraculously, already solved! Unfortunately, the quants at the IEA are right. At the time of writing there is no fossil emissions peak in sight, even though, due to changes in land use, emissions have been nearly flat for a decade. Preliminary data for 2024 suggests the year will see a 0.5% rise in fossil CO₂ emissions.

The IPCC has found that current policy puts emissions on a path to continue rising past 2025 and lead to 3.2°C warming by end of the century. If the world were to meet Paris Agreement targets, emissions would have to peak before 2025 and then fall by almost half within a decade.

Such a drop is unthinkable, given the recent, painful example of what it would mean to wind down emissions. When the global economy halted to slow Covid-19, emissions declined by 5% (about 2.5 GtCO2). In the carbon budgets, the lockdowns postponed apocalypse by three weeks.

How bad could it get if, say, energy policies incentivised burning through a sizable chunk of fossil fuel reserves worth a couple hundred trillion dollars? The relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature is linear (with uncertainties). Again, according to the IPCC, “Each 1,000Gt of cumulative CO2 emissions is assessed to likely cause a 0.27°C to 0.63°C increase in global surface temperature with a best estimate of 0.45°C.”

"Expensive purchases or self-sabotage during a midlife crisis are denials of fading time."

The IPCC foresees an average temperature rise of 3.2°C this century based on what we’re doing already. But new technologies, price fluctuations, and government subsidies could each turn unrecoverable resources into lucrative reserves. Combusting all the fossil fuel reserves that are currently extractable with today’s technology and prices – a pool of resources that is ever growing – would release 3,328 GtCO2, enough to raise temperatures to 2.8°C. Firing all the fossil fuel resources we know exist would liberate more than thirteen times as much (45,740 GtCO2). You can do the math.

We must learn the vicissitudes of denial, for we are running out of time. Human experience is overdetermined or layered with too many desires, incentives, confusions, and goals, and we need methods for defamiliarising problems too casually ascribed to legible logics, sciences, or market incentives.

My thesis is not complex: climate denial should be a flexible term designating a broad range of activity. I am not cleverly twisting a new definition. Troubling symptoms are ignored or explained away by a patient in denial about what a physician might diagnose. Expensive purchases or self-sabotage during a midlife crisis are denials of fading time or unsatisfied desire.

We commonly speak of denial as behavioural, but for climate change we reflexively confine ourselves to a narrow meaning of denial focused on conscious belief. Denial is not an incorrect thought to be transcended or an age to be passed. Dependence on hydrocarbons generates reactions or symptoms like an atavistic return of the repressed. More belief in correct ideas wont fix this. Denial is far more ramified.

This article is an edited extract from Future of Denial: The Ideologies of Climate Change, published in April 2024 by Verso Books. Buy a copy here.

Tad DeLay, PhD is a philosopher, religion scholar, and interdisciplinary critical theorist. His books include Against: What Does the White Evangelical Want?The Cynic & the Fool, and God Is Unconscious

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