Why does climate change denial persist in spite of the evidence? Much of the science behind climate change seems to be irrefutable at this point. For example, science has shown that the temperature of the earth has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution. The implications of increased greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane) in the atmosphere seem unassailable. Climate change has put the survival of many species at risk and their extinction threat has risen. And, yet, we still have folks who deny the science, the data or that the climate is changing or that the changes even matter. Climate change is a current problem that will only get worse with inaction.
So, why a loud subset of the US population continues to deny this problem, despite the evidence to the contrary, is a question I’ve been pondering.
I believe that we should look at the denialism problem from a number of perspectives: science community consensus, skepticism, business economics, psychology, patriotism, fear, greed and venality. I’ve decided not to include anecdotal observations (i.e., look out the window) in this article.
First, science community perspectives. Interestingly, an article in the Sierra Club magazine recently highlighted data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. It indicated that in December, 2018, fully 73 percent of Americans believed that the climate is changing, and about 62 percent believed that human activity was the cause. That represented an 8 percentage point jump from their prior survey in March, 2018. They indicated two reasons for this change in perspective: 1) all of the local and national news about the miserable weather and California wildfires and 2) the release of two major surveys: the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the US federal government’s National Climate Assessment. Both surveys are identified in the Resources tab above. They are detailed statistical analyses of the problem. I’ve referred to them in previous posts. Additionally, NASA Global Climate Change website reports that “multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists now agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities”. Effectively, we have 27% of the population in the US that does not believe the climate is changing and 38% that does not believe that human activity is the cause. They are saying to the 97% of actively publishing scientists who have indicated that human activity is the likely cause of climate change, “don’t care”, “no it’s not”, “we know better.” Where are they getting their information, if they are getting any information at all?
I’ll be happy to stick my neck out and say human activity appears to be the significant cause of our changing climate. And, you know what, it is the problem source that is within our control to address if we have the wherewithal to act. And, that is where we need to start. If you click on the highlighted NASA link (above) you’ll see a partial list of organizations publishing comments endorsing this position, along with a variety of other substantiating links. These links do not represent hydrocarbon industry funded organizations or their reports, or reports from right wing think tanks, some of which also receive funding from various vested interest sources.
Second, good old fashioned skepticism. Skepticism is natural. It’s human nature. In many cases, it may challenge an initial position with a healthy discussion and result in a much improved result. At the end of the day both sides would have worked together to create a better solution. It’s fine as long as the contrarian arguments are productive, cogent, reasoned and relevant. That’s when skepticism is productive. Not infrequently, however, we work with people who are determined to maintain their contrarian position despite the preponderance of facts, evidence and reasoning against them. They simply are unwilling to recognize that their arguments are on the losing side of the discussion. They simply cannot admit that they are wrong. They need to prove that they are the alpha in the room. They take the toys and leave the playground. We all know them, we’ve all worked with them. I suppose that I’ve been painted with that particular brush at times over my 40+ year career.
Third, psychology. During my research, I discovered the website Catching the World by the Tale and article “The The Psychology of Climate Change Denial are warnings about global disaster waking people up– or numbing them out?” by Craig Chalquist, PhD. In it he described psychological defenses that may come into play when dealing with potentially disastrous news, like, in our case, climate change. Dr Chalquist described such things as blaming something/someone else for the problem, calling the problem a hoax (all too familiar terminology in current times), ignoring bad news, parental infallibility projections (i.e., “Mother Earth can’t be sick”). His conclusion was that “all the alarms may be having the opposite effect than intended by making people more numb to the problem than before the alarms were sounded.” More on that later.
Fourth, let’s look at the subjects of economics and patriotism together. I’ll be summarizing (and quoting) an article The Ideology of Climate Change Denial in the United States by Jean-Daniel Collomb published in the European journal of American studies in 2014. Let’s look at his points:
- The hydrocarbon-based industries are attempting to neuter governmental regulations for their economic interests. Accordingly, they fund “research” that minimizes the risks of the continued use of hydrocarbons.
- Much of the denial stems “from the strong ideological commitment of small-government conservatives and libertarians to laisser-faire and their strong opposition to regulation.” Let’s face it, the need for governmental action to help solve the climate change crisis means more governmental involvement, whether local, state, regional, national, or supranational. Might it not be a better approach for the “deniers” to work with the “believers” to craft solutions that work for the nation regardless of ideology. In the eyes of some, their personal freedoms would be jeopardized and the resulting regulations would impact them deleteriously. The author makes the point that the deniers have been remarkably successful in convincing the Republican Party into taking a position favorable to their interests – not ours. No surprise. Where does the power of the deniers come from, considering how well funded it is? Rhetorical question. For those who remember, doesn’t this all seem like deja vu with respect to the tobacco industry’s position whether cigarette smoking was harmful?
- US climate change deniers like to wrap themselves in the flag and defend the American way of life. Flag waving. Patriotism. Well, I served on active duty in the US Army in the late 60’s and early 70’s and can wave the flag as much as the next guy. I wore the uniform proudly and am proud of the men and women voluntarily serving today. So, here’s a message to all the flag waving deniers, who disbelieve the stark, factual reality of the problem. The Pentagon disagrees with you. It has indicated that climate change is a potential existential threat to our way of life and is preparing for contingent action in that regard. Our largest naval base is Naval Station Norfolk (Virginia). It is home to the Atlantic Fleet. It sits 15 feet above sea level. It is already under threat from both rising sea level and the land around Norfolk sinking. If you don’t believe that climate change has exacerbated the effects of recent hurricanes or California wildfires, then, quite honestly, you’ve chosen to look away.
