Addressing Climate Change Denial

The US produces more than 5 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year, and is the second leading country in the world by emissions. Photo credit: Thomas Hafeneth

The US produces more than 5 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year, and is the second leading country in the world by emissions. Photo credit: Thomas Hafeneth

Last year, President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement, a pact between 175 nations around the world that took scientists years of negotiating, mounting evidence and convincing nations that the health of the environment is worth the minor financial setback that implementing environmental initiatives will have on their economies. For the United States to drop out of this agreement was naïve, reactionary, and a poor use of our power on the world stage. However, despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, a large portion of US citizens supported this decision, suggesting there is still significant skepticism surrounding climate change in our nation.

It is clear that we, as scientists and as people, are not doing a good job of communicating climate change science. This is something we have to get better at.

The health of our planet should be an issue that supersedes politics, but it appears this is not yet the case. A survey by Gallup last year found that 85 percent of Democrats believe that humans are a leading cause of the changing global climate, while only 38 percent of Republicans share the same view, suggesting that this has become a political debate more than anything else. In this article, I would like to discuss how we can more productively address climate change denial and hopefully gather more support for a sustainable and environmentally conscious future.

Some people deny climate change because it is happening on too slow of a scale for them to notice: the lack of obvious changes leads them to believe that they won’t be affected personally. Some deny it because they believe environmental reform will hurt our economy. Some just deny it because their political party tells them to. In any case, the conversation with climate change deniers needs to be approached in a way which doesn’t attack their values and doesn’t solely use science to refute their claims. Studies have shown that simply listing facts has almost no impact on the opinions of climate change deniers.

Photo credit: Mark Chaves

Photo credit: Mark Chaves

What seems to be actually impactful is discussing climate change through the narratives of the people it impacts: the fishermen in southeast Asia who can no longer provide for their families, the Inuit in Alaska who have run out of food, the citizens of Louisiana and California that have lost their homes in hurricanes and wildfires.

Talking about climate change in a way that people can relate to and feel empathy for is the only way to change this paradigm; climate change is everyone’s problem, everyone’s responsibility, and everyone’s future.

Ultimately, what we need here is to have productive dialogue, and that starts by hearing what those who deny climate change have to say. Climate change scientist Michael Mann listened to many of their stories and compiled them into a pretty accurate series of rationales that deniers often use to support their claims. Let’s talk about each of these statements, and how you can respond to them.

1.     Carbon dioxide is not actually increasing

Carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere over the past several thousand years. Credit: NASA

Carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere over the past several thousand years. Credit: NASA

Enough evidence from scientists all over the globe has accumulated to confidently put this myth to sleep. When you dig up hundreds of billions of tons of fossilized plant and animal remains from deep inside the Earth and burn them, the one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll release a pretty significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuel use has led to atmospheric CO2 levels increasing at a rate that is 200 times faster than it was during the global warming event that ended the last ice age. In Earth’s distant past, healthy levels of carbon dioxide hovered around 250 parts per thousand (ppt), a balance which supports the health of a massive diversity of life on this planet. In the past 150 years, carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere has increased to 410 ppt, which is the highest it has been in more than 800,000 years. Already, we are seeing the global effects of this spike in CO2, which we will discuss below.

2.     Even if CO2 is increasing, the increase has no impact on the climate since there is no convincing evidence of warming.

Since 1880, we have seen a global increase in temperature of 1.8°F, and seventeen of the warmest years ever recorded have taken place since 2001. 1.8° may not seem like a big deal, but the planet is sensitive to minute changes in temperature similar to how your body is; 2°F of an increase is enough to create a constant, planetwide ‘fever’ that wreaks havoc on ecosystem regulation. Furthermore, this is only an average, meaning some environments on Earth have gotten much warmer than that.

This temperature increase has been attributed to the greenhouse gas effect: carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun in our atmosphere and slowly warms the planet. There is no longer any question or any doubt: increasing atmospheric CO2 is causing global temperatures to rise, and it’s happening faster than ever recorded in history.

