What is climate change and what lies behind it?

The science can seem daunting and is an aspect of the 'difficult truths' we face.

Our grappling with this is made more difficult to face by doubt and confusion actively sown by climate change denialists, many of whom are funded by the oil industry, large corporations and donors with vested interests, the media coverage adding to the confusion.

We have known about anthropogenic (human made) global warming at least since 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the US Congress that the planet is heating because we are burning fossil fuels creating excess carbon dioxide emissions that are resulting in the planet warming. The science of greenhouse gases goes back a long way to Fourier and Tyndall's work in the 19th century. Results from climate science research can be divided into what we are more certain about (in a scientific sense) and what we are less certain about. Our certainties are the message that Hansen gave Congress: that global warming is happening and is largely man made. The precise detail of the effects, when and where, are where most of the uncertainty lies.

In 2011 McKibben, chronicling all the record breaking global weather events of 2010, (heat waves, drought, wild fires, tornados, the acceleration of the already rapid melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet and signs of melting permafrost) said ‘the earth was getting a taste of what global warming feels like in its early stages’ (2011:60). As McKibben noted, the extreme weather events we witnessed then were occurring with a temperature increase of only slightly less than one degree Celsius (over pre-industrial levels) and with atmospheric CO2e[i] concentrations of only 390 parts per million. Now CO2 has topped 400 parts per million.

There has been a growing recognition by climate scientists that, without drastic action to move economies off dependence on fossil fuels, an increase to roughly 4 degrees Celsius or even higher by the end of the century, may be unavoidable with atmospheric CO2 more than 550 parts per million. (Anderson and Bows 2008)

Even when we accept anthropogenic global warming, it is easy to locate it as a problem of the future, for our children and grandchildren, and one that it is largely avoidable and reparable. However, climate stability has already been damaged and the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses already released by our coal and oil hungry economies will remain in the Earth’s atmosphere for thousands of years. McKibben (2011) in his latest book Eaarth: making a life on a tough new planet adds an extra ‘a’ to Earth to mark this change to instability.

These prospects raise further questions when looking at the psychological effects of climate change. As well as understanding issues like denial of climate change we need to better understand the psychology of how this will affect us, in order to face it more deeply and build resilience

For those who do want to read further and more deeply about the science, the sources below are recommended as particularly accessible. See also our Resources page and the Climate Change section of the Handbook.

Sally Weintrobe
Psychoanalyst and Member of CPA Advisory Group

Anderson, K., and Bows, A. (2008) Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, The Royal Society.
Hansen, J. (2009) Storms of My Grandchildren. London: BloomsburyMcKibben, B. (2011a) Resisting climate reality. New York Review of Books, LVIII, Part 6: 60–64.
Stephan Harrison (2012) Climate Change, Uncertainty and Risk in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Sally Weintrobe (ed), London: RoutledgeMcKibben, B. (2011b) Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.

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