Climate change denial is not about science

By David Charbonneau
December 14, 2017 - 5:00am

KAMLOOPS — The minds of climate-change deniers won’t be changed with scientific facts. For them, the real issue isn’t science.

There’s a temptation to think that if all the facts were presented to deniers, that suddenly they would see the light. Professor Katharine Hayhoe says that doesn’t work:

“The number one question I get from people is, ‘Could you just talk to my father-in-law, my congressman, my colleague? If you could just explain the facts to them, I’m sure it will change their mind.’ This is a trap. . . It almost never works. The only constructive dialogue with a dismissive person is on the level at which he or she really has the issue,” she told Scientific American (October 2017.) The Canadian political scientist teaches at Texas Tech University.

The real issue isn’t science. Sure, deniers like to couch arguments in science-y terms like it’s just a natural cycle, scientists aren’t sure, actually its global cooling, volcanoes are the cause. They use the language of science because they understand, or they have heard, that the scientific method tests theories in an irrefutable way.

The implications of reducing carbon emissions are scary for deniers. There are two. Entire economies have been built around the burning of fossil fuels. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if we stop burning fossils fuels our modern lifestyle will cease to exist. Economies will collapse. People will lose their jobs. Big Oil fuels these fears; it’s an existential issue for them.

Another implication has to with betrayal of your tribe. Although it wasn’t always the case, climate change has become politicized. I believe in climate change, not just because it can be scientifically proven but because it’s part of a set of values held by my tribe; along with pro-choice, fair wages, unionization and environmental protection.

Climate change wasn’t always tribal. A few decades ago, the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming was uncontroversial; it’s been known since the 1890s. The trapping of heat with some sort of “blanket” is not only scientifically true, it’s observable: When clouds cover Kamloops at night, it stays warmer than when it’s clear.

However, once climate change moved from being a fact on the shelf to an actionable truth, Big Oil began to lobby politicians to fight against cutbacks in carbon emission. The prospect of reversing the fossil fuel industry strikes fear in the corporate boardroom.

Climate change is the biggest issue facing humanity. We know the cause and we know the solution. Prof. Hayhoe has some tips. Shouting down the other tribe will not mobilize humanity to action. Avoid scientific arguments — they are not the real problem. Don’t use the words “climate” and “change” sequentially.

“With libertarians, we talk about free-market strategies,” says Prof. Hayhoe, “With mom’s groups, we talk about pollution affecting our kids’ health. With farmers, I say, ‘Hey, you’re the backbone of our food system, how have drought patterns changed?’ I don’t validate that there is a left and right side to climate change. And neither should the media.”

What’s the point in being right, in erecting tribal walls, when the future of our planet is at stake?