I’ve had a long battle with climate despair. Now I’m leaving the ‘denial machine’ to their demons | clive hamilton

AAfter years of robust campaigning for climate preservation, writing books on climate change, scores of articles and hundreds of public talks – not to mention serving on the Climate Change Authority, helping set up an international taskforce and running for parliament – ​​I couldn’t take it any more.

I became so despairing about where we were heading and the unwillingness of most to face up to reality that I stopped working on climate change altogether.

In 2010, I argued in my book Requiem for a Species that the world was on a path to a very unpleasant future, that it’s too late to stop it, and that climate scientists themselves are in a state of barely suppressed panic.

The message was met with a wall of silence. Even committed environmentalists didn’t want to hear it.

At a writers’ festival, a well-known scientist took me behind a tent and berated me for taking away people’s hope. “So,” I asked, “are you saying we should lie?”

It was a time when the climate science “denial machine”, imported into Australia from the United States, was just hitting its stride. Its work would give us another lost decade.

Spending my days working on matters unrelated to climate helped, but it could not douse the burning anger I felt towards those who were responsible for preventing any effective response to the scientific warnings.

I knew about the psychological coping strategies we used to manage feelings of anxiety, despondency and grief (I wrote about them in 2010). But how does one cope with the fact there are people in our community who worked doggedly to stop Australia responding to the unfolding crisis and are still at it?

My work on climate change, from the first paper in 1996 on the need for a carbon tax to my decision in 2017 to stop, occupies a large share of the memory I have just written. It was hard to keep bitterness out of the book when naming some of those who actively undermined climate science and blocked every serious abatement policy. Many of them appeared in the lists of the “dirty dozen” I compiled periodically over the years.

In the last couple of years, the tide has turned against the deniers, although for most people the full truth is still hard to swallow. We actually have a government that, for the first time, appears to be serious about reducing emissions.

Nevertheless, after the wasted decades, look at what the climate scientists are now telling us. From the preindustrial benchmark of 280 parts per millions (ppm), the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere grew to 390ppm in 2010 and then to 420ppm today.

This year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization criticized for consistently understating the dangers, concluded that the damaging effects of climate change are mounting much faster than previously reported.

A recent paper in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America calls for a research program into a “climate endgame”, that is, the possibility of societal collapse and even human extinction. The authors argue that optimistic assumptions about global emission reductions still put us on “dangerous Earth system trajectories”.

The most hopeful case of a 2C rise above preindustrial levels – now almost certainly out of reach – would lead to a state of the Earth system not seen for more than 2.6 million years.

Even with declining global emissions, feedback effects and tipping points in the climate system could generate greenhouse gas concentrations so high they do not appear in the models. Crossing tipping points – such as melting Arctic permafrost and a halt in the capacity of the oceans to soak up carbon dioxide – could give rise to cascading effects across the linked climatic, ecological and social systems, with calamitous consequences.

In the meantime, our political leaders, even the more enlightened ones, continue with the narrative that promoting economic growth must come first.

A sharp increase in immigration and thus population is promised with no thought to its implications for carbon emissions. Waving the wand of “net zero”, our leaders assure us that technology can deal with rising emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere. And we can adapt to unavoidable warming. In short, have faith.

Some aren’t buying it.

Students gather during the School Strike 4 Climate at Sydney's Town Hall on 6 May.
Students gather during the School Strike 4 Climate rally outside the Sydney Town Hall on 6 May. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The grim prognostications of the climate scientists have spread beyond their “holy shit” tête-à-têtes to sections of the wider community, especially young people who have grown up in a warming world.

Tragically, many seem to have accepted that humanity no longer controls its fate. When I interviewed 20 or so young climate activists in 2020, one expressed the feelings of many young activists.

There are people who don’t have much hope for the future … [they feel] massive hopelessness. … Yet the more you show up you get that sense of hope. But will that showing up and acting early be enough to solve the climate crisis? I honestly don’t think so.

While Pakistan sinks under waterEurope contends with a crippling droughtand we in Australia struggle with the practical and psychological fallout of catastrophes such as the black summer bushfires and this year’s floods in New South Wales and Queensland, the most responsible people recede into history. Should we let them?

Some years ago, I suggested Greenpeace should approach primary schools by asking them to bury in their playgrounds time capsules containing the names and deeds of the “dirty one hundred”. The capsules could be dug up in 2100 to reveal who was responsible for the state of the Earth.

Perhaps, though, it’s better to leave the perpetrators to their demons. We’re better off devoting our energies to responding to the situation we find ourselves in, especially helping young people learn to thrive as best they can in the world we have left them.

  • Clive Hamilton’s memoir, Provocateur: A Life of Ideas in Action, is published by Hardie Grant Books on 7 September

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