The Odd Differences Over Climate Change
Insofar as most behavioral scientists have ascertained (note here, “most”), not one among the nine million other animal species on earth suffers the naïve inability of humans to accept facts always for what they are: information that is proven and irrefutable. (Of course, the reason those nine million don’t share our propensity for ignorance in the face of confirmation is because, not ignoring the irony, they aren’t as intelligent.)
Consider the opposing viewpoints about global climate change (global warming). Despite the preponderance of evidence — much, indeed, proven as fact — that human activity is altering earth’s life-support system, 25% of American adults (57 million) rejects this information. Comparably, only 40% of American adults regards the observed consequences of global climate change as a major threat to physical wellbeing and property.1 Those consequences include: greater frequency and intensity of hurricanes, tornados, monsoons, hailstorms, snowstorms, and other weather systems; increasing greenhouse gas levels; rampant drought and wildfires; melting polar icecaps; rising atmospheric and oceanic temperatures; and burgeoning health problems resulting from increasing pollution and summertime heat.
Doubters of climate change are even counted among meteorologists, those weathercasters who tell us if tomorrow will bring sunshine or precipitation, hot or cold. In a random sampling of 571 TV meteorologists, only one-third of the respondents said that they believe climate change is “caused mostly by human activities.”2 Even the founder of the Weather Channel, John Coleman, dismisses the facts of mankind’s contribution to climate change. “There isn’t any climate crisis,” he said. “It’s totally manufactured.”3 Conversely, climatologists, who study weather patterns over time, agree, nearly by consensus, that the earth is warming and human activity is contributing to climate change.4
Above all, the world’s leading coalition for the scientific study of global climates, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), confidently asserts 95% probability that human activity is the primary cause of climate change.5
Here is a synopsis of the IPCC’s ongoing research on climate change:
Although the panel’s scientists concede that it is difficult to calculate precisely the past, present, and potential future effects of human activity on climate, their research shows irrefutably that the exponential increase of human population, production, and consumption is having a detrimental effect. In its 2013 report, the IPCC concluded, “It is extremely likely humans are the dominant cause of warming in the past 60 years.” The report further concluded that aggressive weather is more common, more widespread, and longer lasting; dry regions are getting drier, and wet regions wetter; and, with more than a billion vehicles now operating worldwide, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are escalating beyond natural levels.
Three leading causes of the rift between public perception and scientific proof are journalists, politicians, and the human brain.
Journalists discuss the weather earnestly, plugging it around the clock on radio, giving it the page one lead in newspapers whenever it acts up, and having bequeathed it its own TV channel; yet coverage of climate change has been feeble. An ongoing study by the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Colorado-Boulder, reveals that mainstream media coverage of climate change has decreased significantly in countries throughout the world since 2010. The study tracks climate reportage at 50 newspapers in 20 countries on six continents.6 Not surprisingly, coverage has been more robust in industrialized than non-industrialized nations.
In the political arena, polarization disrupts, and often times defuses, clear-headed nonpartisan discussion of climate.
Declaring that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction,”7 President Barack Obama, in June 2013, presented a comprehensive plan for combating climate change — chief among his proposals, to significantly reduce manufacturer emissions of CO2.8 But the plan has stalled as a result of lukewarm public opinion and congressional charges that its measures would restrict energy production and stall the nation’s economic recovery.9
Environmental policy dissent on opposite sides of the political aisle hasn’t always been the norm in America. Republicans and Democrats united in praise of Theodore Roosevelt for championing environmental protection and natural-resources conservation, including his foresight to establish our National Parks Service; both parties extended majority support of Franklin Roosevelt’s Soil Conservation Service; and the two sides joined in signing into law the hallmark environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., the Clean Water Act of 1972).
But collaboration quickly evolved into contention in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan characterized many of the nation’s environmental laws as burdensome on business (an attitude accented by his infamous claim, “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”). The Reagan administration’s [now clichéd] charge that “government is the problem, not the solution” exacerbated the two parties’ increasingly disparate earthview in its suggestion that the Environmental Protection Agency had bloated nearly to the point of irrelevance from spendthrift policies of Democrats.
By 1997, the year the U.N. established the Kyoto protocol10 to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative commentators, had already started rejecting evidence of global warming and proposals for its reversal in what now seems as much an effort to vilify those who acknowledge the scientific facts as to propagandize the contrasting beliefs.
Today, “[n]owhere is the partisan gap on environmental issues more apparent than on climate change.”11 Surveys conducted by pollsters (Gallop, Pew Research Center, and others), as well as the news and wire services, show, on average, that more than 75% of congressional Democrats sanction the scientific data that global warming is a real phenomenon and human activity is its main cause. Conversely, only 40% of congressional Republicans share this viewpoint. Not surprisingly, as a demonstration of shared ideology (and party allegiance), the percentages are nearly exact among registered Democratic and Republican voters, respectively. (Responses of voters who describe themselves as independent are split nearly evenly, 50-50.)
