Climate Change Denial - Haydn Washington & John Cook

BOOK: Climate Change Denial, Earthscan, London & Washington, 2011


Dr Haydn Washington – Is an Environment scientist whose PhD was in social ecology. He has been researching climate change since his 1991 book, Ecosolutions.

John Cook – Has a background in physics. He created the web site that examines arguments about global warming scepticism. His focus is on making climate science accessible to the general public.

REVIEWER: Brian Harrisson.


DATE: 1st August, 2011


Chapter 1 talks about denial and the nature of science. It distinguishes “denial” from “scepticism” and concludes that scepticism seeks to ascertain the truth whereas the denial seeks to hide it. Although the climate debate has provided an obvious recent example of denial it is a common human behavioural characteristic that seems to be part of the human psyche. Denial behaviour can sometimes be innocuously delusional while at other times it can be pathologically destructive. Some writers argue that denial arises from an information deficit others suggest that it is driven by fear, insecurity or other psychological drivers while other drivers are base and include self interest and ideology.

It is clear that denial is directly at odds with science. Science is sceptical and therefore seeks the truth but truth is an elusive concept. Absolute truth can only be demonstrated by absolute proof but in science there is no such thing. Scientific conclusions are therefore expressed in terms of probabilities arrived at by the scientific method which considers all evidence within an adversarial system where work is reviewed by peers. As scientific outcomes are never unconditional this makes communicating ideas in the public domain fraught. As the public usually want black and or white answers this is problematical as even a trivial degree of uncertainty can be blown out of proportion by vested interests and wrongly cause people to doubt the science.

Chapter 2 gives an outline of climate science. The aim is to give the reader the necessary tools to understand the arguments in the rest of the book. The book distinguished between climate and weather and further examines the “probability” based nature of scientific findings. It examines the question of whether climate change is really happening and explains key climate drivers. These include the role of forcings in climate. Forcings include volcanic eruptions, solar variations, variations in the earths orbit and changes to atmospheric greenhouse gas levels resulting from human activity. Climate science has shown that there has been an increase in temperatures since 1950 and as this has generally coincided with increasing human emissions there is likely to be a causal relationship between the two. The authors explain this in terms of the carbon cycle through the biosphere which is made up of air, water, vegetation and ground, and show the role CO2 plays in this process. There is not total scientific agreement on a safe level in atmospheric CO2 although many scientists consider this to be 350ppm, a level which current levels exceed. Current levels are already higher.

Although anthropogenic CO2 emissions are small relative to total atmospheric CO2 it cannot be concluded that its effect on climate will be small. Positive feedbacks may amplify the effects of human CO2 induced warming and this may ultimately result in runaway climate change. Areas where feedback is of concern include increased atmospheric water vapour, reduced ice cover, reduction in the oceans ability to absorb CO2, release of methane currently stored in areas of the earth by low temperatures, a reversal of the role of biomass as a store of carbon and changes in the current circulation processes in the atmosphere and oceans all of which have the potential to cause runaway climate. As the anthropogenic influences are unprecedented there is no historical guidance that helps scientists make judgements on its likely effects of feedbabks. The combination of a lack of history, uncertainty about a safe level of atmospheric CO2, and the potential destructive capabilities of runaway climate change suggest that a cautionary approach to managing climate risks is wise. The potential risks of not doing so include loss of species and ecosystems, rising sea levels, threats to human health and safety, increasing intensity of droughts, spread of disease in addition to whatever economic damage is wrought. Government policies seem to be disconnected from the risks. The authors explain the important role that computer modelling plays in analysing data and establishing the probable future climate reality under various scenarios.

Chapter 3 explains how the conditional nature of scientific findings, have been exploited by deniers. It outlines five types of denial strategies all of which have the ultimate objective of discrediting the case that supports anthropogenic warming. The strategies include: the use of conspiracy theories, fake experts, impossible expectations, misrepresentation & logical fallacies and cherry picking of data. The nine most common denial arguments were then considered.

Chapter 4 outlines the long history of climate change denial and gives examples of the many attempts to deliberately muddy the waters. These activities are funded by vested interests. In the USA there are 135 special interest and lobby groups which accept funding from Exxon. The Institute of Public affairs, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and others play a denial role in Australia. Ideological opposition to climate action can be driven by an implacable opposition to regulation and bizarre support for freedoms such as the right to pollute. The different vested interests often rope in so called experts to support their claims. The authors used the book entitled “Heaven and Earth” by Ian Plimer who is a professor of Earth Sciences at Adelaide university to illustrate how high profile academics can be attracted to the denial cause. Their analysis highlighted some of the many flaws in the work.

