Despite the UO GTF strike consuming most of the oxygen in my life these days, I haven’t forgotten my other interests, and I’ve been planning to do a climate change post for several days now. This morning, however, I read an excellent editorial on the Canadian Globe and Mail news website by Isaac Tamblyn that states the exact argument I was going to make in my upcoming blog: that it’s now long past time for climate change activists to move beyond the self-destructive trap of arguing with climate change deniers, because they simply don’t matter anymore.
Mr. Tamblyn’s editorial speaks for itself. At the history of meteorology conference in Bergen that I attended just before the strike began, we discussed as a panel what we, as academics who study various aspects of climate change, should do going forward. The idea of calling out climate deniers and aggressively challenging their lies and obfuscations was brought up, but not too many of the panel participants seemed enthusiastic about doing that; there are much more important things we could be doing with our time, such as determining what we’re going to do about climate change and what sorts of solutions we should be discussing. Climate change deniers already long ago checked out of the reality-based world. Arguing with long-ago refuted tropes like “warming stopped in 1998” or “Antarctica is gaining ice” is pointless, because deniers never will accept the facts that have been around for a long time that show those things to be false. So what’s the point of even engaging them?
A stream of ice-melt washes off the Arctic ice sheet. This is going to happen regardless of whether anyone believes it.
A fact exists independently of whether anyone believes it. Many people believe, for example, that the belief that the Earth was flat was common in the 15th century and that Columbus’s main contribution was to prove it was round. That’s utterly false, but it doesn’t stop people from believing it; neither does it change the historical fact that belief in a round Earth has been virtually universal since antiquity. It is proven scientific fact that the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gases, and it’s also proven scientific fact that human activity has caused the vast majority of it. Denying what a fact is, especially in the face of overwhelming proof of its existence, is infantile; it makes the people who do so seem rather pathetic. Why, therefore, do we cling to the belief that climate change activism must accept, as some sort of prerequisite to move forward with valuable solutions, the notion that the first thing we have to do is convince deniers that climate change is happening, and only then can we get to the business of discussing what we’re going to do about it?
Part of the reason why is the media. The problems posed by climate change are complex, the possible solutions even more so. Our media culture, especially in the United States, is ill-equipped to describe or publicize complex problems or foster valuable public discussion of solutions. Instead, it thrives on raw conflict. A news talk show, especially on a 24-hour cable network, would have viewers tuning out as a “snoozefest” if it invited, say, a guest advocating greater investment in green energy to debate another guest advocating carbon sinks, or two guests who disagree on how much China should aim to cut its carbon emissions by 2030. It’s much easier–and much more photogenic–to bring on a guest who states the scientific fact of anthropogenic climate change (it’s usually Bill Nye) and put him up against a climate change denier. People will watch that. Media outlets are interested in eyeballs, clicks and ratings, not truth.
This focus on the confrontation generated by climate change deniers distorts the public view of the issue, or at least threatens to. If all you did was watch cable news you could be forgiven for having the impression that there’s some sort of debate about climate change, as if there’s a rough balance between the two viewpoints, with each one having “points in its favor” as well as deficiencies in its arguments. There is no such balance. Every argument made by climate change deniers is false, misleading, or distorted. Not just some or a few–every one, without exception. Intuitively this makes sense, because if anthropogenic climate change is a fact, you would not expect to find any valid indication that it was not so (with any appearances to the contrary a result of misconstruing factual evidence that does support reality). If it is a fact that Elizabeth II is the Queen of England, you wouldn’t expect to find any factual evidence out there that Camilla Parker-Bowles is actually the Queen of England. Thus, a debate between someone who asserts Elizabeth II is the queen versus someone who insists that Camilla is the queen is pointless and ridiculous.
Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio gave this address to the United Nations as part of the climate change summit held there in September 2014.
Fortunately–and I realize people may dispute this statement–I don’t think there are a lot of people out there who build their view of the world solely from cable news or other confrontational media. Maybe some do, but most people get information from a variety of sources, and there is increasing evidence that the public in the Western world overwhelmingly accepts the fact of climate change. Mr. Tamblyn points this out by saying “If the idea of human-driven climate change were running for office, it would win by a landslide.” So climate change deniers are not only irrelevant as a factual and logical matter, but they’re irrelevant in terms of numbers too.
None of this is to say that certain highly-placed climate change deniers who occupy positions of power or influence can’t still do plenty of damage. They can. In the U.S. the Koch brothers have funded denial campaigns to the tune of billions over recent years, and it’s been reported that every single Republican in the U.S. Senate is a climate change denier. But is the problem of overcoming the opposition of powerful deniers really that different than the challenge of getting governmental and societal institutions to take meaningful action on climate change solutions–a challenge that exists regardless of whether deniers are there or not? Imagine two oil company CEOs, Smith, who believes in climate change, and Jones, who is a climate change denier. Smith may believe in climate change, but will convincing him to sign on to something that harms the self-interest of his company really be any easier than convincing Jones to do the same thing?
Climate change has no consciousness. We caused it, it exists, and it’s getting worse. It doesn’t care whether we believe in it or whether we as a society choose to do anything about it or not. Our feelings about it are irrelevant. The record heat waves will continue, ice will keep melting, bees and starfish will keep dying, and sea levels will keep rising. This is just a fact. The intelligent choice is to try to stop it and mitigate its inevitable effects on us. The stupid and childish choice is to deny that it’s happening. There’s no debate here. Let’s move on.