Global Warming is the Shadow of Civilization--The Denial is Over

For the past 5 years, I’ve been talking about climate change to anyone who would listen. In November 2001, I said:

The very least that will happen is environmental devastation as CO2 increases and warms our planet beyond recognition. We’ve got to call a halt to this NOW. This is perhaps the most important public policy issue we face today, and we’ve just been given a new incentive to act. We should endorse the Kyoto protocols on global warming and start to take this seriously….This is serious, folks. It’s a matter of life and death, national security, and worldwide importance.

I never cease to be amazed at the ever intriguing shape-shifting objections to dealing with this problem. The worst objection, of course is denial. But beyond that, there is a whole range of reactions–complexes really–which have resulted in the burial of our drive to act. Even with the release of the IPCC report, the issue is still fraught with shadow. We are out of time and excuses, so we would do well to examine our psychology and why we have failed so miserably thus far.

Objection 1 – The skeptic:

I have friends who are skeptics. From simple relativism (“scientists can’t even agree with each other, they don’t know shit”), to the views of James Inhofe or G. W. Bush himself, skepticism knows no bounds. Michael Crichton did the world a huge disservice by denying climate change. His books have given him an air of scientific credibility, especially since he has become a strong voice against scientific manipulation and hubris. But Crichton is a writer of fiction, not a scientist. So though State of Fear might be a gripping read, its popularity may be also due to the fact that it feeds on our state of complacency.

Matt Drudge is another huge skeptic, and typically ridicules global warming on The Drudge Report. Whenever significant reports are released, (like the IPCC or Stern), he makes sure to give prominent placement to stories showing record cold or frost, or links to renegade scientists and their discredited theories. He is also quick to slam Gore or UN officials as hypocrites for their air travel. I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that while Drudge is entertaining, and he many times gets the scoop, and I can’t resist reading his site–he’s just a couple of tiny clicks to the left of arch-conservative demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

Another form of skepticism says, “Well, I guess climate change is real, but it’s too late, we will just have to live with the consequences.” This is another dodge which combines denial with helplessness. It’s another variation on our society’s growing expertise in victimology. Claiming it’s true but too late has exactly the same result as total denial. We do nothing.

There’s a bit of religion in climate change denial: Like religion, which tells us death is not real, global warming denial also places an unimaginable calamity comfortably out of the picture. Acknowledging human-caused global warming is similar to denying an all-powerful god (in that it’s denying an all-powerful nature). Atheism, like acceptance of climate change, puts man in the driver’s seat, as the sole responsible party for his own existence. It also acknowledges the Earth as finite. Many people can’t believe that on a planet as vast as earth, after observing how powerful nature is, that mankind could also be a force of nature and change the world. Now we know he has–raising CO2 levels roughly 100 parts per million since before the industrial revolution. Believe it. The denial is over. [See “How to talk to a climate skeptic“]

Objection 2 — It’s a problem, but it’s being used to unfairly penalize the U.S.:

Usually, these types of arguments are also peppered with denial.

  • “It’s just a U.N. fraud, trying to take away our money and justify greater control.”
  • “It’s just a way to pass a world income tax.”
  • “It’s a giveaway to the developing world, since they’re not covered by the protocol”
  • “China doesn’t have to participate, so why should we?”

Well, let’s look at the China question first: Who buys the goods from China? So who is the true cause of Chinese emissions? The U.S. consumer. So not only does the U.S. consume 25% of the world’s energy with only 5% of the population, we are also responsible for a sizable share of China’s energy consumption, which is largely coal. So if we conservatively assign the U.S. an additional 5% because of our huge and growing purchases of Chinese goods, you have a grand total of 30% of the world’s energy usage by 5% of the population. This is America’s Hobbesian war of “all against all” on the rest of the world. Want peace? Want to bring our boys home? Stop this disproportionate use of energy.

Now this takes me back to the point of objection to a “world tax.” Why shouldn’t users of such a disproportionate amount of resources pay for the damages? Try and justify that one. You can’t. The denial is over.

Objection #3 — People are too busy, they can barely deal with life as it is:

This sounds really silly, but I’ve had people say this to me with a straight face. “People can’t even deal with their jobs, their kids, they get home at night and all they can do is collapse–now you want them to worry about THIS??” The reason why we should simply ignore global warming, a catastrophe unparalleled in human history, is ostensibly because we are “too busy.”

This I think has a lot to do with the fact that very few people alive in the U.S. today have ever dealt with what could be considered a true existential threat. It does not compute. In some ways, the entertainment industry (in which I work) is to blame. Disasters aren’t real until a film gets made about them. Most of us experience these things on a screen. So tornadoes, or hurricanes, or tsunamis happen to other people–not us.