Meanwhile, the world’s life-support system continues to face a bleak future unless Americans and their leaders of all political persuasions — indeed, leaders and their constituencies throughout the world — collaborate soon to establish and enforce an aggressive policy to reverse global warming. Notwithstanding the Kyoto protocol, Obama plan, and other sovereign and international proposals to mandate this reversal, to date perhaps the bluntest is the Durban Platform, a U.N. assessment which declares that the worst impacts of global warming can be avoided only if carbon emissions are reduced at a rate that prevents the global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius (2°C). The Platform’s warning is auspicious: To ensure that the global temperature remains below 2°C, humans may emit only 250 billion tons of additional carbon into the atmosphere. Considering that humans currently burn about 10 billion tons of carbon a year, at this rate mankind will use up its allowance in just 25 years.12
If humans do not accede to the emissions limit prescribed by the Durban Platform, the global temperature may reach four degrees Celsius (4°C) before the end of this century.13 Translated into actual scenarios, by 2100 this heat spike could well have caused CO2 levels to exceed those at the time of the last extinction, 65 million years ago.14
Given the 95% probability assertion by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading coalition for the scientific study of global climates, that human activity is the primary cause of global warming, how can it be that 57 million American adults believes humans bear little, or no, responsibility? A majority of human adults understands that when water is continuously expended on iron, the iron rusts. Why, then, do so many refuse to accept the truth that the same carbon emissions long proven to pollute skies, soils, and waterways are also proven to be altering the world’s climates?
Genetic factors certainly help sway avowal of the facts of climate change in some and disavowal in others; specifically, mental factors that can cause emotional/subjective responses (bias, partisanship, susceptibility to persuasion, etc.) to predominate over cognitive/objective responses (disinterest, tolerance, independence, etc.). Cultural influences also help shape mindsets about climate change; social factors (ignorance and denial), political factors (persuasion tactics and partisan loyalties), and economic factors (income status and threats to financial interests) all influence those who acknowledge global warming and those who debunk it as illusion.
Ignorance (consequence of being uninformed) and denial (refusal to accept facts) may be the principal culprits in the still widespread disavowal of the effects of human activity on climate change. Among the 57 million American adults who dismiss the scientific data about climate change, the catalysts of their rejection of the facts range from unawareness and fear to repudiation stemming from socio-political viewpoints, religious beliefs, and suspicion (e.g., influence of conspiracy theories). In 2013 polls by livescience.com, the number of respondents who said they “don’t know” if the global climate is changing increased 16% to 23% from April to November.15
Long-term scientific revelations about the human brain — especially the theory of motivated reasoning — have revealed psychological factors that contribute to one’s prevailing tendency either to abide reason (acknowledge facts) or abide perception (kowtow to beliefs). Specifically, the theory refers to the rejection of information (i.e., facts) that refutes beliefs.
In its application on global climate change, the theory explains repudiation of science.
For example, a 2013 study revealed that “people with a ‘conservative’ political world view could be more likely to reject climate science than ‘liberals,’ but less likely, say, to reject childhood vaccination. And people with a more ‘conservative’ world view who are more highly educated could be more skeptical of climate science than those who have fewer years of education.”16
Will mankind, en masse, ever achieve the 95% certainty of their scientist brethren that human activity is causing climate change? Only time will tell.
Swallowing hard with trepidation, many scientists predict that time is fewer than 25 years away.
- Drake, B. (2013). “Most Americans believe climate change is real, but fewer see it as a threat,” Pew Research Center. Also see: United States Census Bureau (2013). Of the current 317 million Americans, 230 million are adults.
- Maibach, E., Wilson, K., & Witte, J. (2010). “A National Survey of Television Meteorologists about Climate Change: Preliminary Findings.” George Mason University, Center for Climate Change Communication, Fairfax, Virginia.
- Coleman, J. (2010). “The experts explain the global warming myth: John Coleman,” YouTube presentation.
- Op cit.
- Climate Change (2008). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to promote worldwide scientific evaluation of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impact. The IPCC assesses risks of climate change on societies, and options toward confronting such change.
- Boykoff, M. & Nacu-Schmidt, A. (2013). “2004-2013 World Newspaper Coverage of Climate Change or Global Warming,” University of Colorado-Bolder, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/media_coverage.
- Obama, B. (2013). “The President’s Climate Action Plan,” presidential address, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
- “The President’s Climate Action Plan” (2013). The White House, Washington, D.C. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/image/president27sclimateactionplan.pdf.
- Landler, M. & Broder, J. (2013). “Obama Outlines Ambitious Plan to Cut Greenhouse Gases,” The New York Times.
- Kyoto protocol (1997). U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kyoto, Japan. Responding to a 40% increase in carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide, from 1990-2009 (see Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency report), the Kyoto protocol became the first agreement among nations to mandate country-by-country reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Nearly all industrialized nations worldwide have signed the treaty, with the notable exception of the United States. Policies of the protocol were enforced beginning in 2005.
- Dunlap, R. (2008). “Climate-Change Views: Republican-Democrat Gaps Expand,” Gallop. http://www.gallup.com/poll/107569/climatechange-views-republicandemocratic-gaps-expand.aspx.
- Durban U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP17/CMP7) (2011). Durban, South Africa.
- Nordhaus, W. (2013). The Climate Casino, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
- Ibid. Note: Scientists universally agree that at least five mass extinctions have occurred on the earth. According to the National Geographic Society, “[M]any scientists think...evidence indicates a sixth mass extinction is under way. The blame for this one, perhaps the fastest in Earth’s history, falls firmly on the shoulders of humans. By the year 2100, human activities such as pollution, land clearing, and overfishing may have driven more than half of the world’s marine and land species to extinction.” http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/mass-extinction. For more information, see Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt & Company, New York, New York.
- Pappas, S. (2014). More Americans Don’t Believe Global Warming is Happening: Survey.” livescience.com in collaboration with weather.com. http://www.weather.com/news/science/environment/more-americans-dont-believe-global-warming-happening-survey-20140117.
- Bastian, H. (2013). “Motivated reasoning: Fuel for controversies, conspiracy theories and science denialism alike,” Scientific American, blog. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/absolutely-maybe/2013/10/14/motivated-reasoning-fuel-for-controversies-conspiracy-theories-and-science-denialism-alike.