An Optimistic Hypothesis About Climate Skepticism

Governor Rick Perry thinks climate scientists have concocted the story of climate change in order to rake in gobs of money from government research grants.  Representative Michele Bachmann thinks global warming is a hoax.  While polls continue to show that a majority of Americans accept that climate change is a real and important problem and would like the government to enact solutions, serious discussion about action on climate change at the level of national politics has all but disappeared.  Contrary to Governor Perry and Representative Bachmann’s views, there is virtually no serious scientific disagreement that carbon dioxide and other greennhouse gases are causing and will continue to cause increases in global average temperatures, and that these increases are a result of human activity.  Rather, the scientific evidence that global warming is real, is human-caused, and is already affecting us in myriad ways mounts with every peer-reviewed scientific study.  So why are politicians demonizing the scientists, and why do the skeptics succeed in stymieing political action?

There are several explanations, and we should try to understand them all.   Here is a very short paraphrase of at least some.  Dan Kahan and his colleagues have published studies showing that we filter information about contested and empirically-based public policy debates through preexisting cognitive lenses shaped by our affiliations to different core values about fairness and hierarchy.  When an issue is particularly complicated and/or remote from our own senses or ability to assess information, we also tend to believe trusted speakers who affirm our sense of ourselves.  In other words, despite the scientific and therefore seemingly objective nature of what we know about climate change, we assess the truth of it through our preexisting cognitive frames.  As a result, before we even get to the very hard, value-laden and complicated set of choices about what we might do about climate change, the fight about whether it exists is already deeply emotional and political.  Stephen Gardiner has offered another important explanation that, in some respects, complements Kahan’s conclusions.  According to Gardiner, climate change presents the perfect combination of factors (remoteness in time and place; effects on others, including future generations; daunting collective action features; even more daunting prospects for easy solutions) to cause us to engage in ethically avoidant behavior.  We don’t want to see climate change for the very serious problem that it is, because it could disrupt the ways in which we think of ourselves as good and ethical people, living relatively virtuous, or at least relatively benign, lives.

So here is the possible upside of climate skepticism (and its arguably less troubling but more intractable cousin, climate-do-nothingism.)  Maybe the depth and breadth of both, instead of representing a depth of evil, stupidity, and/or old-fashioned corruption, are proportionate to the extent to which climate skeptics would actually care very deeply about what we are doing to ourselves, other species and future generations if they accepted the science.  In other words, maybe the denial is strong because the reservoir of moral concern would actually be huge.  Dissonance reduction, the psychological move underwriting the behavior observed  by Kahan and Gardiner, requires that we minimize or rationalize away conduct that does not comport with some larger conclusion about ourselves.  Maybe, just maybe, the larger conclusion is that we, across many spectrums, are good, thoughtful, deeply moral people (or at least like to think of ourselves in those ways.)  Therefore, we do not want to believe that our signature legacy will be that we sat by and did nothing while our actions changed the terms of life as we have known it.  The tricky part is figuring how to flip this switch to harness the reservoir of moral concern that, at the moment, is the very thing standing in the way of seeing climate change as real.  Even if we can manage that, there will be plenty to fight about.  But at least it will be a fight about what to do rather than a disheartening spectacle of attack on the science and denial of the problem.

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2 Responses to An Optimistic Hypothesis About Climate Skepticism

  1. Mike Burger says:

    Forgive the delayed response: While I appreciate the generosity of your hypothesis, I wonder if it has any more grounding in reality than its opposite — the denial is strong because climate skeptics really just don’t care about the non-visible, remote-in-space-and-time impacts on others. This is not to say that they are evil, or stupid, or corrupt. Nor is it to say they are immoral, either on a deep level or a shallow level. They are simply self-regarding, not other-regarding. They do not believe we owe any particular duty to island nations, communities in foreign places, or future generations. Of course, they cannot say that out loud, perhaps not to themselves, certainly not in a public/political space where moderates may be listening. It doesn’t sound very nice. But I’m not sure that it’s any less moral — to me it seems so, but that’s just me (and probably you, too.)

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