It’s really simple. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy. We have to take care of our basic survival before we can worry about being ‘busy’ doing anything else. As the trite saying goes: “Deal with reality, or reality will deal with you.” The denial is over.

Objection #4 — It’s just too expensive, it would kill the economy:

Reference: Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change

Estimates of the cost of doing nothing range from $4 trillion, to $74 trillion, to human extinction. The point is, we are dealing with a range of possibilities, and we don’t know what our worst case is. A lot depends on what we decide to do. What we do know is that our planet has at various times been much warmer than now, and sea levels have been as much as 80-200 feet higher. Earth was also at some points covered by ice thousands of feet thick. So we really don’t know. This is an area I can agree science has not defined. It becomes useless to talk in terms of economic damage, however. Because human civilization may be changed in ways that make economic measures irrelevant.

If the worst case is extinction, if that’s even in the realm of possibility–even .001% chance, it should raise alarm bells greater than nuclear weapons, greater than the world wars of the 20th century. People regularly march by the tens of thousands for ‘peace,’ so why be silent in the face of such a greater danger?

But getting back to the economy, let’s assume that we CAN make a difference. If our civilization is at stake, don’t we have to at least TRY??? With a world GDP of $43 trillion, can’t we spend–say 1% of that to develop renewables? That would be $430 billion per year, about what the U.S. spends on defense when it’s not in a shooting war. Compare that to the $1.8 trillion (approximate) annual value of world oil production. Surely an expenditure of 25% of what we now spend on oil is worth it. That buys a lot of wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power, and a lot of biofuels. Every year, renewables would make up that much more of the economy. It could provide a new boom.

Where do we get the money? How about an oil tax? Everyone hates the idea, but everyone seems to love the idea of renewable energy. “Well that’s punitive,” some people say. Yes, it’s punitive towards those who wantonly pretend that their actions are without consequences. Someone’s going to have to pay-or we will all pay. Tax the oil leases, or tax it at the pump, or tax coal-power at the electric meter. Drive less, and replace a few light bulbs with compact fluorescents. The denial is over.

Objection #5 — The Libertarian Argument:

“Taxation is evil and immoral,” some people will say. No one should be coerced into giving up their money. Government has no right to take money at the point of a gun.

Well, let’s get government out of the picture. What if the entire world were a cooperative, and there were 6 billion individual stakeholders. How would they decide amongst themselves the allocation of resources? They’d have to establish a trading scheme, whereby shared resources and costs were allocated back to the individual.

Speaking of climate change as an individual, I have the rights to 1/6,000,000,000th share of the atmosphere. Therefore if I “use” more of the atmosphere than that, I have to get it from somewhere. The cost of getting that additional share of atmosphere has to be paid to the people who give up their right to use the extra share that I’m using. This is simple logic and common sense.

Libertarians participate in the denial by acting as if the atmosphere or fossil fuels are an unlimited resource. Since historically this has been the case, and resources were limited only by the methods and speed of their extraction, these people have some catching up to do. You can’t burn fuels that aren’t there, and and you can’t live on a planet that is too warm to support life. Therefore we have a common interest in maintaining resources which must be divided effectively. I’m interested in hearing how Libertarians propose to deal with this. Ronald Bailey over at Reason magazine seems to be getting the picture, but in general the magazine has been WAY BEHIND. Conservatives and Libertarians are using a similar strategy to combat the truth of climate change as the Discovery Institute has used against evolution: Teach the controversy.

Philosophically, this question is of the utmost importance. In reality, people who produce negative externalities are STEALING from everyone else. They are taking away everyone’s right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live without the threat of climate-induced disaster. This is coercion. Pure and simple. This is hidden taxation. This is a “market failure.” We cannot be opposed to government coercion and then turn a blind eye to corporate coercion and outright theft which continues with impunity.

Various commenters to this blog have accused me in the past of being a “greenie” or subscribing to the “greenie religion.” This is utter hogwash. Shame on them. They are in denial. There is nothing “green” about not wanting the planet to become uninhabitable. There is nothing “green” in wanting everyone to pay their fair share. It is the only sane position of a conscious and intelligent human being. The denial is over.

Comments (16 comments)

doris tracey / February 3rd, 2007, 10:59 am / #1


This is a great post; you have me fired up,now what do I do? How about if we invest in oil would that help? You have it in you to become a great leader, but the sheep are so docile, they need to be lead. More like apathetic is the word. Many are not seeing the forest for the trees. Please send your local and state representatives this post,your words may fire them up. We do have blind leaders leading the blind.

