On a Par with Flat Earthers: The Irrationality of Climate Change Denial

From Brandwatch

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

—Albert Einstein

With the sphericity of the Earth established by the ancient Greeks more than 2,000 years ago, it is difficult to believe that there are still holdouts, yet polls indicate that between one and two percent of the population of Canada and the U.S. believe the Earth is flat. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s between three and six million people. 1

“I don’t want to be a flat Earther,” David Weiss says, his voice weary as he reflects on his personal enlightenment. “Would you wake up in the morning and want everyone to think you’re an idiot?” But Weiss has been a flat Earther ever since he tried and failed to find proof of the Earth’s curvature four years ago. 2

David’s experience is an example of how our reality is not mere reportage. Cognitive scientists know that our minds construct the world we inhabit; that our reality begins with sensory input but ends with an organized conceptual framework of reality that is wholly created by the mind. (That construct, incidentally, includes ourselves.)

The movie “The Matrix” gave expression to this notion. The red pill let you to see the world as is and the blue pill let you remain ignorant of it.  The flaw in this conceit is that, red pill or blue pill, we can’t know the world “as it is” but only as we create it. The mind has no access to the underlying reality (whatever that may be) from which sensory input arises. This fact, that even without a blue pill or the handicap of a neurosis, we still create our reality, is what makes delusion possible. Being normal simply means that our rational mind is better able to maintain a détente with the irrational forces that ascend from the darkness of the unconscious.

The number of climate change deniers is considerably greater than the number of flat-Earthers. A recent poll3 found that 5 percent of Americans do not believe that the climate is changing and 18 percent say that it is changing but that human activity has nothing to do with it. That’s a total of 23 percent. With an adult population of 250 million, that’s almost 60 million people. That is a frightening statistic in a nation whose government is determined by the governed.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote:  “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

People deny climate change largely for two reasons. The first is unquenchable greed. The fossil fuel industry, aided by political lobbyists, media moguls and wealthy individuals, have spent billions over the past 30 years sowing doubt about the reality of climate change, much like the tobacco industry before them sowed doubt about the addictive nature of nicotine and the carcinogens that tobacco smoke delivered into the lungs of its users.  Some of the lawyers who defended the tobacco companies moved on after the settlement. Where did they go? To the fossil fuel industry. Where large sums of money are to be made, you will always find unscrupulous individuals around the trough.  There is no delusion here, only a deranged drive for riches and power and the willingness to prevaricate to achieve them.

The second is tribalism and fear.  Here is Steven Pinker:

People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.”

In other words the need to identify with a group is more determinative of belief than facts and reason. That’s why debating deniers is a futile effort. Debate is supposed to revolve around facts and reason.

Although the arguments posed by climate change deniers are just cosmetic – either the concoctions of those who seek to enrich themselves or the greasepaint of the fearful worn to camouflage from themselves and others the underlying anxiety that drives their posturing – we will take a look at a few just to appreciate how far greed or fear can upend rational thinking and cause us to act in ways detrimental to our own good and the good of future generations.

Take a moment to reflect on how distorted one’s thinking must become to not even consider the possibility that, by continuing to burn fossil fuels, we run the risk of doing serious harm to our children and grandchildren. It is against our deepest nature to do anything of the kind, and yet fossil fuel emissions continue to grow each year.

Now to the false claims of climate change deniers. We’ll critique the five most frequently cited claims6:

  1. The climate has changed before
  2. It’s the sun
  3. There is no consensus
  4. It’s cooling
  5. It’s not bad

The Climate Has Changed Before:  The skeptic’s argument: Climate is always changing. There have been several ice ages in the last 700 thousand years, and there have been previous periods that appear to have been warmer than the present despite carbon dioxide levels being lower than they are now.

Response:  Yes, climate has always changed, but far slower than today. Life has a chance to adapt to slow change, but when evolution cannot keep up with the pace of change, life cannot adapt, and extinction events occur. There have been six mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.  The worst one so far started 455 million years ago, lasted for 15 million years, and wiped out 90% of all species.

The sixth mass extinction is occurring right now and is caused by climate change due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions, and to the reduction and degradation of habitats due to human activity.  The current rate of extinction is estimated to be from 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate.

What makes this extinction event stand out from others, and what has climate scientists alarmed, is the speed with which it is occurring. Rather than millions of years, it is taking place in a matter of decades – a comparative blink of the eye.  So there is no cause to dismiss this crisis with the banal statement “climate is always changing.” And there is certainly no cause to exclude the possibility of our own extinction.  Like other animals, we are part of the biosphere, and we have no “get out of jail free” card that will exempt us from the fate we have already dealt to so many other species.

It’s the Sun:  The skeptic’s argument: Over the past few hundred years, there has been a steady increase in the number of sunspots, at the time when the Earth has been getting warmer. The data suggests solar activity is influencing the global climate causing the world to get warmer.

Response:  The sun is gradually getting warmer as it ages, but on a scale of hundreds of millions of years. For the short timeframes we are dealing with, the average solar irradiance is constant. It does vary up and down on an eleven-year cycle, with a corresponding warming or cooling effect, so it can’t be responsible for long-term warming. And these cyclical changes in solar irradiance adds or subtracts less than one tenth of one percent of one degree Celsius to the global temperature. By comparison, the extra greenhouse gases that human activity has put into the atmosphere have resulted in almost a one-degree Celsius rise in temperature since 1960.  This is more than one hundred times the impact of the solar cycle.  Furthermore, over the last 35 years the sun has shown a cooling trend while global temperatures have continued to rise.

