For years, George Monbiot has written for the British newspaper The Guardian about the dangers of man-made climate change and how the denial industry sows confusion. But when he wrote recently "we're losing," it seemed a surprising admission. He explains why, despite scientific consensus, much of the public remains unswayed.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Monbiot is a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian. He’s studied the tactics of oil companies and others who have sought to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that we must reckon with the consequences of manmade climate change, and he’s especially disheartened by recent polls, like those by the Pew Research Center and Rasmussen Reports, which finds a serious erosion of belief in global warming. To make matters worse, the polls came out even before the leaked emails emerged to further damage the environmentalists’ best PR trump card, scientific consensus. Monbiot lamented in a recent column that the hearts and minds battle is being lost, and he says the only hope lies in brutal honesty. George, welcome back to the show.
GEORGE MONBIOT: No, it’s my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote a few months back, “There’s no point in denying it. We're losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious disease. It exists in a sphere where it cannot be researched by evidence or reasoned argument. Any attempt to draw attention to scientific findings is greeted with furious invective.” Can you give me some of the research that backs up the claim that the trend of disbelief is growing?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes, there’ve been a number of opinion polls showing a 20 percent fall in the number of people, just within two years, who believe that manmade global warming is taking place. And it’s now down to 57 percent in the U.S. and in the U.K. down to about 41 percent. That shift has taken place, just as the evidence for manmade climate change has become so firm that it is as strong now as the evidence that smoking causes lung cancer or HIV causes AIDS. And it strikes me that what’s going on is that as people are confronted with really the inescapable evidence for climate change, they go into denial in the same way as we might go into denial when we go to the doctor and he says, I'm sorry to tell you you've got cancer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But George, you've gone even further. You postulate that this may be, in fact, generational.
GEORGE MONBIOT: What these surveys all seem to show is the same thing, that it’s among people over 60 who are most inclined to disbelieve that man-made climate change is taking place. Now, I think there could be a number of possible reasons for this but I wondered whether there might not be an element of the sort of denial of climate change being mixed up with the denial of mortality, which does appear to become more extreme as people become older.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've done a great deal of research into the sorts of public relations campaign to counter the scientific consensus over climate change, in tobacco companies, in oil companies and in other interested parties, and you've seen how it works. Have you seen a way to combat it?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, first off, that there are some people you’re never going to reach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
GEORGE MONBIOT: There are some people who, when the water is rising around their necks, will still say, it’s all a scam, it’s all an attempt to create a Communist world government - don't listen to what they're saying. For those you can reach, the undecided people stuck in the middle, I think there’s a number of approaches, first, of course, to keep emphasizing what the science actually says, but maybe perhaps also to tell a story. It’s the storytelling which reaches people most effectively. Perhaps the story that has to be told is one which says you have to decide who you are. You have to decide whether you are one of these people who wants to just stick your fingers in your ears and sing very loudly in order not to hear what’s going on. Fine, that’s your choice. If that’s what you want to do, you go ahead, but you will be kind of left behind by events. Alternatively, you can be the person who wakes up to this before most people do and starts to mobilize the community response that we need, just as countries in the free world mobilized against great threats in the past, for instance, the rise of the Axis powers, and saw them off through sheer determination. We have to do the same today. So you can decide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now the Climate Change Conference is underway. We're speaking on Thursday. It has some days to go. How do you think it’s going?
GEORGE MONBIOT: It’s not going to deliver. And, in fact, some people, like Jim Hansen, the senior scientist at NASA, are saying that it would be better if the whole thing collapses than if it goes ahead with a weak agreement. It’s not a pretty picture at the moment. There's no point in pretending that it is. And, you know, if only people were pursuing some sort of Communist world government, they might do it rather more efficiently. [LAUGHS]
[LAUGHTER] I mean, this is a stupid thing. You know, if they are organizing a vast conspiracy, for God’s sake, just get on with it!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] In one of your recent articles, you noted that, “The response of the greens and most of the scientists I know is profoundly ironic, as we spend much of our time confronting other people’s denial. Pretending that this (meaning the emails) aren't a real crisis isn't going to make it go away.”
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, they've attempted to minimize the importance of the emails while, of course, the other side, those who deny that climate change is taking place, have attempted to maximize the importance of the emails. And both responses are wrong. You know, the argument I keep making is that it’s those of us who have relied and continue to rely on climate science who have the most to lose if that climate science and if the processes behind it aren't completely robust. And I don't approve of this pusillanimous, foot-dragging response by a lot of climate scientists and environmentalists who are saying, oh just forget it, it’s no big deal. We have to ensure that the science cannot be criticized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Monbiot is a columnist for The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning. George, thank you very much.
GEORGE MONBIOT: No, it’s my pleasure. Thanks a lot then.