Genius medical researcher Ajit Varki on his book “Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind.” Erika Spanger-Siegfried from the Union of Concerned Scientists on American military bases endangered by rising seas.
Humans society in times of climate change is like a sinking boat taking on water. The crowds will rush from one side to the other. As we know, sometimes that causes the ship to tip, throwing everyone into the sea. Right now in America and Australia, and perhaps soon in the UK or Europe, the captains try to say there is no problem.
Donald Trump denies that climate change is happening. It’s a “hoax” he says, as he appoints fossil fuel people to regulate the environment, science and energy. Of course, the physics of the melting ice world, heating oceans and rising seas don’t care what he thinks. According to a Florida risk analysis agency, by the year 2045, Trump’s so-called “winter White House” called Mar-a-Lago will be underwater 210 days a year.
Maybe humans will make it a special dive site, where you can visit and remember the American President who made the dumbest mistake in the world. That drowned resort will be a gold-plated monument to climate change denial. He’ll be dead, and so will millions of others, but that temple of excess under the sea will be a signal of the legacy of Donald Trump.
At dozens of bases, the American military faces the same problems of rising seas, and more intense storm surges. Later in this program we’ll hear from Erika Spanger-Siegfried at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She led a comprehensive report into the coming challenges to military bases as climate change unfolds.
But first, we’ll talk with a medical genius who can explain how and why denial is so easy to trigger in human beings. I’m Alex Smith. Here’s this week’s serving of need-to-know information from Radio Ecoshock.
AJIT VARKI: DENIAL IS HUMAN
After decades of great science showing how climate change operates – we get an incoming American Administration composed of climate science deniers. How is that possible? A listener suggested I contact Ajit Varki, about his book “Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind.”
So now we are in for a treat. We’ll spend a little time with an awe-inspiring Professor of Medicine and pioneer researcher, from the University of California in San Diego. Following his beginning in India, Ajit Varki has led American explorations into cellular and molecular medicine. His multi-faceted mind also ventures into the origins of humans, and as it turns out, a critical mechanism of human consciousness. Understand the role of denial, says Varki, and you understand a lot about your own life, and the civilization around us.
Dr. Ajit Varki
Our knowledge of denial been heavily influenced by the 1969 book “On Death and Dying” by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She, like you, worked with terminally ill patients. But Kübler-Ross suggested denial was a stage we can work through. But Dr. Varki is talking about something very different – an innate trait developed during evolutionary biology. In that sense, it is nothing we can get past.
Maybe a better comparison from popular culture is the 1997 movie starring comedian Jim Carrey. In that film “Liar, Liar” Carrey finds he cannot get through a single day in society, without the ability to lie. For him, the truth and nothing but the truth makes social life impossible. That’s part of what Varki talks about, but it goes deeper.
I think the necessity of daily denial happens in us all. If I want to go visit my children in the next city, I have to hide my awareness that the fossil fuels I burn in my car will actually help make their future worse. We can’t cope without it, but can we become more able to control denial, so it doesn’t hide important dangers? Dr. Varki thinks we can learn to manage denial, so it doesn’t harm us so badly, as with climate change.
He suggests a couple of things regarding climate change, in a species born with denial. First, early childhood education is important. If the child learns in school, and in the home, that climate change is real and we are causing it, denial is less likely later.
Second, Varki says perhaps climate activists and communicators should frame things as local impacts. Nobody really reacts to the general idea of a global rise of two degrees. But if we can say “this crop will fail in your region” or “your electric bill will go through the roof trying to stay cool”, or “your area will likely flood over and over due to extreme rainfall events” – then a person can relate directly to what is coming.
There are so many applications to the facility of denial. I’m thinking of smokers who keep smoking, or that one in three Americans is now obese, despite obvious and well-known medical complications. If denial is at the core of our ability to keep going, it also seems to be something that tobacco and food corporations can take advantage of, for profit. We are being used, precisely because denial can be triggered so easily.
We even deny that denial is taking place. Maybe other people are denying things, but not me! My tipster Rob Mielcarski (see below) predicts people will avoid this program and this interview, because they will deny it’s important or true. We’ve heard of denial, but we don’t believe in it!
Frankly, I’m impressed with Dr. Varki’s whole career. I’ wish we had time to chat about his early discovery of the first genetic difference between chimps and humans. Or his investigations into glycobiology. In fact I couldn’t resist that one. I asked Dr. Varki to take a couple of minutes to introduce our listeners into a whole field we haven’t heard of, the “glycans” without our bodies?
It turns out every cell in nature is coated in sugars. We’ve heard lots about DNA and other cell structures, but Varki says the sugar complexes were just too difficult to study. He calls it the “dark matter” of cell biology. And get these “glycans” may be essential to understanding disease and many other things. He’s a leader in that field.
Related to the topic of this book on Denial (with Brower) we venture into “anthropogeny“. Ajit says that’s an old term he resurrected to mean the study of the origins of humans. Now there is a whole institute or group dedicated to it, called CARTA – the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny.
In our interview, Varki raises another problem beyond denial. We are likely to take unusual risks, or think everything will work out with big challenges like climate change, because of our “optimism bias”. You can find more about that in this book “The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain” by Tali Sharot. Or watch her explain it in this TED Talk video.
