The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Deniers and Skeptics

I do not want to be misunderstood when I write about climate deniers.

Specifically, I don’t want anyone to think I’m disparaging people for questioning climate change. Unfortunately, climate change is quite real, but doubting that doesn’t make a person stupid or bad. With the exception of climate scientists themselves, all of us have exercise some degree of trust that what we’re hearing about the climate is the truth. There is just too much science out there for anyone to have the time to verify all of it personally. And some people, for whatever reason, do not trust the experts on this one. There is no shame in not trusting the experts–experts are sometimes wrong. And while I am satisfied that climate change is not a mistake or a conspiracy (I’ve explained why here), people who don’t buy my explanations might well have some good reason for their distrust.

I want to tell a little story about intelligent distrust.

Many years ago, I began making friends with a man of my acquaintance. He worked at a store I frequented, and we would chat companionably whenever we happened to meet. One day–I forget now why the subject came up–he asserted that the United States government is actively attempting to exterminate black people. This man himself is black and I am not, a fact which may have lent an unfortunate (and unintended) political weight to my incredulity. I refused to believe that the U.S. is currently engaged in ethnocide and he never spoke to me in friendship again.

The reason for my disbelief is simple and, I still say, sound; state-sponsored extermination is more efficient.

And yet, racism does kill, and some of that racism is institutional. At the time of that conversation, I did not fully appreciate the degree to which American black people really do have to swim upstream just to live. I doubt I fully appreciate it now. Racism has a curiously unidirectional function, like one of those plant stems with tiny, backward-facing barbs; run your hand along it in one direction, and the plant feels nearly smooth. Stroke in the other direction and it slices your hand. When a black man says the U.S. government is engaged in ethnocide, he might be wrong, but his fear on the subject is important to listen to.

The author, Barbara Kingsolver, describes climate change as one facet of a culture war in America between rural people and the urban wealthy. She discusses this conflict in her novel, Flight Behavior, and in many interviews associated with that book. She herself comes from rural people, and says that many of those who doubt climate change do so because most liberal environmentalists are urban. And while climate scientists are not actually trying to pull one over on hard-working people, some urban elites really are.

As Ms. Kingsolver has said, environmentalists do not seem to be getting results from talking to America’s climate skeptics. Perhaps it is time to try listening instead.

I use the term “climate skeptic” here deliberately. It seems a much more accurate and honest term for the majority of people who think global warming isn’t happening. Climate change denial is something else.

A true climate change denier is someone who has some sort of investment–emotional, political, or financial–in convincing other people to disbelieve in climate change.  Tellingly, much of what they say is factually wrong in ways that could not be innocent mistakes. That is, these people are lying, which means that they intend to deceive. Either they know the world really is warming (because of human activity), or they don’t care one way or the other.

Normally, I’d describe for you who these people are and how I know they are doing what I say they are doing, but that is a topic for another post–you can get most of that information by clicking on the links in the above paragraph anyway.

My point here is this; climate deniers are making money from what they are doing. People with money are somewhat insulated from the effects of climate change–they can rebuild after violent weather and they can absorb rising costs of food. In the long term, nobody benefits from climate change, but in the short-term some wealthy people do benefit from climate denial. But most of the skeptics are not rich. They don’t benefit from denial and they aren’t insulated from its costs. In fact, since so many climate skeptics are farmers and therefor vulnerable to extreme weather, they are really among the first people to be hurt by climate change.

So, let’s make this clear: rural, working-class people have a hunch that they are being cheated and so when climate deniers tell them global warming is a hoax, they believe it. They then vote for candidates who run on pro-business tickets, ostensibly in order to free hard-working people from the fetters of regulation based on a “hoax.” What actually happens is that those elected officials then block action on climate change, which makes money for climate deniers and causes economic ruin for most climate skeptics. Who, as it happens, are quite right to suspect they are being cheated.

I have just completely re-written this post. I did it because, on re-reading the post this morning, I realized my first attempt was less coherent, easier to misinterpret, than I wanted. I had written it quickly, without much editorial care, because I was running about six hours behind schedule and was exhausted besides. I have little available time this week and I have not been sleeping well, because I am spending time with my sister’s family, helping out with the kids.

Yesterday, during the hours I might otherwise have been writing this post, I was playing with my nephew. He had decided that there were alligators (tiny, invisible ones) living in a pile of raked Fall leaves and that we had to make clothing for them. Later, he decided that some of the alligators had died and so we had to make more of them using a mysterious (and invisible) object called a “soom.” He is three. It is he about whom I wrote A Family Expecting, in which I used the arc of his life expectancy as a way to put climate change predictions in context. It’s a curious coincidence that both the predictions the climate models give us and the life expectancy of an American male of his birth-year stretch about eighty years. In the post, I guessed about his future:

This child will go home soon and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens, and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes, and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

I continued on from there, on to the end of our current century.

But it’s been three years since I wrote that paragraph. Yesterday, he and I walked out to the chickens together so he could offer them gifts of food. He’s already taller than the rooster. We are running out of time to make the future better for him.