Fifth, let’s look at greed and venality together, considering how interrelated they are. I spent most of my working career in the field of remuneration (i.e., compensation and benefits), with an inordinate time in executive compensation. I think it was in the mid-80’s (or so) when the use of equity became a more financially viable method of compensation and thus evolved to become an outsized portion of an executive’s compensation package (i.e., base salary, bonus, equity/option grants, supplemental retirement, perquisites, etc.). Today it’s possible that equity could be in the neighborhood of 70-80% (or higher) of a Chief Executive Officer’s total compensation. The equity portion of the compensation package of other executives will phase down from there. There are multiple variables that would determine an actual package; including such things as specific industry practices, various comparative size parameters, corporate performance, competitive compensation survey results, etc. There really isn’t a meaningful generalization that can be made across the board because each package and each situation is unique.
Why does any of this matter? The purpose of the transition to equity compensation from cash was to better align executive incentives with the interests of the shareholders (i.e., major investors, Wall Street). Not only Wall Street’s financial institutions want higher stock prices. Every shareholder (i.e., you/me/everybody) wants his/her investment to increase in value. There is not much sense in buying a share of stock if you want to see it go down (unless you are purposely looking for losses). By aligning the compensation of corporate executives tightly with shareholder interests, executive personal financial interest is inextricably aligned with all of the other shareholders’ personal financial interests. By making grants of equity, competitive compensation programs incentivized executives to focus on the growth of the corporate stock price. Mission accomplished. As stock prices rose, so did the value of the equity grants received. Vice versa.
How does this relate to climate change? It’s actually pretty simple. Transitioning away from an economy based on hydrocarbon based energy sources and towards alternative energy sources will be expensive. Many companies to their credit are addressing this and more are attempting to determine how to address it. It’s may impact their bottom line. If so, it will potentially impact their short term corporate results, which may impact their stock prices.
However, those organizations that focus on extracting the raw materials from the ground (or ocean – think BP, Deepwater Horizon), or refining/processing it, have the most to lose by the transition to alternative sources, unless they, themselves are working on establishing themselves in the alternative energy field. Until then, they are the ones with the most incentive to both deny, obfuscate and fund “think” tanks as well as fund those willing to create materials denying the problem or otherwise confuse the public. If they are acting in that manner, that’s pure venality. Take a look at Psalm 15:5. I’m not suggesting for an instant that all executives would act in a venal manner; however, the transition to bulking up their compensation packages with equity could leverage some to be circumspect with their actions.
Sixth, let’s talk about fear: fear of losing the value of one’s property, fear of real estate value decline, fear of food price inflation, fear of change, fear of overwhelming unknowns, fear of governmental intrusion or interference, fear of taxation, fear of minorities, fear of immigrants, fear of anyone different, etc. Fears about “how will all this change affect me?” are real to the people potentially affected. “Will I become a climate change refugee when my home on the Gulf Coast is permanently inundated by Gulf waters?” “Where do I go?” “How do I afford it?” “What about my beachfront property in Florida?” “Do I rebuild again in Key West?” “Now what, my house just slid down the hill?” “Will the government declare a disaster again enabling me to get funds to rebuild?” On that subject, should the government continue to provide aid in areas that have been consistently shown to be unsuitable multiple climate induced disasters? At what point do we stop building condos on the south Florida coast? I don’t have a good answer. As a result, many feel the need to defend the status quo as the alternative is too egregious to consider. Or, they don’t consider it, they ignore it. Many don’t care about the problem. They view it as too far in the future. It’s someone else’s problem. They deny the problem exists. They become more numb, to paraphrase Dr. Chalquist. Perhaps, they are also considering the future in the context of job loss. They may fear the potential consequences of new technologies associated with alternative energy sources. They may fear being displaced by artificial intelligence and robotic replacements. Absolutely overwhelming. They consider the skills needed for the jobs associated with the future technologies and recognize their deficiencies. Partly, caused by the failure of governments at all levels to adequately address skills training and educational assistance. The US federal government seems to have a fetish for 18th and 19th century energy sources rather than those of the 21st. It doesn’t bode well for long term job retention and growth. It doesn’t bode well for the climate. It doesn’t bode well for our long term standard of living. But then again, in a laissez-faire economy, it’s someone else’s problem.
Let’s not forget to mention those venal politicians all too receptive to overtures by lobbyists slinking through the halls of Congress, etc. It’s time for voters to demand that politicians in the state houses across the country and in Washington, DC start acting in the best interests of their constituents and not those of corporate sponsors who may be campaign donors. We, the voters, We, the people, put them in office to represent our interests. I doubt whether there are many politicians who don’t recognize that climate change represents an existential problem. The overwhelming majority are too smart. It’s time for them to put special interests aside and act in the general interest of all. They have the capacity. They just need the will (or backbone.)
I guess my level of patience with some of the condescending, smirking tv and radio talking heads befouling the airwaves with their verbal excretions denying or misrepresenting the rising climate crisis is long past my capacity for stoicism. I, for one, can neither accept it nor tolerate it. Neither should anyone else. It’s time to get loud. We have the story.
By the way, the picture in the heading is of Shanghai, China.