Chapters 5 to 7 outline, the reasons why denial has prospered, proposes ideas on how it can be rolled back, and explains the technologies that can be used in the roll back. Fear of change, failure in values, fixation on economics and society, ignorance of ecology, lack of understanding of probability, poor media communication of the issues, despair and Governments inaction can all facilitate denial. Denial is therefore a beast with psychological, political, social and economic dimensions. At its core is a failure to accept reality. This failure becomes a dangerous pathology that has to be remedied when it prevents decisive action to minimize potential climate damage. The remedy is to face reality. We need to replace our consumer based world view with a new more ethical world view that shuns growth and promotes sustainable living within the resources of the planet including the use of renewable energy. The technology alternatives to carbon based energy are discussed.

The final chapter includes a summary of the book and draws conclusions. In summary they call for us all to make the world a better place.


I came across the book on John Cook’s website when I sought to check a claim that was put to me that a large volcano emits more CO2 in two or three days, than humanity emits in a year. The site provided an answer which proved to be correct when compared with other sources. This confirmation encouraged me to buy the book that seemed to fill a gap in my knowledge of my newly acquired interest, climate change. I was not disappointed with its purchase.

A lot is packed into its 174 pages. The book is carefully structured and referenced which suggests that its target audience is academically inclined readers. Its structure and narrative however make it accessible to any reader who is prepared to take time to read and think about the many important points of detail it contains. Unlike some of the books about climate change its references are meaningful so that anyone with the will to do so can check the veracity of the statements, claims, information or data contained in the book.

Its outline of climate science is solid without being overwhelming. Most of us often see things in black and white terms because decisions are easier when you know that something is either correct or not correct. Life is of course not that simple and usually involves infinite shades of grey. Scientists recognize that there is no such thing as an absolute truth, and hence express their findings in terms of probabilities. This is precisely the way climate scientists have explained their findings about the dangers of climate change and the potentially large problem this may represent for humanity. While this approach is good science it is problematic in the public domain as it gives denialists the opportunity to obfuscate as demonstrated in the current debate. Public confusion caused by obfuscation is a major reason why the views of scientists are not receiving the public acceptance that they deserve. This is an extremely important point and will have to be addressed and resolved by the supporters of climate action if their case is to move forward.

The coverage of the concept of denial is excellent. I have long been fascinated with the remarkable ability of intelligent and normally rational human beings to deny the truth of a situation or event in the face of overwhelming evidence. The authors explain that denial is part of the human psyche which emerges when there is conflict between fact and belief or desire. Its manifestation doesn’t matter much when the impact on others is mild or when the issue is not important. It is a different matter when it is used in the public domain to hide damaging truths. Then it becomes a maliciously destructive act against the community and its best interests. There is a history of denial. Examples include the debates on DDT, the acid rain problem, CFC’s, the effects of cigarette consumption on life and health, and currently global warming. The drivers of denial are said to include resistance to change, ideology, fear, and lack of information. This is no doubt true but I think that these are simply subsets of or indeed smokescreens for, the main game which is about money, power and self interest. The geographical dimension of denial gives credence to this view. The denial templates used by the carbon lobby in the Australian climate debate mimic those used by the similar powerful and indeed dominant carbon lobby in the USA.

The information about denial will be a valuable resource, for those people who want to actively participate in and understand the debate in greater depth or indeed for those who want to help find solutions to the wrongs wrought by denial. The solutions proposed by the authors involve the use of clean technologies within a more progressive and ethical social and economic framework. The strategies are spot on but will not be easy to achieve. They are aimed to achieve nothing less than a total change to our economic and social behaviour and the values on which they are based. As wars have been fought internally and externally over values this may explain why governments are treading so carefully on taking action on climate change.

The fact that carbon is likely to be priced in Australia shows that, after a long time in the wilderness, climate scientists are at last being listened to by Governments, if not yet by all of the public. Having watched the developing debate in Australia there is still a long way to go to achieve public acceptance of the science. Books like this will certainly help. Greater public political activism by informed scientists is needed.

CONCLUSION: On balance the book is well written and presented and makes an important contribution to the climate debate in Australia. The authors are to be congratulated on a fine piece of work. The book is highly recommended for those who want to learn more about climate change and the politics thereof.

POINTS FOR NOTE: (For reviewer only)

There are none.