Self Deception and Denial – Human Behavior and Climate Change

November 2, 2013 – Humans are great at denial. It keeps us going in times of war and crisis. It gives us hope even when reality points to a disastrous outcome. Think about the passengers and crew on the deck of the Titanic as it started to sink. Were they in denial? Absolutely! Because it is genetic and there is plenty of evidence to support this.

If you don’t believe me read Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs and the Origins of the Human Mind. The authors, Ajit Varki and Danny Brower, hypothesize that denial comes out of awareness of our mortality and our natural aversion to believing in it. This characteristic has often been thought to be unique to humans, but it appears that some species of birds, elephants, dolphins and probably bonobo chimpanzees also display self awareness. It explains why cigarette smokers continue to smoke in denial of the link to cancer. And it explains religion which serves as an instrument of self deception as we deal with life and the certainty of our inevitable death.

So we go on and on in this state of denial even in the face of overwhelming evidence such as we have for climate change, clinging to the 5% uncertainty in the recent IPCC Report, just like smokers. Our leaders are as good at denial as we regular citizens. So they dither or pay lip service to the issue of climate change and the impact it will have on every aspect of human existence, from where we live, to the air we will breathe, and to the food we will eat.

It is not just the wonky weather that accompanies climate change that represents a threat. It’s the impact that a warmer earth will have on agriculture production across the planet. Because just like the natural biology of the planet which will have to adapt to rising temperatures so will the vegetation we humans plant and the animals we husband to support our dietary needs. The latest draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which will be released shortly predicts growing environmental risk on global food production. This is a new conclusion from previous interim reports that indicated that losses in tropical areas of the world would be offset by gains in more temperate climates, evening out the issue of food production.

No more. Because human population growth is heavily skewed to those very tropical countries where agriculture will be most impacted. These are countries that feature a large percentage of the population living well below the poverty line. If agricultural production starts declining in these countries two things will happen. Food will get very expensive with all the consequences that entails. And we will see food refugees migrating to other areas of the planet.

Here are the facts according to the IPCC. Agricultural production is expected to decline by 2% per decade for the rest of the 21st century. Food demand on the other hand is expected to rise by 14% per decade, not just because we will see an additional 2.5 billion added to our human population, but also because changes to diet in the Developing World where improving incomes will lead to a more Western-like diet.

For humanity to meet the demand in tropical zones it will probably lead to more of Amazonian, African and South Asian forests vanishing as new land is put into production. And cutting down the trees in these areas will, as we know, accelerate climate change by releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere while removing the largest sink needed to sequester the carbon that will be produced.

But not to worry! Denial and self deception, not changes in policy and behaviour will get us through.




Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...