Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Do we just not like inconvenient truths?

The issue of climate change is now big news. This was brought home recently with the Nobel Peace Prize being given jointly to Al Gore and the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has helped drive home the dangers of climate change to the public. The Norwegian Nobel Committee felt Gore was 'probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted'. In turn, it praised the UN panel, made up of some 2 000 members, for achieving an 'informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming'.

The road to this recognition has, however, not been easy. Gore's controversial defeat by George W Bush in the 2001 election aside, those advocating the link between human activity and climate change have had an uphill struggle. The UN panel, which was set up in 1988, has consistently released hard-hitting reports into a disbelieving scientific community. Only recently has broad scientific and public acceptance of the threat of climate change been accepted. Science, coupled with cool-headed publicity on Gore's part, triumphed. But why did it take so long?

Obviously, developing rigorous science took time. But was inconclusive science the issue? Or is there something in human nature that rallies against common sense, especially when it implies taking responsibility. Do we just not like 'inconvenient truths'?

Remember the public debate about whether smoking was bad for health. I recall scientists saying smoking does not cause lung cancer; it is only correlated with it, so do not panic . There are still those who might take this view. From a purely scientific perspective, this may be correct, but one does not need to be a scientist to figure out that inhaling smoke into one's lungs cannot be good for you. Equally, it does not take a PhD to realise that spewing gases into the atmosphere that we know in certain doses will kill humans and animals is ill-advised. Science can help us to figure out exactly what the problem is and solve it, but it is the denial of the obvious that I find interesting, yet disturbing at the same time.

Denial has its benefits. It keeps anxiety and potential distress at bay, and can often save us from embarrassment. Denying a problem can also mean we do not have to expend energy or resources on it. Refusing to accept that a wider social problem is present, especially when you are not affected, also helps preserve the personal illusion of immunity or safety.

This is not to say that coming to a consensus about problems such as climate change, or HIV/Aids for that matter, is not challenging. Many people are rightly sceptical about what they read in the media. Dare I mention the millennium bug. Even on the climate change issue, there have been alarmist reports at times that have not helped the cause.

Scepticism has its place and can drive good science. Scepticism is a doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind. It is constructive questioning. However, these days scepticism has been replaced with cynicism.'

Cynicism is defined as an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity marked by a general distrust of the integrity of the motives of others. Although trusting others is difficult in our world, it is fashionable these days to usurp healthy questioning with derision and sarcasm. People build their careers on pulling others down publicly.

When it comes to debates about climate change and other issues of public concern, it seems that proving someone is wrong is not always about advancing a solution. Rather, it is about scoring political points, getting as much airtime as possible or proving intellectual prowess. Surely, in a world faced with multiple crises, humility and cooperation are the only show in town.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 October 2007.