Denialism, skepticism, and the neglected moral crisis of anthropogenic climate change

My latest commentary for KVPR‘s “The Moral Is” aired this week. You can listen to me reading this via the program archive. Or you can read it yourself right here in this slightly extended version, with links:

Sunset over a warming northern ocean

As temperatures continue to soar during this long hot summer, the number of Americans willing to accept the reality of climate change also rose slightly. Yet there are many stoking “skepticism” of the scientific consensus that climate change is largely driven by human actions.

Must people experience heat personally to believe that the world is getting hotter? Will they swing the other way if we get a cold winter, likely because climate models indicate not uniform warming, but increases in extremes of weather? Call it global weirding instead of mere warming. The human mind has a tendency to extrapolate based on immediate experience, and is often unable to grasp events unfolding over an arc of time much longer than our lifespans. Yet grasp such trends we must if we are to survive as a species clinging to the thin living crust of this dynamic planet that has seen far worse cataclysms in the past and may do so again in the future, perhaps with our help.

We live in the Anthropocene, a new era in the Earth’s history where industrialized humans have become a true global geological force. Will we also now accept planetary stewardship, and begin to live in ways that minimize rather than exaggerate the fluctuations on this dynamic planet? The first step to recovery is acceptance of the problem, which in this case depends on understanding how our everyday short-term local actions add up to long-term planetary impacts.

Fortunately, we have invented a variety of methods and tools to help us overcome our sensory and cognitive limitations, and through science, develop a better understanding of long-term dynamics. Unfortunately, there are those who would prefer to keep this scientific knowledge at bay to further short-term profits. Two news stories from this long hot summer underscore the tension between these two driving forces in American public discourse.

Physicist Richard Muller of Berkeley, among the most prominent of climate-change skeptics, running the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study with funding from the Koch brothers (who have millions invested in maintaining short-term profits through persistent denial of long-term consequences), published a mea culpa in the New York Times when his own reanalysis of climate data led him to the same conclusions climatologists had reached over a decade ago: that ‘humans are almost entirely the cause’ of potentially catastrophic climate change! While this illustrates how science works, by rigorously testing hypotheses with data, it also shows the pitfalls of not trusting experts from the field who have spent years doing exactly that. Must we remain paralyzed in inaction, or worse, persist in our bad fossil-fuel burning habits for decades while professional skeptics funded by vested interests keep on challenging the experts’ consensus?

Meanwhile, Bill McKibben, that noted environmentalist Cassandra who has been beating his head for two decades against the walls of well-funded climate change denialism, raised a truly terrifying specter in Rolling Stone magazine based on new analyses of the mathematics of our dependence on fossil fuels. To sum up McKibben’s meticulously detailed argument (a must read even if—or because—it may have you curling up in a fetal position): while governments continue to fiddle on their promise made in Kyoto to keep global temperature rise below 2°C, which gives us room to add no more than 565 gigatons more of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we are in fact planning to add over 5 times that amount, 2795 gigatons! That last, truly scary number is from a new analysis accounting for all the fossil fuel reserves that are already factored into the business plans of the oil companies and national economic policies! In other words, we are already going ahead with plans to make climate change much much worse, even as denialist skepticism keeps concern about this looming catastrophe at the bottom of the American public’s priorities in this election season.

In this final stretch of the long Presidential election cycle, when everyone is hurling charges at each other about various “moral values”, where is the leadership on this deepest moral crisis confronting humanity: when will we truly become better stewards of our Earth?

About aranyak

I am an associate professor of vertebrate ecology at California State University, Fresno.
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One Response to Denialism, skepticism, and the neglected moral crisis of anthropogenic climate change

  1. People are more disconnected today than ever before when it comes to the environment. World economies are obsessed with consumerism and it’s promotion to better there economies. Suddenly the “Green Solutions” and/or “Eco Innovations” cache phrases are nothing more than cloaked advertising in the Green Grabs game and often times by the biz entities promoting themselves as caring for the environment. Kind of like those old Chevron Commercials of “Do people really care about the environment ? People do!”

    Personally I find most folks extent of involvement or interest in things ecology appears to be limited to clicking a “LIKE” button on Facebook. I’m beginning to think it is becoming impossible to get folks excited anymore and that excitement comes at the age of infancy and starts with parents. But parenting isn’t what it use to be either. No I think mankind is incapable of being a good custodian to Earth in their present mindset. It’s not so much a material fix as it is a spiritual one and by that I mean qualities that make up the human personality like being a good neighbour, parent, child, husband or wife etc etc etc. So much protest has been lobbied against so many thing traditional in life that even the close family structure has been a casualty. As historians point out, that has usually been a sign of downfall.

    Caring about ecology has ZERO to do with political ideologies. I think some just support causes out of spite for hating something else. But I can say this, I have spoken to every kind of person from varying cultural backgrounds who come from 3rd world countries and they say that even an illiterate person can see there has been a change in climate.


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