Thursday, March 24, 2016

Trench warfare in the climate wars: no victory in sight

Image from "ThinkProgress"

The latest data from Gallup about how much Americans worry about global warming are nothing less than amazing. Today, we are exactly where we were more than one-quarter of a century ago. And yet, climate science has progressed, temperatures have been rising, the ice has been melting, the sea level has been rising, and plenty more evidence of dangerous global warming has accumulated. But the curves go up and down while the average remains constant; no long-term trend is apparent. It looks like trench warfare during the first world war. Mighty battles, lots of casualties, but neither side is winning.

In a sense, it is not surprising. I have been following the climate debate for several years and I can say that it is not a debate - it is a war. And in a war, you don't debate using rational arguments, you take sides. It has to do with the extreme polarization that is taking hold in most Western societies (and it is increasing!). When it comes to discussing major issues, such as global warming, people are not debating; they are only making statements of identity. And it is normal that we are not going anywhere: neither scientific data nor anti-science spin campaigns (*) can move people who have chosen the side they belong to.

However, it is also true that trench warfare in the first world war didn't last forever. At some point, one of the two sides couldn't take it anymore and had to concede. Could something like that occur for the climate war? Possibly, yes. Indeed, many of us have been hoping for an event so major and so evident that the danger of global warming could not be denied anymore; the equivalent of a "decisive battle" in war. But even facing extreme events, reality can always be denied when ideological polarization takes hold. For the time being, we remain locked in trench warfare.

(*) At least, it is a consolation to note that all the money that was spent by the fossil fuel lobby for those spin campaigns was wasted.


  1. Denial is the opium of the people. Expecting humans to base their belief systems upon rational assessment of evidence, or heaven forbid -- the process of science---- flies against all history of human social systems.

    How else is it possible for billions of people to believe that there is an old man or vengeful prophet up in the sky that watches their every move and judges whether they are worthy to join him up on a cloud or earn the reward of 17 virgins after they die?

    Humans will continue to foul their nest until the seas become too acidic to support any life other than specialized algae. That algae will die and sink to the bottom of dead seas, where millions of years later it will become coal and oil. But humans won't be around to burn it.

    1. In its ‘Scientific Autobiography’, the famous physicist Max Planck wrote (speaking about the atomic theory and how some brilliant scientists have fought it): “In addition, this experience gave me the opportunity to learn a fact that I consider quite outstanding: A new truth in science never ends up prevailing by convincing opponents and getting them to see the light, but rather because these opponents eventually die and a new generation grows to whom this truth is familiar.”

      If Max Planck could realize this at the end of his life while considering the best scientists in the world discussing purely scientific points, it can be no surprise this statement of his may also be valid for common people discussing any major societal issue. No matter how much scientific the issues are, no matter how educated in science, humans are much more believing beings than thinking beings.

      After Max Planck's deep thought, I'm afraid this trench warfare will only come to an end once the current generation (our generation!) has died and a new generation grows to whom climate change is just a commonplace.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)