Spring flowers are blooming as the mercury rises into the high teens: midwinter in the era of global warming. Meanwhile, the delegates to last week’s climate change conference in Paris shuffle off home, congratulating themselves on a job well done.

It’s curious, this air of satisfaction with the conference outcomes.  After the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 failed to agree a legally-binding treaty to slow global warming, it was generally agreed that that is what it was: a dismal failure. This time, however, politicians and the mainstream media have been pushing the narrative of a job well done: an agreement hailed as ‘historic, durable and ambitious’.

Parisians couldn't hold their climate change march, so they left a powerful symbol instead
Parisians couldn’t hold their climate change march, so they left a powerful symbol instead

But, although the targets set at Paris are ambitious, they are voluntary and are unlikely to be met. Though the objective is an ambitious limit to global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees centigrade, countries are free to promise whatever they want, and there’s no penalty if they break these promises. And no new money is promised to help developing countries address climate change, or to compensate them for the damage caused by rich countries’ emissions.

As if to make this abundantly clear, hours after returning from signing the Paris agreement, David Cameron has authorised savage cuts in subsidies to home-owners installing solar panels, and forced through the Commons measures to allow fracking for shale oil beneath national parks such as the Lake District. So much for progress towards a low-carbon, fossil-free future.

There could be no better example of the cognitive dissonance that characterises the attitude of big business and governments to the issue of climate change. You can see it in the fact that we will continue extracting oil, shale gas, coal and fracked oil from the ground when the science tells us that to avoid runaway climate change we should leave most of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

But it’s not only the political and business elites that suffer from cognitive dissonance: all of us, every day, are able to do one thing while believing we really ought not. We drive our cars, and we take flights.

But: carbon emissions from international shipping and flights don’t figure as greenhouse gas emissions according to the Paris Agreement – despite the fact that carbon emissions from international transportation already have as much climate impact as those from a major industrial state like Germany. Yet we keep on flying: emissions from international flights are on course to triple by 2050.

This Changes Everything

We are all in climate change denial, as Naomi Klein remarks in her latest book, This Changes Everything, which I’ve just started to read. She writes:

Living with this kind of cognitive dissonance is simply part of being alive at this jarring moment in history, when a crisis we have been studiously ignoring is hitting us in the face – and yet we are doubling down on the stuff that is causing the crisis in the first place.

I mentioned her book in a post last March when extracts from it were published by the Guardian at the launch of the newspaper’s commitment to expand coverage of the climate change crisis, campaign to keep remaining carbon reserves in the ground, and make the case for full divestment from polluting fossil fuel extraction companies.

This Changes Everything couldn’t be a more urgent read than now, as the UK Met Office reports that 2016 is set to be the warmest year ever recorded. I’ll keep you posted as I make progress with Klein’s book. Meanwhile, the book has spawned a website and inspired a film which, like the book, poses the question:

What if global warming isn’t only a crisis? What if it’s the best chance we’re ever going to get to build a better world?

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9 thoughts on “Climate change: living with cognitive dissonance

  1. there’s a pessimism on your entry here whi h, forgive me, is feeble. i also don’t like this collective “we” that is so often imposed on everyone, isee it as a form of passive bullying. i was at COP21 and applaud it as a valiant effort at a coordinated international response, which also put a stress on adapting to Climate Change as a priority over the profit motive. what did you expect of the agreement? that it should rely on enforcement and threat rather than a public declaration of trust and honour? 195 countries have signed up for it: i call that an extraordinary achievement, not a mere attempt.

  2. I do feel pessimistic (but, of course, I hope I’m wrong). It was the noted climatologist James Hansen, no less, who said of the Paris agreement: ‘It’s just bullshit for them to say: “We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.” It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.’ I think the announcements made by the British government just hours after Cameron had returned from the conference indicate just how seriously they’re taking it. As for the collective ‘we’, by that I meant any of us who fly, drive, purchase food trucked or flown from hundreds of miles away, or do any other other things that add carbon to the atmosphere. I think that includes just about everyone in the richer countries.

    1. cynicism is the easy death of intelligent debate and the hotbed of lazy intellectuals. Such people have no real power and build their carrers on reinforcing prejudice. For every James Hansen I can probably quote a Michael Molitor (a climate scientist, Imperial College) who claims to prove that fossil fuels do NOT foster economic growth, and therefore that there are economic grounds for alternative energies. The essential issue is how to get real about climate change. On the basis of this, to garner a coordinated world-wide social responsibility that can avoid mass panic but prepare a more credible, equitable future. This is impossible without bold, elected polical leaderships. Academics amd blockblustering champions are side-dishes in comparison

      1. Politicians always have power and they are leaders in as far as the people they represent. it’s their vocation, and it is our democratic system. Not least because a politician has access to relevant information and is party to timely debates, vote on decisions on behalf of their electorat . It is for you, as a citizen, to be aware of your politicians’ activities, abilities, and if you chose to bathe in facile resentment, disrespect and complaint then it is likely you see only what feeds this.

  3. Bill McKibben offers qualified optimism in this opinion piece for the New York Times: http://nyti.ms/1J4oySa.
    This, from the blog accompanying Naomi Klein’s book and film ‘This Changes Everything’, is definitely worth reading for a reasoned rebuttal of some of the media euphoria surrounding the Paris agreement: ‘Why Most Of What You Think You Know About The Paris Climate Deal Is Wrong: An Annotated News Story’ (http://bit.ly/1Zgf8aa)

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