American climate change denial: the opinions of others defened by illogical arguments

Introduction:

The vast majority of Americans accept the reality of climate change.  Most also seem to understand that climate change will be bad for us humans.  However, this doesn’t seem to have much effect on American behavior.  Furthermore, some American climate change denial seems to focus on being personally, inexplicably immune to consequences.  These are not compatible opinions.  This schism in American opinion seems to be perpetuated by external influences and a deep need to avoid the cognitive dissonance involved with questioning core values.

Background:

Climate change is real and our fault:

Direct measurements, models, and every proxy that scientists examine almost universally agree that climate change is real and that it’s caused by us clumsy, filthy, hairless apes (Figure 1).  Thus, anthropogenic climate change has become one of the best understood and least contentious scientific theories of all time (Doran and Zimmerman, 2009; Maibach et al., 2014; Carlton et al., 2015).

a graph that plots climate change scenarios against measurements.
Figure 1: Plot of measured global average temperature (dashed line) shown with modelled global temperatures that includes human influence (added aerosols and greenhouse gasses) as a red line and modelled global temperatures without human influence as a blue line.  Note that significant warming is measured and without human intervention global cooling is most likely.  Credit: Rebecca Lindsey (via NASA); Licence: Public Domain.

It’s true that the Earth’s climate is naturally dynamic.  It is also true that the Earth has previously experienced periods of warmth.  However, us humans are now a primary source of geomorphic and geochemical change on this planet and this is unique in geologic history (Waters et al., 2016; Brown et al., 2017).  Thus, it’s tragically stupid to think that such a new and profound source of environmental change will fail to have significant effects—especially when all the best research agrees that it already is!  Maybe Roger Revelle put it best when his warning fell on deaf ears back in 1957:

“Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.  Within a few centuries we are returning to the atmospheres and oceans the concentrated organic carbon stored in sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years.”

Many Americans aren’t so sure we’re to blame:

Like the experts in the field, most Americans also think climate change is happening (Howe et al., 2015).  And the number of Americans who accept the reality of climate change is growing.  Research from 2013 (Leiserowitz et al.) suggested that about 63% of Americans thought climate change was happening.  While similar investigations from 2016 suggest that this has risen to 70%.  This suggests that Americans are starting to come to terms with reality.  But what about the underlying cause of that reality (us filthy, carbon-addicted monkey men)?

Despite the evidence, Americans are decidedly less certain about the human role in modern climate change (Anderegg et al., 2010).  Only about 49% of Americans think that, if climate change is happening, it’s caused by humans (Leiserowitz et al., 2013).  And this blithe opinion of humanities blamelessness only seems to be getting worse.  Recent research reveals that only about 28% of Americans think scientists understand the causes of climate change.

Many Americans think they’re immune:

Most Americans think climate change will be bad for some unidentified, abstract groups of people.  At least 63% suspect that it will be bad for people in developing nations.  Another 70% think that it will bad for future generations.  However, only about 19% of those same Americans also reported that they were very worried about climate change (Figure 2).  Furthermore, a full 15% of Americans report that humans can’t cause climate change because only God has that power!

Plot of survey data that shows about 19% of Americans are seriously concerned about climate change.
Figure 2: Plot of survey data that shows about 19% of Americans are seriously concerned about climate change. Credit: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (Leiserowitz et al., 2017).

Discussion:

Most Americans aren’t climate-change scientists or experts.  Thus, they haven’t the training or time to formulate their own well-informed opinions using the superabundance of available data.  So, it makes sense that they are gradually adopting the uncontentious and highly-respected consensus opinion of relevant experts.  But why doesn’t this hold true for all aspects of climate change theory?  Why are Americans so reluctant to accept any blame or concern?

Americans’ beliefs aren’t necessarily their own:

Abundant research documents a disturbing phenomenon amongst Americans: their political affiliations often seem to dictate non-political beliefs.  For example, research from 2016 showed that only 20% of US republicans thought climate change was an actual problem, as opposed to 68% of US democrats (Figure 3).

