The New Climate Denial

Alex Levinson
Date: October 26, 2022

This piece is excerpted from a speech given by Pacific Environment’s Executive Director Alex Levinson at the World Ocean Forum in Korea.

Alex Levinson during the keynote at the World Ocean Forum 2022.

My colleagues from Pacific Environment and I are very pleased to be with you all today, at this gathering of international ocean leaders.

This is my first time in Busan. A city that aspires to be the center of global innovation, through Expo 2030 and as the first floating maritime city. These ideas unite the city’s status as a world-leading port with its desire to model one way to mitigate the sea level rise that climate change will cause. Congratulations to Busan and its leaders for their hope and vision.

The oceans divide us, separating the continents and island nations from each other. They also connect us, economically through trade and shipping, sustaining us as one of humanity’s most important sources of food, and spiritually, through shared love for the vast, watery, wildlife­ filled world that makes up most of our planet’s surface.

The World Ocean Forum brings us together to prepare a successful global future in fields such as shipping and shipbuilding, fisheries, marine policies, and international cooperation in protecting the oceans and its communities and wildlife.

Pacific Environment team at the World Ocean Forum 2022.

Today energy work – climate change work – has moved to the forefront and become the organizing principle for the environmental field. More fundamentally, climate change is becoming, and needs to be, the organizing principle globally for our economic life and our societies.

Every day and every week brings new examples of dramatic climate-caused disasters that cost gazillions of dollars. Whether it be the hurricane wiping out cities in Florida, the wildfires in my home state of California destroying entire towns, or in this country, the notorious Typhoon Hinnamnor last month or the rainfall in Seoul that was the heaviest in 100 years. People worry about the cost of leaving behind fossil fuels, but the loss of lives and property and businesses to these disasters total so much more.

I want to raise an alarm on what I call: The New Climate Denial.

The original climate denial was a crude form of obstruction by those who knew better, but wanted to keep profiting from fossil fuels no matter the cost.

The new climate denial comes from within ourselves, comes from those of us who accept and understand the existential danger of climate change. This denial comes from own complacency and what Sigmund Freud would call the immense potential of humans to deny what’s right in front of them.

Scientists tell us we are using up the animals and oceans and we need to act immediately and boldly. The carbon budget is running out much too fast. And yet, I hear many of us confidently predicting the use of fossil fuels well into the 2040s or 2050 or even 2060 – nearly four decades from now!

Those casually predicting fossil fuel use for 40 years often see themselves as hard-headed realists, though in fact they engage in a fantasy of magical thinking, denying the clear truth in front of them.

We are, all of us, already facing grave peril from current harms from climate change. Even were we to end all new greenhouse gas emissions today, the existing atmospheric and oceanic greenhouse gas load would for many decades warm the earth and produce hosts of harms. Yet some confidently suggest we can increase the carbon load, not for a few years, but for generations.

In 2060, 40 years on, only the most junior of us in this room will still be working.

Almost every government official here today, and every CEO, will have retired, to be replaced not just by your successor, but probably your successor’s successor’s successor. Let’s not leave these problems for them.

I am not speaking to those to those in the world who may be cynical and happy to defer aggressive action till after they retire. With this audience, I am talking to people who understand climate change and want to help protect our world. So you know that whatever targets we set for 2040 and 2050 and 2060 – it’s what we do in the next year and three years and five years that will determine whether we succeed.

The first principle of the new climate denial: accepting the reality of climate change while not accepting the imperative of rapid and bold industrial change.

The second category of the new climate denial is to overfocus on the obstacles to transition. I emphasize OVER focus because there surely are obstacles that warrant attention. It IS hard to transition an economy, fossil fuels DO have a high energy density. Fossil fuels CAN appear cheap at the front end. (Though only at the front end because we would not be doing this at all if fossil fuels did not cause massively expensive and harmful externalities that we do pay.

We are in a car and are driving toward a cliff. Scientists tell us they are not sure where the cliff’s edge begins – tipping points may move the cliff edge closer to us-but they are sure that we are reaching it and will, if we do not stop this car, suffer horrendous, likely irreversible damage. And, we can all see, our world is starting to go over that cliff.

The drivers of the car need to pump the brakes firmly and with commitment. They have no time to worry that they might use too much brake fluid, or cause too much wear on the tires, or damage a bumper.

The second new climate denial is to emphasize how much the transition off fossil fuels will cost us and how difficult it will be … because that takes attention from the fact that the transition must be done urgently and will save us gazillions of dollars in harm and costs. Indeed the word “transition” is too soft a word for the rapid changes now needed… because we together failed to act earlier. We need to hit the brakes hard, starting now.

The third new climate denial arises within the environmental community, for perfectly good reasons but reasons that need to change. It is the denial of the need for some kinds of technological geoengineering to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and perhaps out of the oceans. Environmentalists oppose this type of approach for two reasons: (1) the precautionary principle that massive engineering almost always produces unintended consequences, often quite harmful ones; (2) Second, a well-grounded concern that advocacy for technological solutions to greenhouse gas emissions can be a  pretext by fossil fuel leaders to continue their emissions and defer action into the far future.

Nonetheless we have waited too long and likely cannot solve climate change merely by turning off the tap of fossil fuels.

Yes indeed, we must turn off the tap. You don’t start to mop up the water while the bathtub is still overflowing. But we will also have to do some mopping. Even when we move off fossil fuels entirely, we will need to find ways to geoengineer to avoid the worst harms to the oceans, to wildlife, and to ourselves and our societies.

Opposition to geoengineering is the third type of new climate denial. We will need to overcome it.

The fourth new climate denial is to rely on offsets. The argument is: We will simply keep pumping out greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels, and we’ll plant trees and take other actions to offset the emissions. We’ll burn biomass from tree farms in a supposedly virtuous cycle of net zero emissions.

It’s not going to work.

In a world in which we are going to overshoot our carbon budget and will need geoengineering to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and oceans, it will make no sense to pull it out and then BURN it again, putting it back up in the skies and into the oceans. Offsets are too complicated, too rife with potential for corruption, poor execution, mis-accounting and injustice.

The fourth type of new climate denial: accepting the reality of climate change, yet failing to accept the need to cease emitting greenhouse gases. To believe we can keep using fossil fuels, and solve the climate change emergency through a too-clever, too-complicated, too­ complex scheme of global accounting.

I have spoken from my heart about things I deeply care about. Despite my concerns, I have great hopes that we will succeed together. We will build floating cities. We will protect island nations and the ocean’s great constellations of wildlife. We will create new clean energy economies in which humankind can thrive. We will tap into human resilience and creativity.

We may not agree on everything, but we can and must work together. I hope my ideas, humbly offered, may have moved you and may shape your thinking about the need for boldness, speed, courage, and justice.