BlackSun / February 3rd, 2007, 11:41 am / #2

Hi Doris. No, do not invest in oil. Invest in an alternative energy fund. For the big picture, please refer to the Ergosphere. Engineer-Poet has great macro-scale solutions. Check out this post:

What can you do personally? Talk to everyone you know about the problem. Talk until they are sick of hearing about it.

Reduce your energy and product usage as much as practical:
-Turn everything off when you are not using it. This includes computers and electronics. Buy a power strip with a switch on it to combat passive power usage.
-Drive less by combining trips (stop at the store on the way home from work instead of going separately) and/or ridesharing.
-Be sure your tires are properly inflated, this can improve gas mileage 10-15%.
-Get a bicycle or walk.
-Replace your incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. You can find them for about $2 or $3 in large packs at Home Depot or Lowe’s.
-Consider purchasing “green power”
-Condider purchasing carbon offsets from places like
-If you drive an older large vehicle, consider junking it (don’t sell it, it will not help) and replacing it with a more efficient used vehicle.
-buy a new hybrid vehicle, by doing so, you are ‘voting’ with your dollar against old and more polluting ways of doing things. (Though any new car’s manufacture also contributes greatly to climate change)

doris tracey / February 3rd, 2007, 5:48 pm / #3

Hi Sean

The Ergosphere Post by Engineer-Poet is excellent;this guy is brillient a real scientist. Thank you for introducing me to his Post. Scientist make life an exciting adventure. I want to learn as much as I can about alternative energy.

BlackSun / February 4th, 2007, 12:15 am / #4

Topher, you’re definitely right about Christians. The blame falls on them in three ways:

1) Doctrinally, the scriptural mandate to “Take dominion over the Earth” has made Christians into cornucopians, who have acted like resources were endless. Even when they run out, I think some Christians think god will replenish them. Seriously.

I think some denominations have changed their doctrine, and are now jumping on the bandwagon of being “just stewards” of god’s planet.

2) The idea that god or nature is some kind of conscious force that can be prayed to or influenced by man. Therefore, Christians can deny the impersonal nature of natural laws, thinking they can beg their way out of them. Global warming would thus be prevented from destroying man, “unless it were god’s will.” Blech.

3) The belief in belief, which has supported relativism and personal interpretation. This has led away from the acceptance of things like absolute scientific truth. “The earth is warming up? I don’t believe that.” And to a Christian, belief is everything.

Christopher / February 3rd, 2007, 11:36 pm / #5

Doris learning is a great thing, but seriously, just do something, even if it just driving less and taking your local public transit options.

Sean, great post as usual. I, as you remember, have put some of the blame for the lack of action in our country on the Christians. Some people will think this is harsh but it is the sad truth.

nowoo / February 4th, 2007, 12:46 am / #6

The biggest thing anyone can do to reduce global warming is to have zero children (or at least zero more children) and encourage others to do the same thing. Even if we cut the per capita energy usage in half, that won’t make any difference if we keep doubling the population every 35 years.

doris tracey / February 4th, 2007, 5:30 am / #7

Thank You Christopher

I really don’t do too much driving any way after work; the drive is 45 min away and I have an old gas guzler a 1989 Ford Bronco 11. I feel very safe in this SUV, but I know that someday it will have to go and I don’t feel comfortable in a small car. There are too many different size vehicles on the road. I do love to drive though.
I just read an article the other day that the plastic in our bottled water takes a tremendous amount of oil to make the bottles. We really need education don’t we?

Christopher / February 5th, 2007, 9:45 pm / #8


I would like to know more about why you feel the need that a big SUV will give you more protection then a small car.

The problem is not that these vehicles do not cause just as much harm – I work in a personal injury law firm as a paralegal, clients get just as hurt in an SUV as a Kia. What matters most is how you drive and how good your defensive driving is.

I for one own a 1996 Honda Accord four door sedan. I drive on the freeways. I’m 25, I have been driving for nine years, one of the things they taught me in driver’s education when I was 15 was always drive in a zone, that is, always try to keep on “out” open on one of your sides, this way when someone else drives like shit you have a way to avoid a collision. For some reason that has always stuck with me.

I just find that his psychological reasoning behind bigger = safer sadly lacking in logic. This reasoning is also found with the idea that building a missile shield will be a deterrent to foreign enemies from wanting to send missiles our way.

Do yourself a favor; ditch the Bronco as soon as possible.