Graph displaying survey results distinguished by political affiliation.
Figure 3: Graph displaying survey results distinguished by political affiliation. Credit: Pew Research Center.

Simply aligning views to those of our favorite politicians is a big problem.  This just gives away the right to formulate an informed opinion.  Worse, by uncritically abandoning our own opinion-making faculties, we tacitly agree to blindly adhere to “our” political opinions and set the very notion of democracy adrift on Shits Creek with only a turd for a paddle.  Furthermore, this lazy approach to understanding scientific facts allows the obvious biases of politicians, who are paid by fossil fuel companies, to favorably influence how the nation is managed—effectively forcing society to navigate the Shits Creek rapids with a turd for a rudder.

And politics isn’t the only thing that sways public opinion.  New research shows that Americans’ opinions on the importance of climate change are also controlled by social media.  This is because our own beliefs are strongly affected by perceptions of how important other people deem a subject—even if we only get this information through “likes” (Spartz et al., 2017).

Given that Americans are forced to construct opinions while being bombarded by the bombastic rhetoric of biased politicians, and that input as fickle as YouTube-likes has come to have such a strong impact, it is no surprise that we see huge parts of the US populace adopting unrealistic opinions.

Fallacious rationalizations are common during climate change denial:

In addition to adopting strange opinions, many Americans (and everyone else) suffer from a lack of critical thinking skills.  This causes an inability to assess how we come to our conclusions.  And it’s not a problem exclusive to stupid people.

Intelligent people are often creative.  Sometimes this leads to problems because creative people are better at convincing themselves of whatever they want.  Through creativity, convoluted post-hoc rationalizations (conceived after the fact and attributing erroneous causes) become more believable, even to the person who created them.  Here are some common examples of these fallacious arguments with simple rebuttals (I’ve omitted the typical peppering of emotional capitalization):

  • Climate scientists just say global warming is real so they keep getting grant money!’ Climate scientists are not rich and they don’t get to spend their grant money on themselves; that money is for research.  More importantly, if a climate scientist found real evidence against anthropogenic climate change, that scientist would immediately be able to do Scrooge-McDuck-dives into a huge vat of grant money.  You don’t stand out in academia by concluding the same thing as everyone else (obviously).  And you attract funding by standing out.  This rationalization is the product of some combination of ignorance or wishful misunderstanding.
  • Science has been wrong before, so we can’t trust it now!’   Okay.  But you’ve been wrong before too, and now you’re telling yourself not to listen to science, so how can you trust yourself?  Of course it’s true that science is more correct now than it was in the past.  That’s because it makes progress.  That’s the whole point!
  • ‘It’s snowing outside, so where’s this confounded global warming!’ This one is a simple confusion between weather and climate.
  • CO2 is plant food!’ Well, yeah.  But that’s beside the point.  No one is making the argument that greenhouse gasses are starving the plants.  Greenhouse gasses are warming the planet, which is bad for biomes and the entire ecosystem.  Therefore, this is horrible for even the best-fed plants.

Okay, so maybe these rationalizations require more creativity than I invested in them because they seem pretty stupid right now.  But there is one more that’s very popular and a bit cleverer: the appeal to hypocrisy, or Tu quoque fallacy.  When used against climate change advocates (read that last as “reality proponents”), the appeal to hypocrisy often sounds like this: ‘Al Gore lives in a mansion, so he’s bad for the climate!’  The implied argument is: you don’t take care of the climate, so that gives me reason to not believe in your facts.  Or: hypocrites are wrong because hypocrisy.

I admit it.  You got me; I use about as much fossil fuel as many of my fellow humans.  But, my hypocrisy has no effect on the truth of my argument.  You can, and should, still listen to my message despite being annoyed by me being a hypocrite.  Just like if I fell off a tall building and my last words to you before my splattered guts stopped working were: “don’t jump off buildings,” you’d be stupid to ignore my advice because I was a hypocrite.  A smoking doctor is correct to tell you not to smoke.