You’ll also hear Ajit talk about the way the brain works using fear responses. He mentions the Amygdala deep within the brain. Find more about that here in Wikipedia.
We humans stumble along, ravaging this home planet with very limited awareness. Given Varki’s investigations, it seems fair to say that we don’t really know who we are as a species. Indeed, may even have in-bred barriers that prevent us from truly finding out.
I also like this radio interview on CBC Radio “The Current”, June 19, 2013.
MY TAKE ON AJIT VARKI
Thanks to you as a listener, I have the privilege to talk with many very smart women and men around the world. But I’ll seldom say we’ve met with true genius, as we did this time with Ajit Varki. When I began to review his published scientific papers I was astounded. There are hundreds, too many to count, going all the way back to 1977, and over a dozen this year. Many are published in the top scientific journals of the world.
As you heard in this interview, I also find the kind of humility that can accompany true genius. Ajit Varki knows what he doesn’t know, and has a sense of looking into difficult dark places where humans have not been before.
Dr. Varki is not a climate scientist, but he’s in touch with the field, and knows this is one we must get right, and can never go back if we don’t. I hope you will help spread this interview through your own social media and friends. It explains so much about how denial flourishes all around us, in so many ways.
This interview was suggested to me by Rob Mielcarski who blogs at undenial.wordpress.com. Rob has prepared a short summary of Varki and Brower’s work. It’s an excellent doorway. Rob has also posted a longer summary of this theory of human denial, as written by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. Surf Rob’s undenial blog, or get the link from my ecoshock blog. It’s worth your effort to get this, to see how we manage to deny so many realities. It’s a wonder we survive at all.
ERIKA SPANGER-SIEGFRIED ON AMERICA’S MILITARY BASES AT RISK FROM RISING SEAS
The climate threats faced by the American military are many, and they know it. In fact, climate issues are rising up in armed forces training and long-range planning. Of course, that’s one of the problems we face: the climate fundamental to so many things is changing slowly, but can manifest itself as “surprising” shifts. One of the slowest moving, but most inevitable and life-changing impacts, is the expansion of oceans as the world warms.
If you look at a map of America, it’s dotted with over 1200 military bases. Many of these, especially for the Navy, are located right at tide level. Tide level is going up, and so are storm surges, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is reliable and authoritative. Early this year they issued a major report “The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas (2016)”. The lead author and project manager for that report is Erika Spanger-Siegfried. She’s a senior climate analyst in the Climate and Energy Program, for the UCS.
You can find a summary of the UCS report “The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas (2016)” on this page.
In the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, we discovered sea level rise is not just one threat, but really three. They are more frequent and extensive tidal flooding; land loss as some installation areas are permanently inundated and others flood with daily high tides; and deeper and more extensive flooding due to storm surge.
As the Executive Summary of this report says:
“These climate-driven trends are already complicating operations at certain coastal installations (NAS 2011). A roughly three-foot increase in sea level would threaten 128 coastal DOD [Department of Defense] installations in the United States (43 percent of which are naval installations, valued at roughly $100 billion) and the livelihoods of the people—both military personnel and civilians—who depend on them (NAS 2011).”
It’s hard for anyone living outside America to imagine the stores, services and real estate markets locked into the nearby base. Some cities, and even some states, might crash without that income. So it isn’t just the military at risk, but a large segment of the U.S. economy.
Erika tells us some of the military bases were cooperative for this study, and even offered tours of their preparations. Others did not respond. That’s probably the reality on the ground: some will get ready, and some will go under.
Find out more about the Climate program at the Union of Concerned Scientists here.
BACK AT MAR-A-LAGO IN TRUMP DENIAL LAND
Last fall, I approached the U.S. Coast Guard to get their preparations for climate change. Before the election, they agreed and were hunting up their experts. After the election of the climate denier Donald Trump, they suddenly decline the interview, saying they had no experts. No doubt they fear their budgets will be slashed. It’s just part of the coming Trump shadow on climate change.
The EU Copernicus earth observation program has confirmed 2016 was by far the hottest year ever recorded. It was almost at the 1.5 degree alleged safe limit set at the Paris climate talks. We are already at the red line, and still have our foot on the gas. A dangerous new climate is dead ahead.
Back around Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, some of his $409,000 in 2016 property taxes will go toward the 12 pumps expected to grab up to a million gallons a minute from extreme rainfall and rising seas arriving in Palm Beach Florida.
The city work crews, surrounding Florida Mayors and insurance companies don’t doubt the impacts of climate change for a minute. They are already dealing with it as each King tide floods more streets, homes and businesses. Donald Trump has properties on the front line of climate impact in several parts of the world, whether he knows it or not. Maybe he won’t live to see it, but young people, including his children, will.
Be the first to join the Mar-a-Lago dive club! (Somebody needs to start that up as a thing)
The legend of King Canute, the British King who ordered the tides to stop without success, lives on a thousand years later. I doubt the Donald will be remembered that long. We don’t know if a human civilization with memory will survive that long, or even humans at all.
That may depend on the passengers on this sinking ship running to the other side, the side of intense and urgent climate action. I hope we all live long enough to see that.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for supporting my work on Radio Ecoshock, and for listening this week.