Climate Change Deniers Don’t Want to Be Bad People

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Photo credit: Dan Carlson @ unsplash.com

There’s been plenty written about climate change the past few decades. Ranging from massive IPCC reports with peer reviewed data written collaboratively by thousands of scientists across the world to random blog posts paid for by conservative think tanks. The latter cite figures like “over 31,000 scientists have signed on to a petition saying humans aren’t causing global warming” while conveniently ignoring that less than 1/3 of these people have Ph.D.s and that the vast majority of them are scientists in unrelated fields. Sure, electrical engineers are smart people, but I’m going to trust the opinions of 97% of climate experts who agree that climate change is real before I trust a handful of EE B.S.s who tell me it isn’t. There are innumerable websites and posts that debunk climate change denier myths (here’s a thorough one) so I won’t spend any more time on that here. Instead I want to look into why these myths continue to spread.

A key thing to understand here is that political affiliation is one of the strongest predictors of whether people accept mainstream climate science. People who belong to parties that are against government intervention are more likely to not believe the vast consensus of climate scientists. When was the last time you met a climate change denier who also noted their love of big government? It has also been claimed that deniers are poorly educated or stupid, but again the research shows that many deniers have college degrees. So why do these seemingly smart people still deny climate change? Maybe it’s because no one wants to be a bad guy.

Imagine that your most deeply held belief was that government taxes were evil. Suddenly, someone finds an asteroid heading right towards Earth. We’re lucky and it won’t hit us for another hundred years so scientists from across the globe work together and figure out how to stop it. Their best plan to stop this enormous earth shattering asteroid is to build a hugely expensive fleet of space ships. We need to get started on these ships right now because as the asteroid gets closer to Earth it gets exponentially harder to change its direction enough to save us. The bad news is that the ships will cost roughly 50% of the world’s GDP over the next 30 years to build and this money will have to be extracted via taxes. Your inner bedrock belief against taxes cannot be moved so what do you do? If you simply say “Yes, you guys are right, everyone is going to die when this thing hits, but I refuse to give up a penny more in taxes,” you’re kind of a monster and you’ll probably feel pretty bad. But, if instead you say “Oh the asteroid will burn up in our atmosphere,” or “I’m sure we’ll find a cheaper way to stop this asteroid before it hits,” or “The Asteroid is a hoax from China!” then you can hold onto your bedrock belief about taxes and not feel so bad about yourself at the same time. If you say this enough you can actually start to believe it and even feel totally superior to all the sheeple who believe that the asteroid will destroy us and the “crisis actor” scientists who keep showing fake telescope pictures of it getting closer and closer.

Climate change is inexorably bearing down on us.

Okay, but climate change isn’t an asteroid, right? True, climate change won’t destroy civilization as instantaneously as an asteroid but otherwise it’s pretty similar to this example. Climate change is inexorably bearing down on us and the longer we take to address it the more it will cost to do so. Just like in the asteroid example, we must accept that there are many people who will fight tooth and nail against taxation and bigger government even in the face of imminent destruction. These people don’t want to view themselves as monsters. They will dig for news stories that give them a reason to think that the consequences won’t be so dire, and sleep well at night with the belief that their bedrock political issues aren’t harming the world. The complex science behind climate change makes this sort of self delusion even easier because it’s a system with tons of variables that takes massive supercomputers to simulate and not as simple as a big rock hurtling right toward us.

Other political goals are trumped by climate change

So what should people who accept the findings of the vast majority of scientists do? We could try and throw facts and figures at the deniers. Maybe when the seas have risen 10 feet they’ll start to believe, but by then the costs to fix the problem will be even greater so fixing it will be even more at odds with people’s bedrock anti-tax beliefs and you’ll still have people who say “Oh this sea level rise was natural.” A better solution is to attack climate change in a way that doesn’t strike at the core political beliefs of so many others. We also need to have a little introspection ourselves and realize that our other political goals are trumped by climate change as well. The need for this was showcased in a 2016 ballot proposal in Washington State. It called for a revenue neutral carbon tax where all the money collected is redistributed back to the people and not spent. The problem is that this proposal was attacked not just by people who have become rich by selling carbon based fuels but also by leftists who want to ensure that revenues from a carbon tax go to specific social programs that they favor. I view leftist opposition to this ballot initiative as akin to SaveToby where someone threatened to kill and eat a bunny if they weren’t paid. The main difference is that SaveToby was a hoax while this leftist opposition is totally real. In the end the ballot proposal only got 42% of the vote. If environmentalists had actually come together to support the measure it seems pretty plausible that it could have gotten the additional 9% of the vote it needed to pass.

If you’re reading this and you feel strongly that government should be smaller and tax less, please take a moment to look into how those beliefs affect your acceptance of climate change. If you’re reading this and you feel strongly that climate change is real but that we must use it to get other policy measures passed, please think about what the world will become if we don’t take strong action on climate change right now. The clock is ticking to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, but there is precious little time left and the price of fixing our mess gets higher every day. Hopefully we can move past trying to feel like “good” people and take some more concrete steps to actually make things better.

Matt Herndon
Environmental Blogger at Rampant Discourse
Earnest pragmatist. Non-theist ascetic. Data aficionado. Amicable skeptic. Matt is a new father who's spent too much time debating whether the plastic box his spinach came in is the perfect first birthday present for his baby, or just a good one.

This article has 5 Comments

  1. I think the asteroid analogy is a good one, but when relating back to climate change I believe you left out a key component. I think more important to Trump is less regulations so that his (and all) businesses can operate more independently. The justification being that it will allow US businesses to be more competitive domestically and internationally. So again, finding ways to ignore or write off climate change is a way to feel better about wanting to be a greedy capitalist without regard for environmental protections.

  2. Good thought. I didn’t mean to imply that anti-taxation was the one and only bedrock belief that motivated deniers. I’m sure that many are motivated by desire for greater economic competitiveness like you say. I also don’t mean to imply that there are no good reasons to want lower taxes or increased economic competitiveness, or that wanting them necessarily makes you a greedy or bad person. What I’m trying to show is how these bedrock values can often cause their holders to accept and promote bad science so they don’t feel like bad people and how understanding that can help create more effective discussions on how to mitigate climate change.

  3. If we’re on the subject of trying to change minds on this issue, It’s important to note that there are plenty of people who agree with the science but have issues and criticisms with the proposed policies put forth. what frustrates me when this topic of discussion is brought up is how quickly disagreements on policy will have people throw the label of “DENIER” on any policy criticism, which isn’t very productive.

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