Fallacies are used to preserve core beliefs and protect us from cognitive dissonance:

The big point here is that these fallacious rationalizations are just creative attempts to insulate deeply-held beliefs from uncomfortable facts.  It hurts our minds to question our deep beliefs.  This pain is referred to as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress and discomfort that occurs when deeply-held beliefs are threatened.  Unfortunately, many core American beliefs and values are challenged by the mounting evidence for anthropogenic climate change.  Many of these values center on some form of consumerism, usually involving rampant fossil fuel consumption.

For example: if you love ramming buck-deer with your bubba truck it sucks to hear that gas-guzzling will make your grandkids’ planet worse.  If you love to use some untested Curaçaoan tea during your meditation rituals, it sucks to be told that it likely doesn’t do anything except encourage unsustainable agriculture and promote fuel-intensive shipping.  If you believe that humans weren’t allowed to build the Tower of Babel, it’s really hard to understand why that same god would allow us to modify the climate of the whole flippn’ planet!  So, if you love bubba-truckn’, woo-tea or ancient fables enough, you desperately convince yourself that fossil fuel use has no effect.  And this isn’t just my own baseless speculation.  This idea is compatible with and supported by objective evidence.  For instance, an obvious correlation exists between low-concern regarding climate change and how much CO2 a nation emits (Figure 4).

This overprotective behavior is even more shocking when we consider that it is often not our own opinions that we are protecting.  Sometimes we are protecting ideas planted by our peers or political ideals, as discussed above.

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Plot showing a negative correlation between concern over climate change and CO2 emissions.
Figure 4: Plot showing a correlation between concern over climate change and CO2 emissions.  Credit: Pew Research Center.

Conclusion:

The position that American society seems to take regarding anthropogenic climate change seems to be: ‘it’s real, it’ll be bad for some people, but we don’t know what causes it and I’m sure it won’t be bad for me.’  This is naive.  And this naivety is perpetuated by vested interests who disregard the future, an overreliance on group-think, and quasi-clever rationalizations that distort reality.

That creeping discomfort that you feel when you think it might be more responsible to buy a hybrid, vote for a democrat, drink tap water, bike to work, or cancel the family road trip is cognitive dissonance.  It sucks.  But avoiding it at the cost of accepting facts damages your ability to grasp reality.  More importantly, ignoring reality turns you into a part of the problem.  At least if we all just agree to grow some thicker skin and accept some psychological stress we can stand a chance at facing reality together.

References:

Anderegg, W. R., Prall, J. W., Harold, J., & Schneider, S. H. (2010). Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(27), 12107-12109. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.full

Brown, A. G., Tooth, S., Bullard, J. E., Thomas, D. S., Chiverrell, R. C., Plater, A. J., … & Wainwright, J. (2017). The geomorphology of the Anthropocene: emergence, status and implications. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 42(1), 71-90. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/esp.3943/full

Carlton, J. S., Perry-Hill, R., Huber, M., & Prokopy, L. S. (2015). The climate change consensus extends beyond climate scientists. Environmental Research Letters, 10(9), 094025. http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/9/094025/meta

Doran, P. T., & Zimmerman, M. K. (2009). Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 90(3), 22-23. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2009EO030002/full

Howe, P. D., Mildenberger, M., Marlon, J. R., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015). Geographic variation in opinions on climate change at state and local scales in the USA. Nature Climate Change, 5(6), 596-603. http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v5/n6/full/nclimate2583.html

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E. W., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Howe, P. (2013). Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in April 2013. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2298705

Maibach, E., Myers, T., & Leiserowitz, A. (2014). Climate scientists need to set the record straight: There is a scientific consensus that human‐caused climate change is happening. Earth’s Future, 2(5), 295-298. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2013EF000226/full

Spartz, J. T., Su, L. Y. F., Griffin, R., Brossard, D., & Dunwoody, S. (2017). YouTube, social norms and perceived salience of climate change in the American mind. Environmental Communication, 11(1), 1-16. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17524032.2015.1047887

Waters, C. N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A. D., Poirier, C., Gałuszka, A., … & Jeandel, C. (2016). The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science, 351(6269), aad2622. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6269/aad2622

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.