The result is a changing world. The term ‘global warming’ is no longer capable of addressing the countless other human-induced changes taking place in our world; instead, we use ‘climate change’, which encompasses the higher frequency of extreme weather patterns, the acidification of our oceans, sea level rise, thermohaline circulation slowdown, lower crop yields, and higher incidence of diseases.

Average global temperatures in 1884 (left) vs 2017 (right). Credit: NASA

Average global temperatures in 1884 (left) vs 2017 (right). Credit: NASA

 3.     Even if there is warming, it is due to natural causes.

The Earth has experienced cyclic changes in global climate for about 3.8 billion years, most of these due to small variations in Earth’s orbit that change how much solar radiation we receive. Temperatures increase, polar ice melts, sea level rises and organisms who can’t adapt go extinct. A few thousand years later, temperatures fall, an ice age begins, ice begins to take over previously tropical land, and yet more organisms go extinct.

These cycles happen gradually and predictably, and in the transitionary time between the extremes of hot and cold the Earth can recalibrate, allowing new species to evolve and thrive in new conditions and to maintain incredible biodiversity, no matter what global climate looks like.

Human activity, which is not cyclic, gradual or natural, does not fall into this category.

The change in climate we are currently experiencing is different because it is progressing on a time scale thousands of years shorter than what the Earth is accustomed to. The change between the hottest and coldest average global temperatures in natural cycles is only about 7 degrees over 5,000 years; in the past century and a half we have already seen an increase of almost 2 degrees.

The changes in global temperatures, carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, and biodiversity we have seen in only a hundred and fifty years might happen naturally in several thousand. Amidst this rapid change, the natural progression where species can adapt and continue to thrive is being interrupted. Instead, we see extinction on the massive scale, and this time, ecosystems don’t have time to recover.

Poor air quality is common in many urban zones in China, which as a nation accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions on Earth, posing a threat to human health. Photo credit: Pop and Zebra

Poor air quality is common in many urban zones in China, which as a nation accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions on Earth, posing a threat to human health. Photo credit: Pop and Zebra

 4.     Even if the warming cannot be explained by natural causes, the human impact is small, and the impact of continued greenhouse gas emissions will be minor.

To think that we are not powerful enough to cause the changes we are currently seeing is naïve. Human beings have colonized every environment the world has to offer and make use of every available resource on Earth. We employ countless organisms to provide us with food, medicine and labor, and when they cannot provide us with what we want, we breed new organisms that can. From a biological perspective, we are one of the most powerful physical forces to ever shape the Earth, not far behind the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Human impact is anything but small.

In the past century, sea level has risen 8 inches, and will threaten coastal cities around the globe in the coming decades. 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost to deforestation, and almost 60% of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed, with more than 75% of them threatened by warming, acidification, and other human related factors. These are not minor impacts, they are massive threats to the persistence of these ecosystems.

Destruction of our forests removes a critical carbon dioxide  sink  (plants eat carbon dioxide), exacerbating climate change. Photo credit: Ales Krivec

Destruction of our forests removes a critical carbon dioxide sink (plants eat carbon dioxide), exacerbating climate change. Photo credit: Ales Krivec

Thinking logically, the resources we get from our environment, namely food, lumber, fuel and water, are what we base our livelihoods on. Each of these ecosystems also provides critical services to us, like carbon dioxide sequestration (forests and oceans absorb more greenhouse gases than anything else on the planet), protection from natural disasters, and production of all the oxygen on this planet.

Without these ecosystems, we will not have the resources to sustain ourselves. I am not suggesting that we stop using these resources, nor am I suggesting that we stop progressing as a species. But in order to preserve these resources and allow ourselves to continue long into the future, we have to be smarter about how we use them, and encourage the health of these ecosystems so they can continue to provide.

5.     Even if the current and future projected human effects on Earth’s climate are not negligible, the changes are generally going to be good for us.