BlackSun / February 5th, 2007, 9:59 pm / #9

Doris, I second the motion about the Bronco. It emits about 20,000 lbs of C02 per year. If you must keep it, here is your personal Bronco II carbon offset report:

It will cost you $79.95/year to offset the carbon. If you buy a smaller car, it will drop to about half that amount. A small price to pay, though, for knowing you are carbon-neutral in your driving.

Mark / February 6th, 2007, 4:07 pm / #10

“In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that human actions are “very likely” the cause of global warming, meaning a 90% or greater probability.”

So Sean, do you admit you ~might~ be wrong? You are saying that there is no reasonable doubt that humans are causing global warming, but the experts still say it is just “very likely.”

BlackSun / February 6th, 2007, 4:41 pm / #11

Yeah, Mark, I might be wrong. The 99% of scientists who study the issue might also be wrong.

But people who think that way are staking the future of civilization on an awfully unlikely ‘might.’

If we assume the science is right and spend 1% of world GDP on solutions as I suggested: We build a sustainable energy infrastructure in 10-15 years. If the scientists are “wrong,” we’ve still have built a new economy. We will have still dramatically reduced fossil-fuel pollution. And we will have still severed ties with a region the U.S. really wants nothing to do with. We will still have cut the trade deficit way down, and we will still have created hundreds of thousands of high-paying domestic jobs. The problem is???

What’s the downside if you’re not an Exxon shareholder? What’s the downside even if you are? (Since Exxon is sure to be ass-deep in renewable energy once it becomes clear people aren’t buying petroleum any more.) What’s the downside for ANYONE to getting off fossil fuels??

Your argument is a little like claiming we should keep shooting heroin because we’re addicted and we feel sick when we stop. And the heroin “might” not be the cause of our troubles.

I read a quote the other day that said “If someone came up with a way to eliminate all pollution worldwide permanently at a cost of $2 per person, someone would find a way to object.”

The IPCC report has already been politicized. It’s language has already been toned way down. The consensus is more like 99%. Are you willing to risk civilization on those odds?

Are you just going to let yourself get snookered by an oil industry that’s counting on their FUD to protect the remaining $100 trillion in oil they’re planning on selling us, the Earth be damned?

I really don’t how to make any sense of your political positions: Leftist, non-interventionist, anti-war, global warming skeptic who doesn’t think the American public is responsible for any of it. WTF???

beepbeepitsme / February 7th, 2007, 6:34 am / #12

I agree. It has been a frustrating experience. I have only blogged rarely on climate change as I quickly got sick of being called a nut, anti-american, anti-australian, a communist or an environmental nutjob.

I am now at the stage where I don’t care if the average person accepts it or not. Eventually they will feel the effects of it and I will be tempted to go “nener nener” too bad you should have listened to the science data which WASN’T heavily invested in the oil and fossil fuel industries.

I posted recently on Professor Ian Lowe’s address to the press club. He is the president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. If you are interested, the post is here.


doris tracey / February 7th, 2007, 3:18 pm / #13

Hi Christopher and Sean,

I cannot tell a lie; I wish I could purchase a new small car, but I don’t have the money right now to get a different one. My car is emission exempt and I do know this car is doing something bad to the atmosphere. I don’t own a home and just have a studio apt. I always turn off lights behind me and try to conserve as much as I can. I do drink from plastic bottled water and I eat yogart from plastic cups. I don’t know where else I can conserve. I will read this site you gave me Sean, when I get a chance. Thanks so much to both of you.

doris tracey / February 8th, 2007, 3:02 am / #14

Hi Christopher,

One more thing; I did take a course in defensive driving, most people have taken a course in offensive driving. I have been driving since 1977 and I’m grateful I have never hit anyone. I hope it continues. I have been hit from behind while sitting at
a light.

doris tracey / February 10th, 2007, 2:34 pm / #15

Hi Sean,

I read the site on the terrapass; my suv could sure use this stuff. I really liked the road tripper and maybe in the future I could get one or a smaller vehicle. You are Mr. encyclopedia, when it comes to information. Thanks again Sean!

riblet21 / November 25th, 2007, 3:37 pm / #16

Well, I am undecided whether or not to take action currently. The Earth warms and cools naturally, and it has been warmer before than it is now. They never had any problems living in warmer weather back in medieval times so why would we now. There is no proof that global warming could be catastrophic for us. It could start getting cooler again in ten years. We just use computer models that vary by 400%. It is impossible for us to predict the climate. This is just a big political fight that relies on no actual facts. We could be spending our time and money on a more important topic that we can see is causing a problem. I am just waiting to see proof that we are causing global warming and it really poses a threat to our survival before I take action. Heck, even if the world is going to end we might as well just go enjoy it now instead of worrying about it. It’ll always end eventually.

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