The Self-Justifying Myth

People love films like The Great Global Warming Swindle, because they tell us what we want to believe.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd July 2008.

There is just one party which doesn’t seem to care about the controversy created by The Great Global Warming Swindle. That is the company which broadcast it: Channel 4. In fact it seems rather proud of the fuss, and I suspect that Ofcom’s damning verdict won’t cause its executives a moment’s lost sleep. The channel boasts that the programme generated a huge response, and that favourable comments outweighed hostile remarks by six to one(1).

Though the programme was 90 minutes of nonsense(2), I find this quite easy to believe. Faced with the overwhelming realities of climate change, people clutch at any reassurance. We want someone to tell us that everything will be alright, that we can carry on enjoying this marvellous feast of fossil fuels without adverse effects.

On almost every other weighty issue, the professional classes appear to be better informed than the rest of the population. On global warming the reverse seems to be true. The only people I have met over the past few years who haven’t the faintest idea what manmade climate change is or how it is caused are university graduates. Not long ago, for example, I had to explain to the press officer at the government’s Department for Transport what carbon dioxide is. A few weeks ago the writer Mark Lynas found a counter-intuitive revelation buried in the small print of an ICM survey. The number of people in social classes D and E who thought the government should prioritise the environment over the economy was higher (56%) than the proportion in classes A and B (47%)(3). It is counter-intuitive only because a vast and well-funded denial industry has spent years persuading us that environmentalism is a middle-class caprice. Classes A and B are Channel 4’s core audience.

From this distribution I deduce that the problem is not that people aren’t hearing about climate change, but that they don’t want to know. The professional classes have the most freedom to lose and the least to gain from an attempt to restrain it. Those who are most responsible for carbon pollution are – being insulated by their money – the least likely to suffer its effects. We talk airily in the United Kingdom about the adaptation technologies which will shield us from catastrophe. But in the Sahel, as I saw during a major climate-related drought, an effective adaptation technology is already being deployed. It’s called the AK47.

Last night I watched a preview screening of Franny Armstrong’s fascinating film The Age of Stupid, which follows the lives of six people – from the boss of an Indian airline to a fisherwoman in the Niger delta – caught up in climate change. The message, never stated but constantly emerging, is that we all have our self-justifying myths. We tell ourselves a story of our lives in which we almost always appear as the heroes. These myths prevent us from engaging with climate change.

The most powerful story of all, endlessly narrated by the hired hands of the fossil fuel industry, just as it was once told by the sugar slavers, is that we are both all-important and utterly insignificant. We are too important to be denied any of the delights we crave, but too insignificant to exert any impact on planetary processes. We fill the whole frame of the story when it suits us and shrink to a dot when that scale is more convenient. We are capable of occupying both niches simultaneously.

It is not just because The Great Global Warming Swindle is at odds with the entire body of scientific knowledge on this subject that I have bothered to contest it. It is also because it is consonant with the entire body of human self-deception. We want to be misled, we crave it; and we will bend our minds into whatever shape they need to take in order not to face our brutal truths.


1. Owen Gibson, 19th July 2008. Channel 4 to be censured over controversial climate film. The Guardian.

2. See the article accompanying this one, at

3. Mark Lynas, 2nd July 2008. Climate change is no longer just a middle-class issue. The Guardian.