Hurricanes have increased in severity in recent years, devastating coastal cities and island nations. Photo credit: Fortune

Hurricanes have increased in severity in recent years, devastating coastal cities and island nations. Photo credit: Fortune

 In the next century, we can expect some pretty significant changes to the planet. Heat waves will become more frequent and more intense, with droughts and wildfires common in warmer areas, like the American Southwest. Storms and hurricanes are expected to get stronger and more frequent, driven by the elevated water content in the atmosphere (as Earth warms, more water from the oceans evaporates into the atmosphere and fuels storms).

It is expected that the Arctic will become ice-free, leading to a global sea level rise of somewhere between 1 and 4 feet. Coral reef ecosystems on the large scale may disappear as early as 2050 due to a combination of acidification, warming and disease, and a severe decline of fisheries and agriculture will follow. Taken together, none of these are indicative of a healthier world; in fact, they describe a world that is fundamentally harder for us to live in.  

Impoverished communities are the most affected by climate change. Photo credit: World Resources Institute

Impoverished communities are the most affected by climate change. Photo credit: World Resources Institute

Impoverished communities around the globe may suffer from the effects of climate change more than anyone else. Three out of four people living in poverty rely on agricultural or natural resources to maintain their livelihoods, and with a lengthening dry season, these families will have to go longer without food. Droughts and wildfires kill crops and livestock, forcing farmers to find new work, and destruction of coral reef ecosystems has devastated coastal fisheries, breaking down fishing communities.

The rising intensity of natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods have displaced an average of 27 million people from their homes every year since 2008, creating refugees, separating families and exacerbating global hunger and poverty.

Making matters worse, the competition for viable land and resources in underdeveloped countries spurs communities into violence, which has ignited conflicts in the countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, putting even more lives at risk. Climate change is the cause of incredible amounts of suffering in the world right now, and in the coming years may threaten the world balance; its impacts are anything but good.

6.     Whether or not the changes are going to be good for us, humans are very adept at adapting to change; besides, it’s too late to do anything about it, and a technological fix is bound to come along when we really need it.

This may be the most valid of all the arguments presented here. From a logical standpoint, it is likely true: humans are incredibly adaptable, and may indeed survive the global environmental collapse that is inevitable if we don’t change our ways. Maybe in the distant future, we will simply leave the depleted husk of this planet and colonize others. But we are not at that point.

For the moment, the Earth represents the only place we know of in the greater universe that can support us, the one place we can survive. With nowhere yet to go, it is critical that we use caution and foresight with regards to how we treat our planet and focus on technologies, such as renewable energy and genetic engineering, that will help us ensure the survival of the Earth, and ultimately, our species.

To begin, we must come to a global consensus that the consequences of a changing climate are real, and we must make mitigating them a priority. It’s not too late.

The denial of climate change in 2018 is less about ideology and more about profit, politics and ego. Oil companies know that their efforts come at a terrible cost to the environment, but to continue to earn a profit, they attempt to undermine climate science by instilling doubt in the American public, portraying global warming as a “debate” rather than as verified fact. Many corporations, such as Exxon, have even launched misinformation campaigns that claim the positive benefits of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (entirely falsified) and funnel millions of dollars into denialist think tanks that fuel climate misinformation.

Furthermore, conservative values in the US have been aligned with climate change denial, encouraging loyal Republican party members to stand against environmental action even despite overwhelming evidence not to. As a problem that affects all people on Earth, this shouldn’t be a politically motivated issue, nor one determined by corporations. Whatever your values are, whatever president you vote for, and whatever party you ally with, it is time to recognize environmental degradation as an issue that is not tied to national and social ideology, but instead one that deserves the attention and the cooperation of all those involved: namely, all citizens of the Earth.

How you talk about climate change matters. To get everyone on board, we have to have a conversation, not mount attacks based on strings of facts and data. This is an emotional debate, and deniers are more likely to be receptive if climate change is discussed in context with the personal experiences, beliefs and values of those who are impacted. The next time you discuss climate change science with someone who disagrees, remember that they are an actor in their own play, equipped with the tools granted to them by their life’s circumstances. Instead of fighting them, try to fit climate change into their story.

-Jason

Let’s preserve what we have left. Photo credit: Augustin Lautaro

Let’s preserve what we have left. Photo credit: Augustin Lautaro


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