There Is No Consensus:  The skeptic’s argument: The Petition Project features over 31,000 scientists signing the petition stating: “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere ….”

Response:  A consensus in science is different than a political consensus. It doesn’t depend on votes, polls, or petitions.  Scientists just give up arguing because the sheer weight of consistent evidence is too compelling.  Not only do scientists stop arguing, they also start relying on each other’s work. All science depends on that which precedes it, and when one scientist builds on the work of another, he acknowledges the work of others through citations.

The work that forms the foundation of climate change science is cited with great frequency by many other scientists, demonstrating that the theory is widely accepted – and relied upon.  In the scientific field of climate studies, which is informed by many different disciplines, the consensus is demonstrated by the number of scientists who have stopped arguing about what is causing climate change – and that’s nearly all of them. The Petition Project does not change this reality.

It’s Cooling:  The skeptic’s argument: Global warming has stopped, and a cooling is beginning. No climate model has predicted a cooling of the Earth – quite the contrary. And this means that the projections of future climate are unreliable.

Response:  There is no evidence that the world is cooling. On the contrary, as the following graph shows, the global surface temperature of the Earth is steadily rising. And this doesn’t include the world’s oceans which absorb 93% of all the heat from anthropogenic global warming.

It’s Not Bad: The skeptic’s argument: Two thousand years of published human histories say that warm periods were good for people. It was the harsh, unstable Dark Ages and Little Ice Age that brought bigger storms, untimely frost, widespread famine and plagues of disease.”

Response:  The fact that the warmer periods during the past two thousand years were more favorable to human civilization than cold spells says nothing about today’s climate that is already warmer than at any time in the last 125,000 years and will continue to become much warmer.  Some of the effects of this sudden, dramatic, and continuing increase in global temperature are very bad indeed.  Here is a partial list:

  • Declining agricultural yields: Climate change will alter rainfall patterns causing floods and droughts that could disrupt agriculture. Higher latitudes, like Siberia, for example, may become productive due to global warming, but the soil in the Arctic and bordering territories is very poor, and the amount of sunlight reaching the ground there is less than in temperate zones.  These factors will produce much smaller yields.
  • The loss of Arctic Ocean ice: Because sea ice reflects 90% of solar radiation and sea water only reflects 6%, as ice melts, the Arctic Ocean retains more heat.  This feedback loop accelerates the warming process and causes the Artic to warm much faster than the rest of the planet.  In the last decade the Arctic warmed .75 degrees Celsius compared to .25 degrees for the total planet.  Summer Artic Ocean ice cover is expected to disappear within the next dozen years.  This will accelerate the melting of the Greenland ice cap.  Permafrost and methane clathrates will also melt faster and begin to produce large quantities of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.
  • Ocean Acidification: About one third of carbon dioxide emissions end up in the Ocean where they reduce the PH of the water (ie: make it more acidic).  This has severe destabilizing effects on the entire oceanic food-chain.
  • Sea Level Rise: Over 600 million people around the world live in coastal regions that are 30 feet or less above sea level.  These areas will be seriously affected by even a modest sea level rise.  Fresh water aquifers that provide water for drinking and agriculture will become polluted by encroaching salt-water.  Rice paddies are already being inundated with salt-water, which destroys the crops. Sea water is also contaminating rivers as it mixes with fresh water further upstream. Notably, the most recent IPCC report did not include melt water from the Greenland and Antarctic ice-caps due to uncertainties at the time, so estimates of sea-level rise are feared to considerably underestimate the scale of the problem.
  • Environmental Degradation: Further growth of oxygen-poor ocean zones, contamination or exhaustion of fresh water, increased incidence of natural fires, extensive vegetation die-off due to droughts, increased risk of coral extinction, decline in global phytoplankton, changes in migration patterns of birds and animals, changes in seasonal periodicity, disruption to food chains, and species loss

Conclusion

Human emotions affect the cognitive functions of our brain and cause our thinking to become irrational.  This is why Flat Earthers, Climate Change Deniers, Biblical literalists, paranormal societies, and endless numbers of other organizations with peculiar ideas unsupported by evidence and inured to reason continue to exist.

With regard to Climate Change Deniers, opposition to the science is caused by a desire for self-enrichment by those who profit from the sale of fossil fuels, and by the fears of an increasingly anxious and isolated minority who feel threatened by the changing demographics and mores of our country.  These fears have morphed into a political backlash against a growing liberalism.  In its visceral rejection of science and reason it represents a reversion to kind of populist primitivism which rejects facts that are not congenial to its preference for dogmatic simplicity and iron-fisted control.  Climate denialism must be seen in this larger political, social, and cultural context.  Being an aspect of a broader social realignment, it is something that is not likely to change until the evidence is literally brought to the doorstep of this blinkered clique of neurotics.  This does not bode well for our future.


References:

  1. From Scientific American
  2. From CNN
  3. From YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project
  4. From James Clear, Habits Academy
  5. From Science Alert
  6. From Skeptical Science
  7. From Personal Growth